The Future of Packaging

Isn’t plastic fantastic? It has profoundly changed the way we live our lives.

In particular, plastic packaging has been instrumental in our ability to prolong the lifespan of foods, by protecting our favourite foodstuffs from microbial spoilage, oxidation and contamination, resulting in longer shelf lives and a reduction in food waste. Plastic packaging has supported the globalisation of food supply and has ensured that our foods arrive at the nearest supermarket in impeccable condition.

Plastic Packaging is essential for keeping our food fresh. © littleny / Adobe Stock

Despite these advances and the clear benefits in practicality and safety, we have lost control of the environmental burden of waste plastic. It is a well quoted statistic that at the current rate, there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish (by weight) by 2050. 300 Million Metric tonnes of plastic is produced annually worldwide, with 30% of this disposed of immediately after consumption. The pollution generated by food packaging has reached a critical point and as the world’s population increases, the issue will only be exacerbated.

Some of the statistics relating to this are staggering. 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials is lost to the economy after a single use. Only 14% of packaging material is collected for recycling and as a result of the losses associated with sorting and reprocessing, only 5% of this material is retained for subsequent use, with these plastics usually ending up as lower-value products.

Plastic Packaging is designed to be discarded. © Joaquin Corbalan

The major issue with plastic packaging is that it is made to last forever but designed to be discarded. Food packaging is a particularly challenging waste stream for end of life management as it is likely to be multi-material (challenging to recycle) and is often contaminated with residual food (will need cleaning prior to processing). There is an urgent need for a culture change and to develop alternative plastics for packaging. New innovations in plastic production have seen bio-derived and/or biodegradable products emerge as genuine substitutes to their fossil-fuel derived cousins. Researchers are currently looking at alternatives to fossil-fuel feedstocks for plastics by utilising greenhouse gases such as methane and carbon dioxide, as well as developing biomass-derived plastics for packaging. Recovering waste gases from the atmosphere or from industrial flues is not yet economically viable and the burden of biomass-based feedstocks on land and water usage, as well as its impact on biodiversity is not yet understood. Polymers such as polylactic acid (PLA), a bioplastic derived from corn starch, has emerged as a genuine alternative in certain cases. PLA production generates 69% fewer greenhouse gases and uses 65% less energy to produce than conventional plastics.

This bio-derived and biodegradable polymer has seen uptake for uses such as cold beverage containers and food trays, however its application has been limited as it is not suitable for hot drinks. A further drawback of this material is that it is only suitable for industrial composting, meaning that that the packaging can’t be added to garden composters.

Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) are a novel class of bio-derived and biodegradable polymers, produced by microbial fermentation of carbon-based feedstocks, which have the potential to replace conventional plastics in a range of applications. A particularly exciting feature of PHAs is that they have a ‘tunable’ property set, whereby the final product can be tailored to its application based on the feedstock and the production process. Additional bonuses of this class of polymers are that they could replace the need for multi-layer plastics for packaging (which are difficult to recycle) and can even be composted alongside food waste, eliminating the costs associated with conventional recycling such as washing, and separating. Crucially, the most recent developments mean organic waste can be used as a feedstock, reducing dependency on primary crops.

The “Attenborough Effect” means that we are currently experiencing a public backlash against plastic packaging, although there is little coherence on the true solution to the problem. What is evident is that there is clearly a market opportunity for bioplastics as a result of the increased pressure from consumers to make a positive change to their products.

BioInnovation Wales have developed a module on the Future of Packaging, with a goal of raising awareness around packaging and exploring how we can shift towards a circular economy in which plastic is minimised and properly managed. The aim of this module is to assess the challenges and opportunities around packaging, and to provide businesses with the knowledge to develop their own packaging strategies. To learn more about the module, click here.

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