Guest Commentary from PACKAGING Austria
Striving for sustainability: Recyclability is only half the picture
Design for recycling has to be at the top of the agenda for every plastics processing company. To make packaging materials more recyclable without compromising product protection, we need packaging solutions whose development is coordinated with the customer with recyclability in mind right from the outset.
A single-source solution is the go-to approach here if reduced wall thicknesses are transparent or only subtly colored, while decorative elements such as sleeves can be easily separated from the packaging. This much is self-evident in the eyes of sustainability-minded people.
In terms of recyclability, this means material can be saved and packaging optimized so that it can be 100 percent recycled in conventional facilities. This aspect is all well and good. Yet as is so often the case in life, every coin has its flip side.
A choice between a recyclable product with reduced CO2 emissions and a nonrecyclable product with comparatively high CO2 emissions is simple. But the decision gets difficult when, instead, higher CO2 emissions would be released in exchange for greater recyclability. Will the product be recycled? Certainly. But at what price as far as CO2 is concerned?
Against this background, cardboard-plastic combinations provide an outstanding solution. The recyclability of combination packaging is currently viewed critically in some quarters, as not all consumers ultimately dispose of the individual components separately, as intended. But the consumer is the beating heart of a functioning circular economy. Without consumers who are willing to separate their waste, the circular economy is an illusion. It’s for this very reason that the involvement of all the manufacturers of combination packaging is so vital. Consumers must be informed about the need to separate cardboard and plastic – and this process must be made as convenient as possible (for instance, using tear-open systems and clearly visible markings).
These matters are unhelpfully complicated by the lack of agreement from country to country on which packaging is deemed to offer good recyclability. This term can currently be interpreted in a variety of ways. As a result, easily separable cardboard-plastic combinations are often viewed no differently than inseparable paper-aluminum-plastic composites, as are often used in beverage packaging.
Cardboard-plastic combinations have been celebrated as a sustainable innovation in the UK. For the time being in Germany, however, this packaging solution is only classed as being moderately recyclable – even though, consumer responsibility aside, there are now plenty of recycling plants that can recognize and sort combination packaging materials.
While life-cycle assessment was the ultimate measure in the past, recyclability is now viewed as the only criterion to be fulfilled. Sustainability, on the other hand, involves making sensible use of resources (including waste as a raw material) in addition to achieving minimal environmental impact. A product’s recyclability and its environmental impact must both be considered throughout its life cycle. And by that measure, cardboard-plastic combinations excel. Production of the inner cup consumes up to 50 percent less plastic, saving an enormous amount of resources.
For instance, cardboard-plastic combinations offer a 24 percent better carbon footprint than purely plastic packaging materials (compared with a direct-printed, thermoformed cup with a 95 mm diameter and a 500 ml fill volume). The product becomes even more sustainable when the inner cup is made of r-PET or r-HDPE instead of virgin material. The cardboard wrap can be made of 100 percent recycled cardboard if necessary.
It’s essential that we encourage and promote recyclability and the use of recycled materials. Everyone must bear responsibility, and the results will have an impact on all of us. But let’s not forget what this is all about: using resources efficiently and generating the lowest possible CO2 emissions. Only an optimal combination of the two can deliver the success that we all so urgently need.
R&D Director, Greiner Packaging
Published in PACKAGING Austria 3/19