In this comment piece, Pawel Kornacki of Supravis SA looks to the future of plastic packaging sustainability.
Plastic packaging materials have been developed over decades and their boom began with the plastic beverage bottle invented in the 1960s. Over the years till now more and more polymers have been improved and they are characterized by excellent durability, barrier, and mechanical properties that make the packaging consumer-friendly.
Unfortunately, until recently no attention has been paid to the issue of waste management, including plastics. For this reason, landfills have increased their area and the environment has been polluted with waste of various origins. Currently, pollution is observed in all ecosystems on Earth with a great contribution of plastics, as we find out every day from various sources.
For some time, Europe has been trying to focus intensively on the problem of waste and the reduction of its impact on the world around us. There is an increasing emphasis on managing waste appropriately by implementing a hierarchy that avoids the production of an excess of packaging in the first place. If that is not possible it should be reused or recycled. However, these measures are currently applied at different levels, but rather poorly developed, depending on the type of waste. According to the president of the Polish Chamber of Waste Recovery and Recycling, 25% of plastics are being recycled.
Looking into the details: the PET bottle recycling level is about 50%, but the processing of flexible films is already close to zero. The question here is: what causes this situation? Bottles are made of a homogeneous, clean material that is easy to recover and process. On the other hand, flexible films have been made of various polymers so far, they contain additives improving parameters, which affect the possibility of marking, sorting, and recovery.
Bearing in mind the above, the market of flexible plastic packaging has adopted a new trend in the field of eco-designing of products. A number of non-governmental and international organizations have carried out projects aimed at identifying the best solutions that will make packaging materials recyclable and allow further use of recyclates. Among such organizations, there is the CEFLEX association, which also includes SUPRAVIS S.A.
The current number of stakeholders is over 175 and is growing constantly. Among the participants of the polymer processing chain, there are raw material producers, representatives of packaging companies, brand owners and retailers, waste sorting and recycling companies, and end-users. Only such a comprehensive approach to the subject can develop an agreement on the further actions that are needed to reduce the impact of plastic waste on the environment. Working groups established within CEFLEX deal with several issues that are very important to individual members. In the field of eco-design, very detailed guidelines have been established and implemented.
The application of these guidelines will allow the production of materials suitable for use in the circular economy. Appropriate types of polymers that should be used, barrier additives, print coverage, and use of inks, dyeing with pigments, dimensions and shape, density, presence of additives, and other materials are indicated. Current guidelines limit the use of specific polymers. However, the activities of CEFLEX will continue at least until December 2025, which will allow further research on technologies for separating multi-material products, cleaning and processing them in chemical recycling.
It is worth noting that for now they are only guidelines, but it is likely that over time the European Commission will develop regulations forcing manufacturers and marketers of plastic packaging to use these products carefully. Right now, on the basis of EU directives, Member States are working on the implementation of Extended Producer Responsibility. Producers would be responsible for costs related to dealing with plastic waste. In the future, possible regulations implemented by the Commission may include:
- Defining rules for sustainable products
- Obliging manufacturers to introduce products compliant with Circular Economy principles
- Forcing an appropriate flow of information in the value chain
- Prohibiting the use of packaging materials that are too expensive or impossible to recycle
- Limiting the storage or incineration of plastic waste.
Following the above trends and anticipating possible future legislative restrictions, SUPRAVIS S.A. actively tracks information sources, and at the same time works on sustainable solutions that will allow customers to face new requirements. Current work is being focused on products that will comply with the guidelines for flexible plastic packaging. This process is complicated because the parameters of the packaging should be kept at the current level while using new raw materials, which may have different properties than those used so far.
Achieving the set goals and protecting the environment from the negative impact of human activity is now a task for every link in the value chain. This involves mutual cooperation in order to develop functioning solutions, as well as education, especially when it comes to end-users who should consciously support the process of closing the circulation of materials.