Circular economy: Plastics are leading the way
Although they are at the centre of today’s environmental concerns, plastic packaging is not a new development. In fact, paint manufacturers started using it in the form of tubes in the 1950s. The first plastic bottles would only appear a decade later. Initially made from PVC, then from PET (polyethylene terephthalate) in the 1990s, they would revolutionise the agri-food industry and more particularly the way in which drinks were transported and stored. Weighing up to ten times less than glass, transporting them became easier and less polluting. A decade later, the invention of the pump bottle would revolutionise the world of cosmetics and perfumery. The first compostable polymers made their appearance in the early 2000s. Research has been ongoing since then, and packaging manufacturers unveil major innovations each year which increasingly take into account ecological and sustainable development requirements.
Plastic you are and plastic you shall become again
The Coca-Cola Company proudly announced that it had invested in Ioniqa, a Dutch company that holds innovative patents on processes for recycling the notoriously difficult-to-recycle PET (most often coloured PET). Seemingly acting on all fronts, Coca-Cola (but also Pepsico) had just a few months previous entered into a multi-year agreement with the Canadian Loop Industries, a company specialising in the chemical recycling of plastics in order to source rPET (recycled PET). The aim was to manufacturer higher-quality packaging suitable for food containing at least 50% of recycled resins in the next few years. How is this special when 100% rPET bottles already exist? Simple, those bottles are currently intended for non-food products such as those developed by the organic cleaning products brand Rainett, for instance. The challenge facing beverage manufacturers is that of creating bottles that perfectly meet food security requirements.
Like PET, many polymers are relatively easy to recycle. Food packaging made from 100% recycled plastics should soon be appearing on supermarket shelves.
PET is often highlighted because it has been possible to properly recycle it for many years and because there are recycling processes that enable contaminant-free recycled PET to be produced. The European Food Security Agency (EFSA) issued a favourable opinion on the recycling centres that comply with all rules in force to ensure that rPET can be used in food packaging. For example, the major beverage bottlers that are Nestlé and Danone already use close to 25% of rPET in some of their bottles. Danone is even able to manufacture bottles made from 100% rPET but considers that progress still has to be made in terms of aesthetics to make them less grey and opaque. The brand hopes to achieve its 100% rPET object by 2025.
Finally, it is important to note that PET is not used solely to make bottles. Many food trays are also made from the material. And rPET also comes into play, as it should.
However, PET is not the only polymer intended for use in packaging that can be recycled. Recyclers’ other favourite is HDPE, better known under its scientific name of high-density polyethylene, a polymer frequently used by manufacturers of bottles intended to hold cleaning products or cosmetics. Major efforts are also made to use recycled HDPE in these industries. The Austrian company Alpla, a supplier of bottles and other containers for the cosmetics and household cleaner industries, currently offers a wide range of products containing recycled HDPE.
Technological advances, tips and tricks…polymers go green
Although most plastic packaging mainly made up of a single polymer can be recycled, the task is made more difficult when attempting to recycle packaging made up of several layers of different polymers. This is the case of food bags that contain moist or semi-dry products that are highly sensitive to external aggressions, in particular from oxygen.
The usual mechanical recycling processes usually require the different polymers to be separated. Techniques for doing this exist, but they remain expensive.
Bag manufacturers are well aware of this issue and most of them have not waited for pressure from consumers to begin searching for new alternatives by exploring the avenue of ecodesign. The Israeli company Polysack, for instance, has developed a new type of multi-layer but monomaterial bag that is easy to recycle as a result. Its bags are made from different films made from polymers belonging to the same family of polyolefins which are compatible at the time of recycling. Without modifying the nature of the polymer, Polysack developed a machine which superimposes and glues the different layers simply by changing their orientation. The result meets expectations as its new bags guarantee the same preservation properties as those made from PET or polyethylene, for instance.
Other projects are being worked on every day and they show that many people are making efforts to give polymers a new image. Sometimes, this only involves simple tricks such as caps that remain attached to bottles so that they do not get lost and thus pollute the environment, and which can be recycled in the same way as the bottle.
Sometimes, a simple trick is all that is needed to make packaging eco-friendly. The Power Gel brand designed an opening tab that remains attached to the package after it has been opened. The trick lies in reinforcing the base of the tab with a tear-proof polymer.
In the same vein, the Power Gel brand designed a water bottle with an opening tab that remains attached to the packaging once used. It is a small detail, but it is more than common to see marathon runners and cyclists rip of the tabs with their teeth and spit them out into nature. That is one thing less that will end up on the roadside because the tab’s size often causes it to go unnoticed by clean-up operations.
Cosmetics packaging gets a new look
The world of cosmetology is staying afloat the evolution on plastics recycling. The German RPC Bramlage company has developed a pump made entirely from recyclable plastic for the products of the Avène brand. Although the pump system is not a new development in itself, the innovation lies in its innovative opening mechanism which isolates the product from any contact with the ambient air. As a result, the cream keeps better. Test have shown that no bacteria had contaminated the product, even after weeks of use. Consequently, the Avène brand decided to stop using preservatives. A first! The packaging is perfectly recyclable and the bottle is partially made from recycled resin.
Although some believe that it is just a marketing ploy, the initiative by the American Procter and Gamble company remains noteworthy. For one of its shampoos, the brand mobilised hundreds of NGOs throughout the world and developed a bottle whose composition was 25% plastic waste collected on beaches. Tasked with developing the appropriate formula, the Austrian Alpla company was able to develop the new bottle which both protects the products and ensures the safety of consumers. A true feat knowing how complicated it is to recycle plastics collected in the marine environment due to the degradation caused by UV rays and seawater, among others.
Finally, closer to the consumer side of things, L’Occitane, one of the French cosmetics giants that has several hundred stores throughout the world, has its own collection system for recycling its bottles. Its final objective is to offer packaging that is 100% made up of recycled polymers such as rPET by 2025. The circular economy is going full steam.
The cosmetics industry is a major consumer of plastic packaging. Many brands now sell their products in recycled plastic bottles.
Plastics switch up their diet
The beverage industry, one of the major consumers of PET, has for several years been giving thought to doing without petroleum-based plastics. Surprisingly, two major competitors in the water industry, Danone and Nestlé Waters, joined forces with Origin Materials, a recently-established American company, to create the NaturALL Bottle Alliance. The three partners have set themselves the objective of launching a 100% biosourced PET bottle whose raw materials do not compete with food production. In this case, it is PET made from cellulosic fibres of various origins, such as used cardboard and sawdust, or even rice straw. Another project led by Danone and Coca Cola relates to PEF (polyethylene furanoate), which is actually made from sugar cane, beet, wheat and corn. A future generation of PEF, sourced from agricultural and paper waste, is currently being developed. A state-of-the-art material, this polymer is entirely biosourced. It is intended for other applications than biosourced PET, such as carbonated drinks and oxygen-sensitive products as it has particularly advantageous barrier properties.
Finally, many brands have started using biosourced polymers to manufacture coffee capsules. Made from PLA (polylactic acid) and cellophane, the capsules are compostable and their small size means that they can be composted in bins specially designed for apartments.
The latest generations of biosourced plastic coffee capsules are compostable.
There is no lack of imagination and projects, and this is to be welcomed. That being said, avoiding plastic fragments in the soil is easily achieved and begins with the civic duty not to litter and employ appropriate sorting methods. . Although most polymer packaging is recyclable even the one that is not will end up in incinerators where it will make an excellent fuel to produce energy or heat at a lower cost.