The clock is ticking: Are recyclates a way out of the plastic trap?
At first glance, they could not be more different. And yet, cotton swabs, balloons, cigarette filters, and beverage cups all have one thing in common: They are among the disposable items that are most commonly found on beaches and in oceans. Plastics already make up 85 percent of trash on beaches worldwide, and 25 million metric tons of plastic waste are produced every year in Europe alone. Now the European Union aims to take immediate and significant action to turn this situation around – with noticeable consequences for companies and consumers. But can this put an end to the plastic trap?
“If we don’t change the way we produce and use plastics, there will be more plastics than fish in our oceans by 2050.” Frans Timmermans, First Vice-President of the EU Commission, minces no words in his assessment of the current situation. “The only long-term solution is to reduce plastic waste by recycling and reusing more.” The plans, which were presented by the European Commission in mid-January 2019, require that all plastic packaging on the EU market be recyclable as of 2030. It aims to reduce the consumption of single-use plastics and limit the deliberate use of microplastics.
Taking aim at plastic packaging
Roughly two-thirds of all plastic waste is packaging, which is why there is an exceptionally great need for action here. In December 2018, the European Parliament, Council, and Commission reached a preliminary political agreement on specific targets for packaging and for plastic packaging in particular: It aims to recycle 50 percent of plastic packaging by 2025, rising to as high as 55 percent by 2030. To actually reach these goals, the design and manufacture of packaging needs to be improved in the future, and additional measures need to be taken. This is where plastic packaging manufacturers come in and is the reason why Greiner Packaging has already been working to harmonize sustainability and plastic for several years now. Greiner Packaging is also very active on issues of sustainability as part of the family business: As a partner of the British Ellen MacArthur Foundation, the company supports the transition to a circular economy, aiming to counteract plastic waste through various initiatives. In doing so, Greiner Packaging has set itself some very ambitious targets: To eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging by 2025 and make all plastic packaging 100 percent reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025. Recycled material should also make up a significant proportion of material inputs by the same deadline.
Innovative approaches aim to improve recyclability
Needless to say, it’s not possible to achieve such goals overnight: New approaches and innovative solutions take time, which is why extensive testing and development are being carried out within the company. One of its core projects is Design for Recyclability. Increasing recycling rates for packaging calls for packaging solutions whose recyclability is developed together with the customer from the very beginning. Some examples of products that are easily recyclable include transparent packaging and packaging with only minor coloring, packaging whose decoration can be easily removed, and packaging that can ideally be manufactured from one resource, i. e., one base material.
Although the ability to recycle products is an important aspect of the circular economy, Greiner Packaging also deems it important to reduce the total amount of CO2 consumed in the packaging’s production. For instance, K3® packaging achieves a 24 percent CO2 footprint improvement over pure plastic packaging (compared with conventional direct-printed, thermoformed cups with a diameter of 95 mm and a 500 ml filling capacity).
Using recyclates is a complex matter ...
In addition to a new packaging design, the use of recyclates is another important subject at Greiner Packaging. The role of recycled plastics is important for plastics experts in product development, but the increasing use of recyclates entails numerous challenges:
... in the food industry ...
Close attention must be paid to the application when selecting the recycled material: In the food sector, measures have already been taken to improve the standard of sustainable packaging solutions. This requires extensive know-how and experience since the rules of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) governing the use of recyclates in food packaging are strict and precisely define which materials may be used. One of these is r-PET, which is also Greiner Packaging’s focus in current projects. r-PET is approved for food packaging under certain technological conditions and with specific quality and migration properties: More than 95 percent of the material must originate from one material stream that can be shown to have been used for food applications already. In addition, the recycled material – just like new material – must comply with all provisions for materials that come into contact with food. The question of which packaging is considered recyclable in the first place is subject to national legislation – a difficult situation for international companies. Criteria like these are part of the reason why recycled materials are still often scarce these days.
... and the non-food industry
r-PET is also used in trays or blister packs in the non-food industry where, depending on customer requirements, it can be processed with differing proportions of recycled material. r-PO can also be used in the non-food industry in addition to r-PET (but its wide range of manufacturing and application options still prevents precise allocation to a material stream at the moment, making its use in the food industry impossible). Greiner Packaging mainly uses r-PO in pallets, which are excellent due to their low weight and outstanding hygiene characteristics compared to the load capacity. These are advantages that are appreciated by the food industry in particular. But Greiner Packaging is currently testing products containing r-PO for the laundry and cleaning industries as well: A shampoo bottle for the Norwegian company Orkla that is made of virtually 100 percent r-HDPE is already currently on the market. Greiner Packaging furthermore deems it important to recycle internal waste – over 95 percent of which is reused for new products. The recycled material is either used to produce the mentioned pallets, or it forms the central layer of new films – thus even allowing for the production of packaging solutions that come into contact with food.
For a future worth living
Over the decades, plastics have changed people’s day-to-day lives and made them simpler and easier in many ways. The material’s negative impacts were ignored or not taken seriously for a long time. But those days are gone. And even if one country, one company cannot revolutionize the existing global economic system by itself, every effort nevertheless helps maintain awareness of the issue and encourage changes in behavior. Greiner Packaging sees the increased use of recyclates as an opportunity to start a sustainable circular economy for plastics.