From raw to recycled material
Whether yogurt cups, shampoo bottles, or showerheads – the many ways plastic can be used in everyday life make it a well sought-after partner. The popularity of the material has greatly increased the demand for plastic products in recent decades, but their durability, in combination with a lack of proper disposal, has led to ecological problems. Every year, 25 million tons of plastic waste accrue in Europe alone, and less than 30 percent of it is collected for recycling. Not only is a valuable raw material then lost, the environment also suffers from the increasing amount of waste. The so-called sustainable “Circular Economy”, to which Greiner Packaging has committed, may provide the answer.
“Take, make, and dispose” – today’s current linear industry models will simply have to change, according to the plans of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation from Great Britain. The non-profit organization has dedicated itself to the “Circular Economy”, a regenerative economic system that redefines products and services through innovations and new approaches in order to avoid waste and minimize negative impact on the environment and society.
Nature as an example
Nature, where all things automatically go through a cycle, is the role model for the circular economy. One species’ waste is another species’ food; plants and animals grow and then die, and the nutrients flow back into the soil. The sun and rain supply energy. In a linear system, however, the raw materials are lost after use, and at the same time, toxic waste is often produced when disposing of things like washing machines, smart phones, and the like. The goal of the Circular Economy therefore is to change this system from the ground up – even the economy should function as a cycle in the future. The approach combines two different systems in the process: On the one hand, a biological cycle within which food waste and biological materials are fed back into the system, gaining value as a result. For this, product components must be reconsidered and packaging must be redesigned, for example, by using compostable materials that in the end will be reused as food for plants or animals. And on the other hand, a technological cycle is needed: Machines and devices cannot be broken down. For these, therefore, new ideas are required in order to obtain precious metals, polymers, and alloys that can be reused for other products.
Greiner Packaging has been a member of the Ellen MacArthur Foundation since 2016. As part of the “New Plastics Economy” initiative, the company, together with partners around the world, is looking at the entire value-added chain of a package – from the raw material to manufacture and sale, and all the way to its collection and treatment. The objective is to close the packaging cycle and develop systems through which the packaging does not lose value and can either be composted, reused, or recycled. Kenneth Boldog, Director of Circular Economy at Greiner Packaging, explains: “As a leading packaging specialist, we are naturally aware of the challenges that go hand in hand with the increased use of plastics. We therefore also welcome the European plastics strategy, which was published in January 2018. These are topics, after all, that we have been dealing with for some time now. For example, the recyclability of products as well as the use of recycled materials are ideas that are embedded in our business strategy. In all our sustainability efforts, it is important for us to keep the entire eco-balance of a product in mind and not to neglect the main functions of packaging. It is important for us to incorporate our experience as a plastics processor as well in order to guarantee the highest quality for our customers even in the future.”
Challenges and risks
Everyone is currently talking about recycling materials and bioplastics, but despite all the optimism, Boldog says these cannot solve all the problems overnight: “The rules of the European Food Safety Authority, or EFSA, are strict, and they specify exactly which materials can be used in connection with food packaging – recycled materials can currently be used in the food industry only in a very limited way. Despite the very limited amount of materials and technologies allowed by the EFSA, however, we are already in a position to offer new solutions. Here, we have placed the emphasis on the use of r-PET and are convinced that this is where the future for the food sector lies. As for bio-based plastics, we at Greiner Packaging have also tested these in the last few years and always include new developments in this sector in our approaches to innovation. But at present, these are not alternatives for us at an industrial scale for the existing materials: Used in rigid plastic packaging, they are neither compostable, nor are there currently enough appropriate collecting, sorting, or recycling streams. Moreover, it is not in our interest to use land that is available for producing food to produce packaging material.” Even recycling itself needs new approaches in order to leverage the plastics strategy: According to Boldog, product design in particular is of crucial importance since Greiner Packaging’s guiding motto is, after all: “Designed for recyclability”. The developers of the company are therefore intensively involved in developing packaging that is not just recyclable, but that also aims to improve the ecological balance.
Greiner Packaging is a company driven by innovation, and as such, it made an early start in making its technologies fit for the future. This allows plastic packaging to deliver added value for product protection and sustainability, and gives people appropriate support in their everyday life for many years to come – but without damaging the environment.