Beyond Plastic: Embracing Sustainable Packaging Alternatives

Published on 20 Jun, 2023

There is a major global shift away from plastic packaging toward other sustainable alternatives. This is driven by increasing environmental concerns and growing recognition of the detrimental impact of plastic waste on the ecosystem. There is a need and demand for more sustainable solutions.

The Enormous Scope of Plastic Packaging

As with many other significant plastics uses its application in flexible packaging has been under intense criticism recently as sustainability concerns increase globally. Compared with paper/board-based flexible packaging, which makes up around 5% of overall consumption, plastic-based, value-added, flexible packaging, contributes to roughly 93% of total use.

Navigating the Environmental and Sustainability Dilemmas

  1. The functionality of alternative materials: Meeting barrier features, including oxygen and moisture transmission rates, general material strength, clarity, sealing capabilities and integrity, and impact of temperature exposure —high and low— are among the issues with the usefulness of alternative materials.
  2. Infrastructure and waste management: To collect, sift, and recycle waste materials, a large investment in infrastructure is necessary. There are many biodegradable and compostable products on the market, but fewer collection facilities; thus, these products will wind up in landfills or burning due to the lack of infrastructure for collecting them. Consequently, they either descend farther in the waste hierarchy pyramid or pollute other waste streams.
  3. Recyclability of PET packaging: Colorants and additives used in manufacturing PET packaging typically prevent it from being recycled. Black PET packaging and other dark colors can be difficult to recycle because most automatic sorting machines do not identify it as plastic at all. 

Due to these challenges, the push for sustainability in packaging is intensifying at the legislative level.

Government Ambitions for 2025 and 2030

Many countries have taken concrete steps. Some examples include:

  1. On 3rd July 2021, the EU issued a ban on single-use plastic products. Along with cups and food and drink containers, the prohibited products list includes plastic straws, stirrers, plates, cutlery, and poles for balloons. In addition, the Europe Commission is targeting 100% recyclability by 2030, where every plastic packaging put on the market in the EU will either be reprocessed or reused economically. 
  2. By 2025, the Chinese government wants to outlaw the use of single-use plastics.
  3. Participants in the Dutch Plastic Pact, including food and plastics manufacturers, will see a 20% decrease in the amount of plastic packaging per kilogram of product by 2025 (when compared to the base year of 2017)

F&B Brand Commitments Toward Sustainable Packaging:

  • Unilever: To reduce 50% of virgin plastic in its products by 2025.
  • PepsiCo: Aims to have all packs made entirely of recycled or renewable plastic by 2030.
  • Nestle: Is stepping up efforts to completely recycle or reuse all its packaging by 2025 and meanwhile decrease its use of virgin plastics in half.
  • Coco-Cola Company: Plans include for all packaging to be recyclable by 2025 and for 50% of materials to be recycled by 2030.
  • Danone: Wants every piece of packaging, from yoghurt cups to bottle caps, to be reusable, recyclable, or compostable by the year 2025.

Five Avenues That Leading Brands Are Exploring To Achieve Their Sustainable Packaging Goals

  1. Light weighting: Revamping packaging to utilize less plastic will help reduce the overall quantity of material required to make packaging. For example, Tesco adopted lightweight pouches with barrier properties for its grated cheese, which are fully recyclable.
  2. More recycled plastic in packaging: Plastic that has been made from recycled resources. For instance, the recycled plastic bottles that we use at home go through sorting, cleaning, melting, and being turned back into bottles or other products
    For example, Dragibus candy, Germany: Switched to recyclable mono-layer PE doy pack, which can be recycled into agricultural tarpaulins and trash bags.
  3. Use of mono-material: Compared with other items consisting of various polymers or a mixture of materials, mono-material packaging is constructed of a single substance or fiber and can be recycled quickly and easily.
    For example, in Turkey, Unilever began using recyclable polypropylene (PP) mono-material for Knorr dry soup powder, which is made at Mondi's flexible packaging facility there.
  4. Change in substrates: Paper-based packaging: Paper packaging is a highly efficient and cost-saving alternative form of packaging. Manufacturers have widely used paper packaging due to its environmental sustainability credentials.
    For example, Heinz partnered with “Pulpex,” a packaging technology company, to create the first paper ketchup bottle, a recyclable container manufactured entirely from wood pulp that is supplied responsibly. Moreover, Ferrero is piloting a new paper-based exterior packaging for its Kinder bakery collection in Italy, which includes Kinder Délice and Kinder Brioss. In the new packaging, Kinder Bakery items are creatively wrapped using paper film that can be recycled in the nation's paper stream.
    • Use of dispersion-coated paper: Dispersion coating is a barrier coating that provides barrier properties to fiber-based products like paperboard, paper, and liners barrier characteristics. For example, Mars Wrigley, UK: Replaced the conventional candy box (with PE liner) with dispersion-coated barrier board that is expected to reduce plastic consumption by 82 tons.
    • Metallized Paper: A product that has a layer of aluminum coating applied to it, either in a matte or glossy finish, giving it protective characteristics.
    • Bio-based barrier coatings for packaging: Strong oxygen and oil barriers built of organically renewable biopolymers have the potential to replace the synthetic paper and paperboard coatings currently used.
      For example, Spanish startup ADBio Composites develops BlockPLA, a proprietary technology, intended to enhance flexibility, thermoforming capabilities, oxygen resistance, biodegradability, and compostability of PLA resins for various packaging use cases.
  5. Change in substrates: Use of emerging materials (Bioplastic, Agri waste-based, plant-based, etc.)
    Made from naturally renewable materials derived from plants/unwanted or unsalable materials produced wholly from agricultural operations or natural resources such as vegetable oils and starches. For example, Mars Wrigley, US: Introduced compostable packaging for “Skittles” using Nodax PHA bioplastic as raw material.

The Way Forward:

Change is sparked by consumer awareness of packaging waste in the seas and landfills. The improvement of current packaging increases the amount of recycled content used in less delicate applications while considering alternative plastic types that can enhance the product's sustainability profile.

Additionally, packaging should be designed for ease of use and recycling (e.g., by making it clear to customers how packaging should be gathered and sorted at recycling sites). Accelerating the development of more sustainable flexible packaging solutions requires cooperation among brands, resin suppliers, recycling businesses, and converters.