A 2021 exploration of our planetary plastics problem
Where we are, where we’re going and how we can get there
We live in a time of great ecological challenge, but also a time filled with exciting technological opportunities. The mistakes of the past are now painfully clear, yet the will and capability of people, governments, and industry to reverse them grows exponentially.
It’s one of many ecological challenges that we must address…and fast. But unbridled growth, combined with a lack of meaningful regulation and foresight has led to problematic packaging solutions.
Increasing political and NGO pressure, backed by global education campaigns that have opened consumers’ eyes to the urgent need for sustainable options, is forcing the problem into the spotlight. The movers and shakers of industry are responding – encouraging international, national, and local packaging manufacturers and users to lead by example. There is a desire to set clear, tangible goals; and to fast-track R&D operations in the pursuit of innovative, sustainable, and recyclable packaging solutions.
So, what are the biggest opportunities when it comes to sustainable packaging innovations as we approach 2022? What is being done to put right the wrongs of the past? And how can smarter test and inspection processes help companies to maintain quality during the transition? Read on to find out more.
The plastic problem
It’s obvious why plastic became so popular in the packaging industry. It’s cheap, easy to make, and unmatched in durability. It’s also significantly lighter than alternatives and resistant to degradation.
But this cost-cutting, love for longevity has created a global plastic crisis. Some polymers – like your six-pack soda can rings – can take over 400 years to break down! Our oceans are full of plastic – a sink for some 11 million metric tons every year. And while more than 50% of plastic becomes waste within a year of manufacture…alarmingly, most still isn’t recycled.
We’re not telling you anything you don’t already know here – thanks to planetary educational efforts and increasing urgency to help the environment and climate, this is headline news. And we all know that something needs to be done.
The plastic opportunity
Despite the bad press, in many ways plastic is still fantastic. It’s a hugely important commodity that our modern lives rely upon. It supports every industry sector and drives economic growth all over the world.
Use of plastic bottles over the alternatives offers huge savings on distribution fuel costs; without it our vehicles and planes would be much heavier. So it massively reduces transport pollution . Renewable energies rely on plastic, it’s a key component of energy efficient homes and durable plastic pipes prevent leakage of valuable water supplies. The sustainable packaging issue is far from black and white.
People still love plastic. In 2020 the global market was worth a massive USD 579.7 billion, with some 368 million metric tons produced. Demand is set to continue growing for the foreseeable future, with predictions suggesting that production will reach 589 million metric tons by 2050.
When you look at these cold hard numbers alone, against a backdrop of rising human populations, even the most abstract of artists would struggle to paint a pollution free picture.
A commitment to change
Thankfully the somewhat empty rhetoric of ‘supporting change’ is on the wane and real action is emerging .
In mid-2018 several major brands, retailers, and packaging companies made a big public pledge – to use 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging throughout their international operations by 2025.
Now, if you’re eyeing your calendar with a sense of panic…the pandemic does provide a semi-reasonable excuse for some delay. But the year is still a big date in the packaging industry and momentum is shifting towards realistic, sustainable packaging goals.
Through the Global Commitment and Plastics Pact Network more than 1,000 organizations – including businesses and governments – have reaffirmed their targets for a circular economy for plastic in just three years. The network brings an alliance of business, cities, philanthropists, policymakers, academics, students, NGOs, and citizens together to ‘rethink and redesign’ the future of plastics.
Meanwhile, at the COP26 Climate Conference in Glasgow in November 2021, a Global Plastics Policy Centre (GPPC) was established. With the purpose of giving governments and industry groups the evidence needed to make better decisions around plastic policies.
There’s no two ways about it: the eyes of the world are focused on plastic packaging manufacturers – there’s little hiding space for those who’d prefer ‘business as usual’.
Global problems call for local solutions?
To meet the lofty ambitions against a backdrop of ecological crisis, it’s not enough to rely on governments and regulation to deliver. And we can’t realistically wait for the big brand multinationals, , to lead the charge.
Recycling is a complicated environment with plastic waste legislation – and the standards organizations that determine how things must be done – varying between countries.
To stay in business, everyone will need to comply with incoming environmental directives and adapt to changing industry standards that flow down from policy changes. But while public scrutiny and interest grows, now is the opportune time for savvy smaller businesses to lead by example.
There’s a marked difference between a statement of support and a target backed with timescales, baseline data, and a clear pathway. Talk is cheaper than plastic and empty promises are becoming increasingly obvious.
The times and tides are changing anyway…better to surf the wave of progress than to get dragged along in the current of sea-change. The leaders and innovators in sustainable packaging are picking up priceless free publicity along the way. It’s good to be green…and it makes good business sense too!
A global problem requires an international solution, but we all have a part to play. Local and national packaging manufacturers and users are increasingly recognizing the urgency, investing in sustainability-focused R&D, and sourcing more recycled raw materials.
Balancing sustainability with quality
If you’re one such green-minded company, you’ll appreciate that just because a plastic has been recycled it doesn’t mean that packaging quality can suffer. Committing to recycling and sustainability while satisfying quality-accustomed consumers is a tricky balance to find.
People now anticipate the recycled packaging that protects their products to be as good as traditional counterparts. The days in which there was some happily accepted compromise in exchange for environmental benefits are arguably long gone.
Sure, it’s great to announce that you are launching a product range packaged in 100% recycled plastic, but you need to make sure that thinking green doesn’t hit you in the pocket and damage public perception if your packaging isn’t up to standard.
So, how does a maker or user of plastic packaging ensure that the sustainable options they have designed don’t hurt them further down the line? One of the most sensible and cost-effective approaches is to invest in better testing processes.
Testing times for recycled polymers
Whatever industry you operate in, a rigorous plan of quality test and inspection procedures is critical, especially when using recycled plastics.
As you invent or work with more fresh, innovative sustainable packaging solutions, you may be entering uncharted territory. As such, many companies are bringing more of their testing in-house, as we move from a single use to a fully circular economy.
For those working with recycled bottles, stringent melt flow testing is required to understand the suitability of the recycled material for future injection blow molding (IBM) processes. Often, there is a requirement to test materials with different rates of extrusion to simulate the both the injection and blowing stages of the IBM process.
The material must be suitable for injection moulding into a preform shape before being blown with air into the final form of a new bottle. This demands more from testing equipment, with the latest Melt Flow Indexers using optical encoders and variable weight stacks to characterize the changing Melt Volume Rate (MVR) of the material at the different extrusion rates.
To thrive in these times of sustainable change, plastic reliant companies must move with the trends, stay abreast of changing regulations, and choose the right recycled polymers for their operations. Maximizing the capability of test and inspection procedures is one way that they ensure their green ambitions don’t leave them feeling blue.
If you’d like to find out more about how Industrial Physics could support your packaging, product, and material test and inspection needs, get in touch. We’ll be happy to chat through the ways that our solutions will allow you to be more sustainable while retaining confidence in quality.