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The circle of life - Making plastic packaging more sustainable

Food Packaing

Phil O’Driscoll, Head of Innovation and NPD at Parkside explains the benefits of using sustainable packaging. 

As environmental consciousness gains momentum among consumers, increasing pressure is being placed upon manufacturers, brands and retailers to provide viable packaging solutions that have minimal impact on the planet. A common misconception is that recyclability is the sole signifier of sustainability, however genuine manufacturing responsibility considers a product’s entire lifecycle from material sourcing through to disposal and recovery. This has led to a growing trend in the development of innovations that enable a circular economy, of which advancements in plastics is a key factor.

Why is sustainable packaging needed?

A common public belief is that packaging is harmful to the environment, with many considering plastic in particular to be wasteful and damaging to ecosystems. A 2017 study by Populus for example found that plastic-free supermarket aisles are supported by 9 in 10 respondents, who would prefer for the material to be replaced with alternative solutions. This is backed by resource management organisation Veolia’s 2017 study, which found that 30 per cent of respondents regard recyclability ‘important’ when selecting beverages, over considerations such as the brand (26 per cent) and the ‘look’ of the bottle (9 per cent). Brands and retailers deemed to be irresponsible are thus being increasingly shunned by consumers, resulting in major profit losses.

Although the packaging, food and beverage industries understand that such concerns are well-intentioned but misguided, manufacturers, brands and retailers must nonetheless allow public desires to drive the future of sustainable product development.

Moving towards a circular economy

This trend is evident in the growth of eco-friendly packaging innovations that support a circular economy and developments in plastics is integral to this. Organisations demonstrate a commitment to sustainability when choosing plastic as it requires fewer resources than many other alternatives to support its lifecycle; its sturdiness means that less protection is needed throughout the supply chain, while its light weight incurs a smaller carbon footprint in transport.

Plastic furthermore promotes sensible resource management by providing greater food protection and preservation than most other alternatives, significantly helping to curb the 1.3 billion tonnes per year global food waste problem as well as the energy squandered in producing and transporting wasted food.

Although plastic’s durability, light weight and food waste prevention credentials offer environmental advantages, the material only reaches its green potential when it is managed through a circular economy – starting with responsible sourcing and ending with sensible recovery.

By sourcing from eco-friendly supplies, organisations start packaging off on a sustainable life cycle. Raw materials can be conserved by using recycled rather than virgin plastics, which requires 75 per cent less energy and saves an average two tonnes of CO2 per tonne of recycled substance. Its carbon footprint can also be reduced by using alternative materials in production; Lego® for example is experimenting with using bioplastics such as wheat to replace petroleum-based bricks, while breweries are increasingly selling waste spent grain for use in bioplastic manufacture.

The lifecycle is next secured by ensuring the materials used are recyclable or compostable (organically recyclable) after the packaging has served its primary function, allowing it to be repurposed into anything from clothing to car parts, or to return to nature.

This is only helpful to the environment however if consumers dispose of products responsibly, so to ensure their eco efforts aren’t wasted at this stage of the journey brands are actively encouraging the public to recycle, reuse or (where appropriate) compost plastic packaging. Coca-Cola for example announced in 2017 its commitment to closed loop recycling by doubling the current amount of recovered plastic in its bottles by 2020, as well as working on a bottle deposit return scheme with the Government and launching an advertising campaign to encourage sensible disposal.

It is therefore easy to see that sustainable packaging is about so much more than simply recycling, and that we must take into account the product’s entire resource management journey from design through to disposal and recovery when exploring the subject.

How are manufacturers creating sustainable packaging?

For manufacturers, the demands of full lifecycle viability mean that extensive work must be invested in creating progressive, cost-effective solutions that consider every aspect of packaging’s environmental impact. These will need to be capable of performing the protective and preservative functions required by food and beverage products while also providing the stand-out shelf appeal and convenience needed to compete in a crowded marketplace.

It’s a big ask, and one that is particularly problematic for flexible plastics manufacturers. This material can be less straightforward to recycle than others, meaning it is often simply thrown away, leading to widespread end-of-life incineration and landfill. The flexibles industry may be going strong at the moment with global growth 3.4 per cent per annum predicted to 2020, but forward-thinking organisations such as Parkside realise that this prosperity will be short-lived unless they come up with tenable developments to combat sustainability issues.

Breaking down barriers with compostables

Parkside is addressing these challenges with a host of pioneering packaging innovations under its Park-2-Nature brand, including compostable and organically recyclable solutions derived from trees and other bio-based materials.

After a four-year research and development project, the company has become the first in the world to successfully deliver a line of multi-layer paper and film barrier compostable laminates able to fit in a circular economy. Produced from responsibly sourced, bio-based materials including a compostable adhesive, the laminates have been shown in tests to break down with excellent eco-toxicity levels.

