December 13th, 2019
Sustainability of the packaging is a complex issue. Often something perceived as sustainable might be the worst possible option from an environmental perspective. There is sometimes a gap between what is actually good for the environment and what is perceived as being an environmentally friendly option.
One example of this is the fruit and vegetables section of your supermarket. Most of the products are sold without any other packaging than the thin plastic bag or the paper bag in which you weigh out the products and carry them home. There are also products that are prepacked in plastic like cucumbers or ready-cut salads and fruits. The common debate is whether there should be any prepacked products in the fruit and vegetable section since the products already have their own “packaging”, their peels. What happens however when you pack a fresh produce in plastic is that it extends its shelf life thus reducing food waste and the environmental effects.
Another example is the debate between different packaging materials such as glass, metal, carton or plastic. Often plastic is perceived as the most non-environmentally friendly option due to the littering and waste management problems that the societies and people around the world have now woken up to. Plastic however is in many cases the most environmentally sound option since it provides excellent protection for the products with comparatively smaller amount of material. As an example, also many of the carton packaging are covered with plastic to provide barrier against oxygen or keeping the liquids inside the packaging, like milk inside the milk cartons. Many of the plastic packaging are recyclable which further reduces their carbon footprint. Plastics is also one of the most researched group of packaging materials making it safe to use in direct food contact.
When it comes to choosing a sustainable packaging for your product it all starts with the product itself. What is the most environmentally friendly packaging for a particular product depends on your production process, product’s technical or biochemical requirements, your distribution channels and finally the consumer behavior. The main purpose of the packaging is to protect your product and maintain its quality. A quality packaging reduces waste as well as the costs.
Other important issue is the distribution channels and logistics. The packaging needs to meet the needs of your distribution channels and enable logistics with the minimum amount of emissions. You also need to consider what is the best packaging size for your product especially when talking about food products that have rather short shelf life.
The packaging size has an effect on the amount of food waste in households and you should be aware of the right packaging size for your product. This requires knowledge of your customers’ behavior and preferences. Another aspect of providing your customers with tools to prevent their food waste are the functionalities. Are the consumers able to freeze your product in its packaging or is the packaging reclosable, for example?
When you are aware of all the options and scenarios, the best way to ensure environmentally sound decisions is to do an LCA analyses (Life Cycle Analyses). Without calculating the environmental effects of different packaging options for your product, you are unable to form a scientifically solid view of the options. Making the analyses requires some resources, but it will be very beneficial for you, not only for the decision making, but also for the product development and for the selling and marketing of your products.
The sustainability of biobased and recycled plastic materials is based on their ability to replace virgin and fossil based raw materials. As an example, according to one of our suppliers the recycling of plastics only requires 15 % of the amount of energy it takes to produce virgin plastics. Another example is biobased polyethylene, Braskem’s sugar cane based Green PE, which according to the supplier removes up to 2.15 metric tons of CO2 from the atmosphere for each ton produced, from cradle to Braskem’s gate (source: LCA study by E4tech & LCA Works). These solutions are fully recyclable in the existing recycling streams. Read more about our biobased and recycled solutions.
When it comes to properties such as biodegradability it is a matter of preventing plastics accumulating in nature and especially in water bodies. Biodegradable plastics cannot be further recycled as new raw materials which means an increase in their carbon footprint and makes it a single-use solution. There are also more than one standard for biodegradability and some materials only degrade under supervised conditions in industrial facilities and potentially cause problems if they find their way into the nature.
Biodegradable plastic packaging need to be handled through waste management same as any other packaging, which raises the question if we need these kind of single-use solutions in societies with functional waste management.
Often less raw material means a smaller footprint. For this reason down gauging, making plastic packaging films thinner, is one way of reducing the CO2 emissions. This can be done to a certain extent before it starts to effect the films runnability on the packaging lines and the durability of the packaging.
Currently the most commonly and commercially used recycling method is the mechanical recycling process. The collected waste material is sorted by plastic type with a near infrared (NIR) technology for example, shredded and washed, melted and regranulated as recycled plastic pellets. The challenge in this mechanical recycling method is that it sets some requirements for the packaging materials in order for them to be recycled in this process. The challenge with plastics is the vast variety of different types and combinations.
When you have made sure that your packaging is designed sustainable it makes sense to communicate this to the consumers. Consumers today pay increasingly more attention to the environmental effects of the products they consume and one aspect of this is the packaging. There are many ways for communicating this to the consumers from certificates to symbols and written statements together with green colors or earth tones in the design.
Packaging today are filled with information required by law and also the amount of symbols used has increased. People are making most of their purchase decisions on the store shelf so in order to sell your products to environmentally aware consumers, your sustainability message needs to be easy to notice, clear and understandable. When it comes to the packaging design, sustainability in packaging is most often communicated with rough paper-like surfaces, earth tone or green designs and different eco-symbols. Consumers are used to associating these visuals with sustainability and many brands are using this to stand out from competition. As the number of sustainable options is increasing the brands need to think about other ways to stand out and still communicate their sustainable values. Read more about our printing and marketing solutions.
Finally, an important thing to communicate on the packaging is recycling. Add a the material symbols and raw material information on the packaging together with instructions about the sorting and recycling at home. This is crucially important part of promoting recycling and the circular economy of plastics.