Defining what constitutes an advancement in sustainability is harder than it seems at first glance because the scope needs to be defined. What one person might categorize as a sustainable advancement might be rudimentary from another person’s perspective. For example, someone might be proud of the fact that they finally made the decision to start recycling, while their neighbor is making clothes out of the hemp grown in their backyard. That scope is narrowed when it comes to an industry like packaging, but we’re still talking about different degrees of commitment amidst a wide swath of segments within the industry. But progress, no matter what it may be, is still progress. The following are places where we and others around the industry have seen advances.
Change without corporate buy-in can be slow. Consumers, however, are making their voices heard that they want sustainable products, and companies are listening. Film manufacturer Südpack has begun a collaboration with Recenso and Count to take reusable materials that cannot currently be mechanically recycled and recycle them on an industrial scale with a process called CARBOLIQ. Südpack says it is following its long-term objective to further develop chemical recycling technology and turn it into an alternative to the market.
“Here at Südpack, we are very much aware of our ecological and social responsibility — and feel responsible for the entire lifecycle of our packaging materials,” explains Südpack partner Johannes Remmele. “It is therefore of utmost importance to us to ensure that these materials are meaningfully recycled after their service life — and to make a pioneering contribution to a circular economy as well as to decarbonization and CO2 reduction.”
Reynolds Consumer Products and the Dow Chemical Company partnered to create the Hefty EnergyBag program, which is also converting hard-to-recycle plastics. The program is one piece of Dow’s sustainability targets, which aim to enable the collection, reuse or recycling of 1 million tons of plastic by 2030 and making 100% of Dow products sold into packaging applications reusable or recyclable by 2035.
Earlier this year, Smurfit Kappa announced new sustainability targets, such as achieving net-zero CO2 emissions by 2050, as part of its Better Planet 2050 commitment targeting environmental and social sustainability in areas where it believes it can have the greatest impact. The new target will reduce overall water intake and increase its targeted certified deliveries to customers from 90% to 95%.
Many companies are also taking a look at their manufacturing processes and other aspects of their operations to reduce their carbon footprint. San Francisco-based technology company SINAI recently posted an article about the trending best practices among corporations wanting to become more sustainable. New principles and demands in the current world include:
- Internal carbon pricing,
- Emissions baseline definitions and scenario analysis,
- Supply chain engagement, and
- Intelligent auditing.
It’s a good read for any company thinking about making a change.
And these are but a few of the many examples of corporate initiatives taking place in the industry. The fact that there isn’t enough room in one article to list all of them is encouraging.
Needing less material to be created and capable of fitting more product into a shipment are just two of the qualities that make flexible packaging stand out when it comes to sustainability. However, there will always be some calling for the elimination of plastics entirely, which would have an enormous impact on this segment. However, that focus has spurred change, according to Fresh-Lock marketing manager Sarah Stieby.
“Before 2020, single-use plastics were at the center of the sustainability conversation, with many people calling for their elimination. However, heightened awareness of safety and the spread of illnesses amid the COVID-19 pandemic brought to light the necessity and benefits of plastic packaging,” she says. “Flexible packaging with reclosability features helps reduce raw material consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and food waste.
“In the last year we’ve seen flexible films make huge strides in recyclability thanks to single-structure films able to meet the needs of various packaging applications and enhancements in compatible dyes, resins and closures. The goal with sustainable flexible packaging is to achieve plastic management through a circular economy with the help of brands, packaging suppliers, municipalities and consumers. We are collaborating with several suppliers in 2021 to tackle compostable flexible packaging. We have just launched our newest compostable zipper and it already has customers excited. We anticipate significant growth in compostable flexible packaging in the years ahead.”
Compostable. If you’re not already used to that word, you should prepare yourself. Packaging made from materials that break down quickly under “normal” conditions are on the rise. In Hong-Kong, a startup company named Distinctive Action has developed a plastic bag made of polyvinyl alcohol, plant-based starch, glycerin and water. Dubbed “Invisible Bag,” it’s designed to dissolve in water at a temperature above 80°C. EcoSol, from EcoCortec, is another water-soluble product using polyvinyl alcohol. This film is intended for various applications, such as detergents and cleaners, degreasers, concrete additives, pigments and more.
Cannabis packager Humidi.co has launched HumidiNaturals, a fully renewable and compostable solution servicing the cannabis market. Manufactured in the U.S., Humidi.co aims to remove 750,000 lbs of plastic from the cannabis supply chain annually. This line featuring ASTM child-resistant caps and pre-roll tubes are a plant-based, biopolymer blend designed to degrade within 14-18 months, leaving no microplastics or harmful chemicals behind.
As part of its Zero Carbon climate plan, food manufacturer HKScan is replacing its fossil-based plastics and has been cooperating with Woodly Oy and Wipak Oy to develop a new type of plastic based on wood cellulose. As a result, HKScan will be the first company to have exclusive rights to use these Woodly plastics in Finland's meat product category. The company will utilize this new type of plastic for select grilling sausage packages coming this summer. The main raw component in Woodly materials — coniferous cellulose — comes from certified, sustainably managed forests. The renewability of the material makes it a viable replacement for fossil-based packaging materials. Woodly-based packaging materials are recycled as plastics.
Research institution VTT announced at the end of last year a similar biobased technology to replace fossil-based PET. The new technology uses pectin-containing agricultural waste, such as citrus peel and sugar beet pulp, as raw material for bio-based PEF-plastics. The firm found that the carbon footprint of bottles can be reduced by as much as 50% while providing a better shelf life for food.
“In the near future, you may buy orange juice in bottles that are made out of orange peel. VTT’s novel technology provides a circular approach to using food waste streams for high-performance food packaging material, and at the same time reducing greenhouse gas emissions,” says VTT Professor of Practice Holger Pöhler.
These are all but steps toward the greatest advancement in sustainability, which is when we get to the point where something that isn’t sustainable is the story more than those products, materials and processes that are.