This is a quick guide to plastics and flexible packaging. After reading this, you will have the basic knowledge about the most common plastics used for the production of flexible packaging and the most commonly used terms when talking about flexible plastic packaging.
The primary purpose of any packaging is to protect the packed products. Packaging provides protection from environmental elements such as dirt, mould, bacteria and air, preventing contamination and the food products from being spoiled. Packaging also has a great effect on the quality of the products, keeping them safe from getting dented, broken or becoming too damaged to be used.
Plastic is not one material but a family of synthetic or semi-synthetic materials and their combinations. In Europe, plastic is being used in packaging (~40%), building & construction (~20%), automotive (~10%), electrical & electronic (~6%), household, leisure & sports (~4%) agriculture (~3%) and other applications (~17%). (Source: PlasticsEurope 2018) Plastics are versatile materials that are easy to process, use in various applications and recycle. When the physical properties of a certain plastic do not meet the specified requirements, its properties can be modified with the addition of different additives to meet the demands of the specific application. Often plastics are produced as by-products of the crude oil refining process. Some plastics can also be made from renewable resources such as sugar cane based polyethylene.
Plastic as a packaging material has become so popular thanks to its technical versatility and formability. It offers superior protection for food products, at the same time being very light weight and cost efficient. The use of plastic packaging has decreased food waste and greenhouse gas emissions and basically made it possible to feed all of the people in today’s world. Plastic packaging is, in many cases, also easily recyclable as raw material for new plastic products and packaging (usually non-food packaging due to food safety legislation).
Biodegradability means that the material goes through a biological anaerobic or aerobic decay process, generating carbon dioxide, methane, biomass and mineral salts depending on the environment. Biodegradable plastics can be either biobased or fossil based. There is more than one standard used for measuring and communicating biodegradability. One of the mostly used standards is the harmonised European standard EN 13432, which is for plastic products and packaging that can provide proof of their compostability and can be treated in industrial composting plants. This means that the product will biologically decay a minimum of 90% in less than six months in a maximum of 52 degrees celsius. Biodegrability is often achieved by adding additives to the plastic in question to make it degrade faster than it would without the additives.
Biobased plastics are made from renewable resources. An example of this is a sugar cane based polyethylene. Its physical properties are similar with traditional fossil-based polyethylene, which means it can be used in the the same applications and recycled as a raw material for new plastic products. Biobased plastics are not directly biodegradable.
Bioplastics is a term that can be used when talking about either biobased or biodegradable plastics. This term in itself doesn’t yet provide any information about the raw-material base of the plastic in question or about its biodegradability.
The most commonly used plastics in flexible packaging applications are low density and high density polyethylene (PE-LD and PE-HD) and polypropylene (PP). Flexible packaging means flexible plastic packaging made from plastic film which can be printed and converted as a bag for example. Good examples of flexible packaging are bread bags, carrier bags, beverage bottle labels (the bottles themselves are rigid plastic packaging) and tissue wraps.
Flexible packaging is a light weight, recyclable solution for protecting packed products such as food. Food waste is one of the biggest environmental and social issues of our generation. We are fighting against climate change and hunger in developing countries, while at the same we waste unimaginable amounts of food.
Many plastics and most of the flexible packaging can be recycled as new raw material for new plastic products and packaging. In Europe, over 40% of plastic packaging waste is being recycled according to PlasticsEurope (2018).
When we talk about the recycling of plastic packaging, we are talking about processing the collected waste into recycled raw materials and not about the burning of the materials as energy, for example. 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, then shredded and washed, melted and regranulated as recycled plastic pellets. According to one of our suppliers, the recycling of plastics only requires 15% of the amount of energy it takes to produce virgin plastics. The challenge in this mechanical recycling method is that it sets more precise 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.
Another way of recycling plastics is a chemical recycling, in which the collected plastic waste will be processed to a monomer level which means that the packaging that are now challenging or impossible to recycled could be recycled. This recycling method is still being developed and in a pilot phase with high hopes of the method becoming commercially implementable.
Recycling and the circulation of plastics are a necessity when moving towards a circular economy and more sustainable societies. Recycling reduces the environmental effects as well as the need for virgin and often fossil-based raw materials. According to a life cycle analysis made by VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland of a recycled carrier bag it is better for the environment to recycle the plastics when possible rather than, for example, burning it for energy.
Amerplast is one of the leading users of recycled raw materials in its carrier bag and non-food packaging production. The use of recycled raw materials and circular economy packaging solutions are part of Amerplast’s AmerGreen sustainable solutions program.