Circular Economy, Sustainability, Recycling, Design for Recycling, Reuse, Reduce, r-PET, Material

The future is built on three pillars

06/10/2022 | 3 min read
Charlotte Enzelsberger

Our climate is changing, biodiversity is in decline – we are in the midst of an environmental crisis. As plastics producers, we want to use all the tools at our disposal to protect our world. We are committed to protecting the climate, using resources efficiently, and establishing a circular economy as an enabler of sustainability. We therefore follow the principle of reduce what can be reduced (reduce), using what can be used again (reuse), and recycling what cannot be reused (recycle).

In practice, this approach undeniably creates some conflict between different objectives: Does reusing packaging also emit less CO2 than the single-use solution? Is using less material always more important than ensuring recyclability? And what are the implications of the solution in terms of logistics? Drawing on our know-how and instinct for trends, we create innovative, eco-friendly packaging solutions that are also commercially sustainable.

Reduce: less is more

In the past, one thing was all-important: attracting attention at the point of sale, even though this often meant using more material. This situation has now changed fundamentally, with plastic waste polluting the environment, targets for reductions in CO2 emissions, and business considerations including minimizing weight and saving warehouse space leading to a paradigm shift. Reducing material usage is now the top priority, because – regardless of reusability or recycling methods – this is where the process chain begins. And it is often the case that small actions can have big effects. For instance, simple optimizations in cup geometry can save vast amounts of material. Let’s look at an example: 

Minimal adjustments to the geometry of this PP cup reduce material inputs by 20%. With a production quantity of 30 million cups per year, a saving of 60 metric tons of plastic can be made. This in turn has a positive effect on the carbon footprint of the cups, as less raw material is used, processed, and ultimately disposed of. Furthermore, the optimizations improve the stackability of the cups, thus reducing the number of truckloads being transported and saving space in the warehouse, which – in the case of chilled products – also cuts energy consumption.

Besides optimizing geometries and reducing wall thicknesses, Greiner Packaging is also exploring entirely new avenues, as in the case of a structured cup that is currently in development. Based on a concept that has already been successfully implemented – an ayran cup with a hammered appearance – the aim of the structured cup is to further reduce material usage without sacrificing rigidity and top load. “We had many issues to solve with regard to the production process. For example, there can’t be any undercuts, and the cup must remain moldable as well as stackable,” says Ebli, commenting on the development process. 

The end goal is to produce a plastic cup that stands out thanks to its special look and feel and can be custom-embossed. Embossing makes the cup sturdier, which means that we can further reduce the amount of material used. 
Greiner Packaging draws on all these ideas to offer its customers a complete package: sustainable packaging that allows for differentiation at the point of sale while also being commercially viable.

However, minimizing material usage is not always the right answer. Particularly in the case of reusable packaging solutions, a better life cycle assessment can sometimes be achieved when the packaging can be cleaned and reused many times.

Reuse: trend toward reusable alternatives

While recycling is often the main subject of discussion, there is an emerging trend toward reusable packaging. And this approach is increasingly gaining the support of legislators. In Germany and France, for example, retailers are already required to offer alternatives to single-use packaging for certain product groups, such as those sold at deli counters – at no extra cost. Various start-ups have developed concepts for to-go items, where customers are charged on a pay-per-fill basis, while the company takes care of cleaning and replacing the packaging. By using smart labels – microchips that can store much more data than a conventional barcode – reuse concepts can also be integrated into logistics processes with optimum results. At Greiner Packaging, we too are working on a wide variety of reuse concepts for sectors such as food service.

However, there are still some problem areas as far as reuse is concerned, such as questions relating to hygiene and record-keeping in retail settings, the logistical challenges of having many different returnable products, and the convenience to which consumers are accustomed. The choice of materials is also critical: the packaging must be sufficiently strong and washable that it can be reused as often as possible. After all, the life cycle assessment of reusable packaging only compares positively to that of a single-use alternative after it has been through a minimum number of cycles. All these challenges provide ample scope for innovation – including and especially in the packaging sector. “Specific targets to reduce material consumption have been set in almost every country,” stresses Konrad Wasserbauer, global circular economy director at Greiner Packaging. “Reuse has a key part to play in this, alongside recycling and reducing material usage.

Now is the time to develop reuse concepts!