The laminates are approved for industrial composting to EN13432 and have been subject to a 12-week test where 90 per cent of material must degrade at temperatures between 55c and 60c and no more than a 10 per cent residue may remain after passing through a 2mm vibrating mesh plate.

For the home compostability accreditation, the materials were subject to a 26-week test where 90 per cent of material must degrade at no more than 28c (ambient temperature) and no more than 10 per cent residue may remain after passing through a 2mm vibrating mesh plate. This means that once the consumer has used the contents, the pack can be mixed with other organic household waste and composted in a home composting bin, avoiding the need for landfill and without any detrimental effect on the environment.

This important advance allows flexibles to rival alternative materials as an environmentally friendly solution, with packaging returning to the ecosystem rather than finding its way to landfill and its light weight incurring a smaller carbon footprint than other heavier formats. Not only does this give brands and retailers more sustainable options, but it also provides excellent food protection and preservation with moisture and oxygen barriers offering extended shelf life and minimising food waste. The laminates also deliver outstanding graphic shelf appeal on par with non-compostable counterparts, enabling products to stand out and compete on the shelf.

Is the industry ready for compostables?

When we talk about recycling in the UK, the prevalent associations are with the traditional mechanical methods for items like plastic bottles, paper and glass. But there is an alternative, and in many parts of Europe, organic recycling has equal standing to mechanical recycling.

Organic recycling through composting, whether at home by the conscientious consumer, or industrially via curbside collection, is an extremely good method of preventing both waste from going to landfill, and returning resources to nature to continue the cycle. 

Legislation will dictate further investment in curbside collections of biodegradable materials, like food and garden waste, and the inevitable increase means compostable packaging, which is also biodegradable, will become an ever more important element in the UK’s drive towards a circular economy. Consumer confidence is vital, so it is important that the industry adopts standards like Vincotte and Seedling to ensure that all claims of compostability have been credibly validated. 

How is Parkside meeting demand?

Parkside’s breakthrough in sustainable flexible plastics is already proving popular with organisations which are keen to leverage the circular economy trend and meet the demands of environmentally conscious consumers. Natural food company Rhythm 108 for example tasked the company with the challenge of packaging its organic Ooh-la-la tea biscuits in a material that is reflective of the brand’s ‘clean’ philosophy. Parkside delivered with a leading-edge solution derived from the eucalyptus tree, comprising a triple-layer construction of metallised NatureFlex, paper and a bio polymer sealant web.

The Ooh-la-la packaging innovation demonstrates full lifecycle viability with its naturally sourced materials and

Photo courtesy of Parkside

compostability. The biofilm is produced from wood pulp from sustainably sourced Brazilian eucalyptus plantations, in which every tree used is replaced. Its superb oxygen and moisture barrier then helps the environment by extending product shelf life and reducing food waste, while the pack’s ability to break down to Vincotte’s OK Compost Home and Seedling certification standards allows it to be disposed of in an eco-friendly manner.

Other packaging developments that support a circular economy include Parkside’s solution for Next Step Foods Ltd.’s Yumpa energy bar. Made from natural ingredients including powdered cricket flour and free from sulphites, dairy, gluten and soya, the bars’ value proposition to health-aware, clean eaters had to be met with a pack as conscientious as its food content. Parkside delivered with a compostable pack made from 93 per cent plant-based materials, which has since won the Best Sustainable category at 2017’s World Food Innovation Awards.

It is therefore clear that, although flexible plastics may pose sustainability challenges, manufacturers committed to progression and catering for consumer demands are becoming more able to support circular packaging economies.

In a marketplace that is increasingly demanding a return to cleaner, more natural ways of living, it’s up to manufacturers to provide products equipped to meet these evolving requirements. Public awareness of plastic’s environmental credentials may be lacking, but its potential for full lifecycle sustainability is becoming more recognised thanks to the efforts of forward-thinking brands and manufacturers. Responsible sourcing, bioplastics and innovations in compostability are making plastics credible choices as eco-conscious packaging materials, and the future of the industry is likely to see continued developments in these areas.

Parkside is an innovative speciality packaging manufacturer specialising in printing, lamination, laser, thermal and sustainable solutions for the food, drink and tobacco packaging industries.  Established for over 40 years, the company is a global supplier with manufacturing sites in both the UK & Asia and is headquartered in Normanton, West Yorkshire. 

For more information on Parkside and their activities, please contact PHD Marketing Ltd. The Nickols Suite, The Barracks, Wakefield Road, Pontefract, West Yorkshire WF8 4HH.  Tel: 01977 708 643 or Email: hello@phdmarketing.co.uk.



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