All over Europe, the lawmakers are demanding higher recycling rates, in order to support the usage of sustainable packaging as well as the entry into the circular economy. This is why new concepts are needed that enable packaging to fulfil its main function, but also facilitate recycling. If this cannot be achieved, further interventions by the governments may follow.
In the current discussion, from big news outlets to social media, however, ‘sustainable’ packaging is often reduced to avoiding plastics as much as possible. In contrast to these popular sentiments, a truly sustainable packaging design also involves the fulfilment of basic packaging functions such as product protection and presentation, but also barriers, longer shelf lives and safe transportation without damages. Moreover, the legally mandatory information printed on each product needs to be readable in several languages.
For instance, vacuum-packed coffee is very sensitive and definitely requires barrier layers and therefore the usage of different materials in one packaging. This is the only way to protect the aroma and guarantee high product quality. Thus, packaging designers are asked to only use the absolutely necessary amount of packaging materials – ideally made from recycled or sustainable materials. On the other hand, this strategy may become a useful marketing tool, as brand owners can advertise the sustainable nature of their packaging material choices, while highlighting the fact that quality did not need to be compromised.
Indispensable partners in the collaboration along the entire value chain are the machinery manufacturers. Their experience and products form the cornerstones for the development of new packaging concepts. From a technological standpoint, it was already possible to manufacture biodegradable packaging 15 years ago, but according to many experts, almost nobody showed any interest. The political discussion has now forced a new way of thinking that enables the creation of future-oriented concepts. Once packaging is optimised for recycling aspects, it becomes easier to collect, separate and reuse it.
When we take a look at retail, new strategies in terms of packaging have emerged recently that will shape the future demands for machinery companies, converters and brand owners. For instance, the German retail group Kaufland has developed a comprehensive plastics strategy: More sustainable packaging, less plastic, better recyclable materials. Already today, the group reduces plastic packaging, e.g. at organic bananas. Instead of film bags, they are now packed with a paperboard banderole. In contrast to that, Kaufland’s competitor Tegut uses fruit and vegetable bags that are made from the renewable resource sugar cane. This material is easy to be reused in existing recycling systems.
In conclusion, it becomes quite evident that recycling and sustainability should not be considered as ‘trends’. Environmental friendliness is required by the consumer, who has become increasingly aware of the flaws of traditional packaging concepts. On the other hand, most consumers are not quite as aware of the other aspects that are necessary for a complete packaging concept – such as hygiene, longevity, stability, barrier functions, etc. Here, both retail and brand owners should educate and inform their customers.
Finally, plastics will remain a necessary component of a multitude of packaging concepts for decades to come. Machinery suppliers should definitely design their coating, printing, laminating and slitting lines with sustainability and recycling aspects in mind. The lines should be ready to process innovative materials and thinner films.
By Martin Hirschmann
Editor C2 – Coating & Converting