As we move toward a ‘zero-carbon’ future, can single-use packaging thrive or will it be replaced by reusable, returnable, refillable, semi-permanent containers to protect, preserve, identify, communicate and transport goods?
Preserving products, particularly food and medicines, has typically required high-barrier, multi-layer packaging made from plastic and sometimes aluminium. This has reduced wastage but has presented a recycling challenge when it comes to separating and recycling each layer at scale whilst being economically viable. Alternative materials such as graphene, algae, protein, plant and other bio-based materials are increasingly possible, but with this sometimes comes economic and automated packing system changes often requiring capital investment. For example, replacing lightweight, high-performance bags, sachets and pouches with widely recycled or compostable materials is possible, but much work is still required to provide scalability and comparable mechanical and shelf-life performance.
This is where innovation and the combination of materials and optimised packaging design become important to ensure minimal use of non-renewable, carbon-rich resources.
Having a well-invested, harmonised waste recovery infrastructure is vital and one of the weak links in many markets where different local authorities manage varying waste collection and recovery contracts, technologies and policies. We only recover and recycle less than 30% of plastic in Europe (less than 5% flexibles) due to the wide range of plastic products available. Compare this with the current average European recycling rates for paper-based packaging (83%), Aluminium (81%) and Glass (80%). [Multiple sources]
The pending European Packaging & Packaging Waste Regulations (PPWR) and Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) are currently under review in Brussels and this new legislation aims to tackle three core challenges:
- Reduce the generation of packaging waste
- Promote a circular economy for packaging in a cost-efficient way
- Promote the uptake of recycled content in packaging
To understand future trends, it’s often a good idea to look back historically to understand why something has been invented and developed, particularly when many resources are becoming depleted and are often too carbon-intensive to be truly sustainable.