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Thursday, May 23, 2024

The sustainability challenge

Mike Jones dissects the key factors that will shape plastic sustainability and the wider packaging landscape in 2024


Sustainability is at the forefront of everyone’s minds with businesses across industry sectors looking to update their methods to achieve net-zero emissions and do their bit to slow down the ongoing climate crisis. The packaging sector is no exception.

Packaging is used every day across the globe – for food, clothes, medicine and more – but the environmental impact left behind by the industry must not be overlooked. Producing a massive amount of waste while consuming masses of energy and resources, the global plastic packaging industry creates 1.8 billion tonnes of carbon emissions every year while only recycling 9%  of the plastic produced. The packaging sector has therefore helped to perpetuate climate change to its current state of crisis.    

As a result, sustainable packaging is of utmost importance as we head into 2024 – a move that is supported by businesses and legislation alike.

Consumers are demanding sustainable packaging, with a 2021 report finding that global internet searches for sustainable goods increased by 71 percent from 2016. Additionally, government legislation is changing to encourage more efficient packaging management, illustrated by the revised Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) which proposes mandatory reuse targets for all materials. Similarly, the UK government recently banned businesses from supplying or selling certain single-use plastic items such as plastic cutlery and plates.

It’s therefore an exciting time for the sustainable packaging market with the industry set to grow and change in a range of ways. While traditional fossil-fuel based plastic and compostable materials are headed for the cutting room floor, the focus shifts instead toward renewably sourced packaging and materials designed for reuse.

Sustainable packaging innovation – the UK and beyond

With plastic reduction on the top of the agenda, a transition to paper is well underway. For example, a large UK retailer recently replaced their plastic bags with paper ones across all stores. This is largely due to negative consumer perception of plastic with a 2020 survey finding that 62 percent of consumers view paper as more environmentally friendly and 70 percent reported actively avoiding plastic packaging.

Although swapping plastic for paper has its benefits, the issue isn’t so black and white. Indeed, the Northern Ireland Assembly found that a paper bag takes four times as much energy to produce than a plastic one. It is therefore important for businesses to consider the whole picture when deciding between paper and plastic.

Further, in light of the recent increase in paper packaging – where paper and cardboard have taken the top spot for packaging waste material in the EU at 34 million tonnes in 2021, ahead of plastic at 16.1 million – the Rethink Plastic Alliance called for legislative change to eliminate single-use materials rather than swapping one for the other.

Reusable packaging should therefore be top priority for businesses moving forward.

A new 2023 study found that reusable packaging can significantly limit GHG emissions and is rising in popularity with leading businesses getting involved. For example, Costa Coffee set up their own reusable cup scheme in 2022.

The 2023 report also emphasised the need for sufficient recycling infrastructure. Indeed, regardless of the material, if it cannot be properly collected, treated, and fed back into the supply chain, it will only add to packaging waste worldwide. Consequently, many UK retailers, such as Tesco, are discontinuing the use of compostable plastic due to an inadequate recycling infrastructure.

Italy recently advanced its recycling infrastructure for compostable materials with the introduction of Europe’s first Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) scheme in 2021. BIOREPACK holds producers accountable throughout their products’ lifecycle, facilitating and funding the recycling and recovery of compostable packaging. As a result, Italy’s EPR has achieved an impressive 52% compostable packaging recycling rate, benefiting 61% of the country.

A national recycling infrastructure such as BIOREPACK allows products like Mainetti’s compostable material bags to be properly sorted and processed at the end of their 6-month lifespan before they are fed back into the supply chain. Crafted from fully compostable biopolymer resin, Mainetti’s range of compostable flexible packaging is produced in India and includes carrier bags, bin bags, cutlery, cups, and more.

In short, what’s most important for sustainable packaging is that, regardless of the material used, it should be part of a closed-loop system to be reused over and over again.

Champions of the circular economy

Despite the importance of a closed-loop recycling system, a 2016 report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) found that the current system is largely linear. Producing 78 million tonnes of product every year, only 14 percent of this is collected for recycling while just two percent is fed back into the supply chain and the rest is left for waste.

As a leader in the circular economy in packaging & supply chain, Mainetti has been a trusted partner to the world’s most respected and well-known retail and apparel brands for over 60 years. Mainetti champions the EMF’s mission of upholding a circular economy, having developed a range of innovative packaging solutions and recycling processes.

With 40 years of circular economy principles, Mainetti launched their closed-loop polythene recycling process, Polyloop, in 2021. It is the world’s first global initiative that allows retailers – including Superdry and Very.co.uk – to source clear LDPE film containing at least 30 percent and up to 100 percent recycled material.

The innovative recycling process clears any print and labelling from the materials, creating the highest level of clarity of post-consumer recycled content. Processing, collecting, and cleaning post-consumer LDPE film, Polyloop distributes the material to Mainetti’s several manufacturing sites in the UK, Italy, Türkiye, Bangladesh, India, Sri Lanka, and China.

Looking forward for the packaging industry

Due to mounting consumer pressure and legislative change set against the backdrop of an ongoing climate crisis, the industry is experiencing a global transformation where businesses are prioritising sustainability. With companies rethinking which materials are most sustainable, it is critical to consider where these materials end up at the end of their lifecycle. If there isn’t a sufficient recycling infrastructure in place to properly dispose of the materials once they are finished with, is it truly a sustainable choice? Facilitating a circular economy for the packaging industry is of utmost importance if this historically damaging sector is to take accountability and properly counter the devastating effects of the climate crisis.

Mike Jones is Head of Innovation at Mainetti.

An accomplished design and innovation professional with over two decades of experience, Mike leads a global team of 50 research and design specialists, coordinating innovation across the entire group to ensure Mainetti remains a world leader in retail and branding solutions. www.mainetti.com


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