Julia L Freer Goldstein and Paul Foulkes-Arellano have granted Packaging Europe early access to their new book, Materials & Sustainability: Building A Circular Future. In this article, we discuss just some of its many points of interest, from the ancient origins of certain packaging materials to up-and-coming solutions to the plastic waste crisis.

In its first chapter, Goldstein and Foulkes-Arellano contrast the first known utilization of petropolymers in 1907 – and of bioplastics in 1855 – against the scope of human history, with the exploitation of wood dating back as far as 500,000 BCE. Plastics have only been the dominant material since the twentieth century, they explain, with other long-lasting materials predating them by millennia.

In around 4,500 BCE, Goldstein continues, smelting transitioned humanity from the Stone into the Bronze Age. Developments have helped reduce the energy intensiveness of metal-making over time, leading to the electric arc furnaces utilizing only scrap metal, as is common in the US but constitutes only 10% of Chinese steel, for example.

Aluminium is an increasingly popular metal in the packaging industry; Goldstein notes its cost-effectiveness, light weight, good strength-weight ratio, and well-established recyclability, which in turn lessens its carbon footprint. Yet she warns of its energy-intensive production, and the contaminants, caustic byproducts, and radioactive waste that its production can cause.

Steel is regaining popularity, she observes, as manufacturers turn their backs on plastics. Apparently, it can preserve food without requiring refrigeration, contains high percentages of recycled content, is easily recycled in itself, and saves on transport emissions, as it is lighter than glass. Furthermore, a general shake-up in processing methods is expected to help; continuous hot metal casting is said to save up to 75% of casting and forming energy while creating less scrap.

Another, less widely discussed facet of sustainable metal production is the eradication of ‘conflict minerals’ – tantalum, tungsten, tin, and gold mined in war-torn areas under unsafe working conditions, often relying on child labour and slavery. Goldstein highlights that greater transparency across the metal supply chain will increase awareness of workplace abuses and promote responsible mining.

In the paper industry, the transition away from long-lasting hemp fibre is linked to American newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst and his vast investments in timber for newspaper production in the 1930s. He is accused of damaging the reputation of the hemp industry and increasing the profitability of wood-pulp paper for his own ends.

Now the paper and pulp industry has reportedly grown by 82 million metric tons between 2000 and 2020, with China driving 30% of production worldwide. Consumers transitioned en masse to online shopping in the early months of the COVID-19 pandemic; the continual rise of e-commerce has continued to fuel demand for fibre-based delivery packaging, and thus for pulp. Indeed, reforestation is reportedly becoming desirable for the industry as the renewability and recyclability of paper packs and legislative crackdowns on plastics drive a transition into paper.

Meanwhile, Foulkes-Arellano traces the glass industry back to Roman glassmakers in the first century CE. The scarcity of glass shards in archaeological digs indicates the existence of ancient recycling processes, and the Romans are said to have enhanced glassblowing from its Syrian roots – a technique still used to create bottles and containers.

The plastics industry has allegedly ‘demonized’ glass for its fragility, weight, and resultant carbon emissions. Its shattered pieces can cause lacerations, which currently restricts its processability once broken, and manufacturers express concern for the availability of raw material while the production process consumes high amounts of energy.

Yet it is not thought to contaminate or leach, even in marine environments – therefore, it cannot transfer tastes into food and drink products like plastics or metals, instead holding them for ‘years’ without degrading. Foulkes-Arellano notes the rise of ‘carbon-neutral’ glass bottles; a resultant interview (one of many featured in the book, consulting everyone from industry representatives to activists) sees Oliver Harry from Encirc stress the potential of hydrogen and green electricity in the industry’s pursuit of carbon neutrality. In his view, glass should also be integrated into Industry 4.0 for compliance with digital deposit return schemes, anti-counterfeit measures, lessening product defects, and more.

Comparatively, the seventh chapter underlines that many of today’s commonly utilized plastics emerged between the 1930s and 1960s. Hydrocarbon feedstocks for plastic production became cheap towards the end of this period, and annual plastic production skyrocketed by 412 million metric tonnes between 1960 and 2020. Foulkes-Arellano attributes much of the continued growth to China’s rising population and growing middle class.

Plastics are cheap, light, and difficult to damage. Their pliability means they are compatible with a range of manufacturing methods and machinery – all features that, when the plastic is transparent, can make them a suitable substitute for glass. Still, in a world where over 90% of plastics are made from virgin fossil fuel feedstocks, the authors emphasize that there is no silver bullet to overcome the plastic waste crisis. Product performance and consumer safety often come at each other’s expense, which is believed to have stalled progress thus far.

For instance, commercial plastics contain a ‘complex blend’ of chemical compounds, some of which are linked to cancer, diabetes, and genetic mutations. Certain plastics are more likely to percolate contaminants when heated, posing obvious threats in applications like baby formula or microwaveable ready meals.

Goldstein points to a 2003 study identifying the endocrine disruptor BPA in the urine of 90% of Americans. While this led the FDA to ban the substance, its replacement, bisphenol S, is still causing concern. Plastics manufacturers still rely on such plasticizers to prevent plastic from cracking during the moulding process – and, in the case of polypropylene, toxic flame retardants are required to overcome its flammability.

These contaminants come at the expense of contaminating plastic recyclate and perpetuating fears that post-consumer plastics are unsafe. Similarly, when applied to compostable materials, they can leach into soil and enter the food chain.

Amidst these complex issues, the authors set out a vision of a ‘circular future’. They posit that manufacturers must get as close to zero loss as possible – for every kilogram of material input, one kilogram of that material must enter and remain in circulation.

In turn, circularity should reduce reliance and supply risk pressure on virgin materials; increase the value of waste as a resource for recycling or reuse; enhance efficiency and reliability by shaving off excess transport and storage; and create jobs in recycling, repair, and remanufacturing. This will only succeed if the appropriate treatment infrastructure exists – or, if a material escapes the loop, it must degrade at end-of-life within a reasonable time frame.

Materials & Sustainability goes on to explore the merits and drawbacks of 3D printing as a developing, ‘additive’ manufacturing process; weigh up the value of sustainability-minded laws and regulations; examine the corporate phenomenon of ‘greenwashing’; and evaluate the roles of consumers, small businesses, public companies, political bodies, and others in making informed choices and engaging with environmental activism. We will leave these topics (and far more detail about those we have already discussed) at our reader’s discretion, and encourage everyone to read on for themselves to learn more.

The book is available to buy from Routledge, Taylor & Francis, Waterstones, Amazon, and various other booksellers.

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