How do we determine the value of polymers in a vast global marketplace, and with a balancing act between developing solutions by adding properties to polymers (to help save food waste for example), versus the overall carbon emissions and sustainability of the packaging material? Let’s start at the end of life, focusing on the recyclability of polymers.

The end

Libby Munford asked Damien van Leuven, CEO of plastics recycling company Vanden Recycling, for his opinion on this subject. “Education in the packaging design community is the starting point. If anything, scrap recyclers like us and product designers should be the ones working closest together because we feel the impact of good or bad design and can educate about the impacts and what will actually happen to the material. To have anyone between these two parties only muddies the waters.”

He continues that inconsistencies in legislation, landfill fees, recycling targets, responsibility placed on producers and overall education are the combination of factors that produce so many different grades of scrap plastics. The core challenge is that different grades require different recycling infrastructure.

Sorting, washing, filtering systems and quality of finished product will all vary depending on the input quality. This is one of the reasons scrap material is shipped around the world for recycling, because often there are no domestic facilities to treat the material in an appropriate manner. Therefore the only option is to leverage facilities that are capable of doing so in other countries.

David Wilson, MD adds that the realities of the circular economy will soon start to bite and the packaging industry holds its fate in its own hands. He says, “The thrust of much of the upcoming national and international regulations will use sticks and carrots to simultaneously increase the recyclability of packaging materials and encourage the use of recyclates in packaging.”

Two things need to happen in addition to that if we are to turn these sticks and carrots into progress, according to David Wilson. “Firstly to be rigorous in the collection of low-hanging fruit like production waste. Secondly industry across the supply chain needs to work closely with local and national government to have simple straightforward instructions about the recyclability of packaging, not just whether packaging is theoretically recyclable but is actually collected and goes back into products.”

The key is for the packaging industry to fully understand that they are part of the solution by creating supply that’s more easily recycled and demand by including recycled content, as tough as both those requirements seem. After that the other parts of the supply chain need to preserve material quality by maintaining segregation of waste materials.

Rising to the challenge

So how are leading packaging and materials manufacturers innovating with polymer structures to rise to the challenges of the marketplace?

Jacek Madry, Global Business Leader, Hytrel®, Vamac® and Multibase™, DuPont says they consider a material’s sustainability – and discuss it with customers and suppliers – at each stage of the new product development process: “Our products support extended lifespans for end applications, enable more-effective manufacturing to reduce energy consumption and scrap, and often permit lower-complexity formulations in support of recyclability.”

He believes innovations will continue, but they will fall under the umbrella of sustainability: “Protection of our environment is driving every aspect of the packaging industry today, starting with changes in consumer behaviour and spending patterns. The entire packaging value chain is responding to the needs of the planet, whether it means using more energy-efficient processes, designing durable, multi-use products, taking a designed-to-recycle approach or setting up a circular economy.” As sustainability gains further momentum, DuPont is actively focused on material innovations that support this trend.

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Intelligent solutions and societal changes

Gabriel Chemie also shares a solution it has developed called TagTec, which was launched at the K-Show 2019. “We use special pigments called taggants, to give the polymer an invisible ‘fingerprint’. The information contained in the fingerprint can be read using special sensors that we have developed together with a partner. In this way plastic parts can offer more functionality such as material identification (i.e. is it PP or LDPE or PET?), anti-counterfeit functionality (is the part a fake?, Who manufactured the material (quality complaints)? ), and material tracking (machine parameters of manufacture can be stored in the plastic and identified throughout the lifetime of the product),” says Mark Hannah.

He also points towards a clear trend in society towards veganism, especially amongst consumers in generation Z, which has led us to the development of vegan certified masterbatch, especially for the packaging of food and medical products. In addition, Gabriel Chemie is addressing the increasing demand for Halal products with a Halal certified masterbatch range.

Increasing pressures

Dr Julien Renvoise shares that immobility of markets and a focus on lowest short-term cost (incumbent technology is often mature and cost optimized through economy of scale, whereas innovative solutions carry development costs and often start at suboptimal scale – often also requiring many players along the value chain to invest in capital, know-how, development), poses a challenge to innovation in this field overall.

Mark Hannah leaves us with a stark thought: “Resources are always an issue. There are many new developments needed in masterbatch and especially in the circular economy discussion has increased the pace of development.”

Finding and retaining the right talent, as well as funding new developments, is becoming increasingly challenging as the global economy is slowing down and the public image of plastics has come under pressure.