As industries such as construction, manufacturing and fashion start to seek recycled polymer content and biomaterials, thus competing directly with packaging manufacturers, where is it all going to come from? This is the question posed by Paul Foulkes-Arellano, founder of Circuthon Consulting, in an exclusive opinion piece.
Five years ago, when the “Blue Planet” effect began to kick in and brands sought to reduce plastics and, in some cases, “deplastify” completely, I spoke to the VP of packaging at one of the global FMCG giants. “If business turns away from legacy polymers, where will we get all the resource? Where will all the extra carton come from?” he asked. At the time neither of us was thinking about all the other industries that are now competing with packaging for resources.
There is now another incentive for every brand manufacturing or selling in Europe. On March 30 2022 the EU Commission presented a package of European Green Deal proposals to make “planet-friendly” products the norm in the EU, boost circular business models and kickstart what they term the “green transition.”
The Commission also presented a new strategy to make textiles more durable, repairable, reusable and recyclable, to tackle fast fashion, textile waste and the destruction of unsold textiles, and ensure their production takes place in full respect of social rights.
Given that the major textile-to-textile recycling successes are coming from companies like Renewcell, who only handle cellulosics, we are already seeing a switch away from synthetics. The most successful start-ups in textiles such as Natural Fiber Welding are also 100% focused on plant-based textiles and materials.
The other industries cited in the latest EU announcement are construction and manufacture. Hempcrete is already on the market, and LEED-accredited architects are completing 18-story timber buildings (incidentally saving over 2,400 metric tons of carbon emissions compared to a traditional building of the same size). Also of note is that industrial designers are increasingly specifying biopolymers for their latest designs as performance/longevity improves and sufficient volumes become available.
There are commentators who believe that European manufacture will be principally biobased by 2035 – not just packaging, but all manufacture. You just need to look at the rib panels from Stora Enso, never mind the additive printing possibilities of wood-derived polymers.
Off the radar for most will be the Manufacture 4.0 plans of the global footwear industry (worth around €250bn). The whole industry is on a fast track to biobased content led by industry giants Nike and Adidas. The margins in footwear are eye-watering compared to packaging, and these household names are already tying up suppliers for years to come. The design teams of global sneaker giants are already looking to 3D-print biopolymers as the norm, long before 2030.
So as industries such as construction, manufacture and fashion are seeking recycled polymer content and biomaterials, thus competing directly with packaging manufacturers, where is it all going to come from?
On a final note, we have to pray that hydrogen becomes the “green” fuel of choice, otherwise agrifuels and other biofuels will suck up an irreplaceable percentage of non-fossil resource.
Having sounded the alarm, there are some obvious solutions staring us in the face, given that the sources of virgin materials are limited and not scaling fast enough to replace the petrochemicals being removed from supply chain. Recycled polymer demand also outstrips supply, so just where do pack suppliers look to secure materials?
- Vertical Farming
- Genetically modified crops (controversial in EU, but not elsewhere!)
Let’s start with the one obvious source which doesn’t precipitate more agricultural land being taken over for planting and commercial forestry: agriwaste. But which are the residue streams with the highest potential?
The Laudes Foundation report published on July 1, 2021 identified the following as the major sources of fibre: rice straw, empty fruit bunches (EFBs) from oil palm – both offer economies of scale and profit potential. Apart from those, the report also identified wheat straw, sugar cane bagasse, banana pseudo-stem, maize and sorghum. However, using these to compete with tree pulp is not without technical challenges: to extract cellulose from these residue streams requires further scientific investigation and unprecedented scaling up.
Entrepreneurs are also working on other solutions. Textile waste to packaging, as well as numerous seaweed solutions such as Oceanium in Scotland with their innovative biorefinery technology.
The other solution required if more arable land is turned over to growing raw material for packaging is vertical farming. Phenomenal space usage, pesticide-free, no dependence on weather, zero fossil fertilizers are just some of the benefits. Until now the focus has been on edibles, but pilots are underway for feedstocks for materials. 6 crops per annum is no mean feat, and lowers the cost of materials.
As we are repeatedly reminded inks and adhesives are the enemy of good recyclate, so imagine a) the colour was part of the raw material itself (GMO cotton already comes in a whole spectrum of colours) and b) packs are grown to size, rather than folded and glued.
This may seem like wonderland, but when you are currently working on these solutions, it also seems perfectly logical. You need to develop expertise in LEDs and renewables, but how many of you still remember when we used typesetters and PMTs? The packaging industry evolves quickly, and we are at the beginning of a whole new era. Just look at Xampla if you need any more evidence about how quickly pack suppliers absorb and commercialise unique innovation.
By 2030 we will also have another, low carbon, high performance, food-safe packaging material: glass. For too long glass has sat in the shadows and defied the forces of innovation. That has all begun to change. We will have 100% recycled glass (we need to accept and celebrate mixed colours) made from 100% renewable energy transported by Tesla trucks or a new breed of green hydrogen vehicles including submarines. With some clever circular thinking, these can be refill/recyclable with low overall emissions and footprint. Much of the theoretical work has already been done, and the pilots have been assessed.
I’m optimistic the packaging industry will rise to all of these challenges, but there are going to be some tough fights ahead. It’s important that the industry gens up on everything which is going to happen under the EU Green Transition, the repercussions of which are already rippling across other continents.
Exciting, but challenging times ahead.
In March 2020 Paul founded Circuthon Consulting to accelerate his work on sustainability and circular economy projects across the globe. His area of expertise is raw materials, food & beverage, apparel and footwear. His particular focus is NextGen fibre recycling, composting, biomaterials, and new material development. Much of his work is mentoring businesses in the supply chain and disposal chain include reuse and novel materials.