Konrad Wasserbauer, Global Director Circular Economy

In addition to conventional reuse models, there are other innovative concepts that both save material and allow packaging to be used multiple times. Concentrated versions of hand wash, laundry detergent, or dish soap are a case in point. The concentrate is sold in a small packaging size, which uses less material, to be poured into an existing packaging solution – such as a dish soap bottle – and diluted with water in the consumer’s home. The existing packaging solution can be used several times. This approach offers great potential to save material, reducing transportation and warehousing costs as well as CO2 emissions. Convenience is the only area in which it falls short: “To unlock the potential associated with reusing containers, the consumer ultimately also has to be willing to make the extra effort,” says Günter Ausserwöger, global director of business development at Greiner Packaging. It is precisely for this reason that Greiner Packaging has, for example, developed a packaging solution that doubles as a refill funnel and, if placed on top of an existing bottle of dishwashing liquid, for instance, will empty its contents directly into the bottle. Nothing could be simpler.

Recycle: future-ready

In applications where reuse is not practical, recycling can be a way of keeping the used material in circulation. The key idea here is to turn yogurt cups back into yogurt cups - instead of into flower pots only, as is typically the case. However, this comes with its own technical and regulatory challenges. PET is currently the only mechanically recycled material that can be used for food applications. Greiner Packaging therefore already supplies plastic packaging made of 100% r-PET, such as the solutions developed for Austrian brand Niemetz or the German manufacturer of plant-based milk and yoghurt alternatives, Harvest Moon.

The second important point is recyclability – specifically, design for recycling. While monomaterial solutions are ideally suited for reuse in recycling plants, not all packaging can be made from just one material. Some innovative thinking is called for here too, then – as demonstrated by the development of the K3® r100 cup, whose cardboard wrap automatically separates from the plastic cup in the waste disposal process, with no need for the consumer to take action. This approach can be used to combine a wide range of design and differentiation options offering excellent levels of recyclability. 

“We closely follow and keep up with recycling trends and, together with our partner network, we develop product ideas accordingly.” says Anita Gruber, global circular economy project manager, commenting on the innovation process at Greiner Packaging. As Gruber points out, close collaboration between all those involved is also crucial: “For example, washable inks are the focus of a great deal of development work right now, because it is hoped that their use will result in clean recycled material. However, the state of the art in recycling plants has not yet reached the point where these inks can actually be processed. Material, sortability, detectability, recyclability – when it comes to recycling, innovation is always a trade-off between various complex factors.”

Material, detectability, sortability – when it comes to recycling, innovation is always a trade-off between various complex factors.

Anita Gruber, Global Project Manager Circular Economy

At present, the standard recycling process is mechanical recycling. On the other hand, chemical or feedstock recycling – although still in its infancy – holds great potential, especially for the use of recycled plastic material other than PET in the food sector. This latter technique puts waste plastic through an advanced process to produce the same feedstock for plastic production as is obtained from crude oil. As a result, the quality of the product is identical to that of virgin plastic. 

There are currently two challenges associated with chemical recycling. First, its carbon footprint is still less than ideal because the process requires a lot of energy – even compared with production based on crude oil.

It is therefore well worth keeping a close eye on developments in this area with a view to being suitably prepared. 

However, this comparison is not entirely fair; chemical recycling is still in the early stages of development, whereas crude oil infrastructure has been developed and optimized over many years.

Florian Aschermayer, Global Senior Project Manager Circular Economy

The second challenge stems from the fact that – not unlike green electricity, for example – the plastics produced are often not physically separated. Since the feedstock made from recycled plastic is identical to that made from crude oil, they both pass through the same equipment during production. As a result, it is unclear which plastic content has come from which source. The solution to this problem lies in mass balance systems – in other words, certification programs such as ISCC Plus, which give consumers the certainty that a minimum quantity of plastic from nonfossil sources was used in production. We are already working on specific projects that will allow our customers to put an appropriate ISCC Plus logo on their products. “Chemically recycled plastic still comes at a relatively high price,” says Florian Aschermayer, “but it pays to be well prepared.”

Ultimately, all three Rs are important building blocks for the future of packaging. They should always be seen in context, with one approach taking precedence over another depending on the particular requirements and situation. In each case, individual and sometimes complex decisions have to be made, which, crucially, must also be viable over the long term. That is why we look at the circular economy from every angle, with technical and regulatory trends playing just as big a role as changing consumer behavior. We strongly believe that sustainable innovation and the journey toward a circular economy have the best chance of success when all stakeholders work together. 

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