Are bio-based packaging barriers always better for the environment? The question is not entirely straightforward. Here are four pitfalls that sustainability-conscious brand owners need to look out for.
Packaging barriers are intended to protect the shelf life, quality and characteristics of the contents – whether the crunchiness of the biscuits, the tenderness of the meat or the creaminess of the yoghurt. Oil, meat juices, water and more also must not seep out onto shelves or into refrigerators. But they should also be tasked with reducing the carbon footprint to an even greater extent than now,” says Jon Haag, Head of Business and Innovation for Material transition at RISE.
– “Regardless of the material system, there is a clear need to become more circular. This means that we must use renewable raw materials, phase out fossil and finite raw materials and significantly increase the recycling ratio so that materials can become materials again and again and again.
In order to take the sustainability work on the barriers to the next level, it is important to be aware of the environmental mistakes that are all too easy to make.
Mistake 1: Choosing fossil-free barriers at any cost
An example is when fossil-based plastic is replaced by bio-based plastic of the same type, without any consideration for the production process.
– “Polyethylene plastic, for example made from sugar cane instead of oil, may in certain cases require more energy for production and, if it is made in countries such as China or Brazil, where a large proportion of oil, coal and gas is used for energy production, it becomes unclear whether it is a net gain for the climate,” says Jon Haag.
What happens to the bio-based barrier when the consumer has opened and used the packaging is also important.
– “Here, brand owners must make a decision: Is becoming fossil-free the only important aspect? Or is it more important to ensure that packaging can easily be recycled? If you produce a paper cup using green PE, it has certainly become 100% bio-based, but there are no improvements in terms of recycling. Recycling is key.
Which brings us to the next mistake ...
Mistake 2: Choosing bio-based barriers that cannot be recycled
– “Paper that has been laminated using “green polyethylene plastic” made from plants such as sugar cane is still plastic and not fully compatible with current paper recycling. This plastic is sorted together with a proportion of paper fibre and is sent for incineration.
In Europe, only 16 per cent of plastic materials become materials again, compared to 70 per cent of paper-based packaging that is turned into new materials.
– “If a company is able to switch from plastic to paper, the true recycling rate will increase fivefold but you will need to make sure that the barrier properties do not deteriorate. If we managed to get everyone to use just the one type of plastic, for example white or transparent polypropylene, we could make this work with a very large number of packaging types and achieve efficient recycling. But there is a long way to go yet. Producers often make recycling more difficult by colouring the plastic, for example black or dark green, making it difficult to sort at the recycling centre or creating a low resale value and it is therefore often incinerated. White or transparent plastic can be recycled to a much higher extent.
Even “reversed print” makes recycling harder. Some sweets bags are, as an example, made from three layers of plastic and the print is made on a layer inside the packaging to protect the print. This makes it harder to remove the print colour during the recycling process without chemically degrading the plastic, which costs more energy.
The 21st century has become a competition in being “environmentally friendly”
Mistake 3: Setting excessive barrier requirements
– “Do 12 biscuits really need to have a shelf-life of 12-24 months? If we gradually lowered the requirements for many foods, we would be able to use less complex packaging, thereby achieving quicker growth in bio-based barriers, while also increasing recycling levels.
Chain stores such as ICA, Walmart and Tesco have been seeking even longer “shelf lives,” i.e. how long a product will keep in their warehouse and on the store shelves.
– “Over a number of years, this has resulted in excess barrier requirements, which we now need to question in order to more quickly achieve circular models and more efficient recycling. Six biscuits in a sealed paper solution might still be good if they are eaten within 1-2 months?
Mistake 4: Being unclear in communication
– "The 21st century has become a competition in being “environmentally friendly”. Companies use so-called “claims,” statements printed on their packaging to win consumer approval,” says Jon Haag.
“Recyclable” is one such claim. “100% bio-based” is another.
– “Are the companies actually sure that the packaging is recycled as materials? In which countries is this even possible? And what does bio-based packaging mean in terms of climate impact and energy consumption?
Sometimes, the message that the product can be recycled does not even reach the consumer.
– “Producers have worked hard to create butter boxes using minimal plastic so that they can go into the cardboard recycling. But consumers do not always understand that something can be recycled. It then hardly matters whether you use a bio-barrier in the packaging. The information may be present on the packaging, but it is rarely clear enough to be seen by everyone. It must be easy for consumers to make the right decisions, as more and more people want to do the right thing and contribute towards a sustainable future. Printing plastic packaging so that it looks like paper does not help at all.
“It will be crucial to collaborate towards these goals”
The guiding principle has to be that brand owners must be clearer throughout about their sustainability work relating to packaging.
– “Become fossil-free, maximise the recycling rates in many countries, simplify packaging and associated communication – everything will probably be required at once and many companies will choose similar solutions,” says Jon Haag. To collaborate towards these goals will be crucial and RISE can help with this. We have many test beds and pilot plants at the ready for testing new packaging solutions, we know food and we work with all materials. We are happy to be an independent party and can work with 10 or 100 companies at the same time to more quickly identify the circular packaging systems of the future.