Have you noticed how most food is packed in plastic in the supermarket? Even more ecological, locally-sourced fruits and vegetables are wrapped in plastic, which poses an interesting paradox. Plastic films and containers are quickly discarded once the food has been consumed, and it has become so natural to simply put them in a trash bin, that it is hard to picture the rest of the journey of that plastic packaging. According to a study from PlasticsEurope1, in 2018 Europe produced 17.8 million tons of plastic post-consumer packaging waste. Thankfully, recycling efforts have increased by 92% since 2006. However, a large amount of packaging cannot be recycled in our existing systems. This is the case for multi-material packaging, which accounts for approximately 13% of the share of the plastic packaging market by weight2. Multi-material packaging consists of a mixture of materials, such as paper or cardboard with aluminum, polyethylene or other plastics as coatings. These coatings act as a barrier against oxygen and moisture, protecting the packaged goods and extending their shelf life. However, such a diverse composition makes the packaging unrecyclable due to the difficulty of separating the single components, because each material has different characteristics and recycling properties. These materials can therefore not be directly recycled, and separating materials is not always an option. Moreover, recycling mixed material packaging involves more complex processes, which makes it more costly. However, mono-materials, which are packaging composed of only one material, can be easily classified for recycling and gives it a high (if not full) recovery level.
Still, multi-material packaging is what is most commonly used for consumer goods. Therefore, over 18% of plastic waste is sent to landfills1. Landfills take up land space and may cause air, water, and soil pollution, so it is the least preferable waste management practice according to the European Council3. Even though recycling and energy recovery have immensely helped reduce plastic pollution, these waste management options do not focus on the core problem: the material itself.
So the question is: why do we rely so much on plastic packaging? Or, as we asked ourselves at Cellugy, what properties should a material have, to fulfill the requirements of packaged consumer goods? Let’s break it down:
First, plastics can be used in direct contact with foods. The European Commission regulates the general principles of safety and inertness for all Food Contact Materials (FCMs)4. FCMs have to comply with strict food migration limits, this is, a limit to substances that can migrate from the packaging to the food. Since some plastics are inert in contact with food, even for long periods of time, they are widely used for packaging applications. So a packaging material has to be food-grade.
Second, plastics provide hygienic protection and safety to your goods, preventing contamination from pathogens, germs, and malodors along the whole distribution chain, that is, from manufacturing to consumption. In some cases, it also prevents physical damage and bruising, increasing the shelf life of the product and reducing food waste. For example, the plastic packaging of parmesan cheese increases its shelf life from 20 to over 50 days5. So a good material for packaging applications should be resistant and provide a protective barrier.
Third, plastics are the lightest packaging material, therefore, they do not increase the weight of the product significantly and they help reduce transportation costs along with CO2 emission derived from transportation. As PlasticsEurope points out, while over 50% of all European goods are packaged in plastics, they account only for 17% of the total packaging weight on the market. So for a material to fit in the current production and transportation scheme, it has to be lightweight.
Fourth, although they come in many shapes and colors, plastics can be processed into transparent thin films to allow consumers to look at the product inside of it. They can also be printed with useful information, according to current regulations. So some packaging materials used for consumer goods have to be transparent when used as films.
In summary, plastics are the most commonly used material for packaging applications because of their resistance, stability, durability, lightness, and versatility. If only there was a material that, on top of high-performance, would also be bio-based, biodegradable, and recyclable…
Oh, wait! Have we introduced you to EcoFLEXY yet?
EcoFLEXY is the material responsible for the foundation of Cellugy. It is 100% bio-based, derived from sugar (e.g. surplus sugar), biodegradable, and recyclable. EcoFLEXY can be used in combination with paper and cardboard as a coating barrier to develop a mono-material packaging that can be recycled in the current waste management system, unlike current multi-material packaging. Too good to be true? No. Too good and true.
A change of paradigm is possible. It is, in fact, our driving force.
P.S.: Do you want to know how we differentiate ourselves from bioplastics? Stay tuned for our next post!
3European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/environment/waste/landfill_index.htm
4European Commission: https://ec.europa.eu/food/safety/chemical_safety/food_contact_materials/legislation_en
5Plastics Europe: https://issuu.com/plasticseurope/docs/final_the_unknown_life_of_plastics_