Plastic packaging is at the heart of a real paradox. On the one hand, it is unparalleled in preserving the most sensitive foods and cosmetics in the best possible conditions and thus plays a considerable part in combating waste.
On the other hand, it is criticized as having a perceptible impact on the planet. Faced with such ambivalence, it is reinventing itself and becoming greener to reduce its carbon footprint. The stakes are high and packaging manufacturers have been actively collaborating with the polymer industry for many years to find solutions. These include eco-design, re-use, incorporation of recycled plastic – the three pillars of circularity – and the development of new materials.
The environmental footprint of their products, and more particularly of their packaging, is now at the heart of the cosmetics and food industries’ concerns.
Qualities that put them above the rest…
Plastic packaging is therefore far from being doomed. This is all the more true as an analysis of its life cycle shows that it is more than equal to packaging made from other materials. Its production often emits less CO2 than other alternatives (as in the case of aluminum or glass for example). Above all, polymers are unbeatable when it comes to the weighing scales. In the case of bottles, for example, one made from glass weighs fifteen times more than its PET equivalent. The ecological impact is obvious. Heavier and more bulky glass bottles take up more space and require more trucks, and therefore more fuel or energy to transport the same amount of liquid.
Finally, the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) estimates that 931 million tonnes, or 17% of the food produced in 2019, ended up in the bins of households, retailers, restaurants, etc.
Thanks to packaging, only 3% of all products delivered to customers are damaged during production and transport in Europe. Polymers are still the best materials for protecting the products packaged inside them thanks to their function as a barrier against oxygen, UV, moisture, and bacteria. It is therefore worth remembering that polymers extend the shelf life of packaged products while ensuring that they are ideally preserved. Are they that perfect? Not yet, but they are on the right track.
The protective properties of the polymers that make up food packaging make it possible to extend the shelf life of the products they protect. Every year, nearly one billion tonnes of food avoid being thrown in the bin!
Eco-design, a school of virtue
Whether in food or cosmetics, eco-design has become the rule for all brands and packaging manufacturers (see our interview).In these two sectors, the products to be protected are very sensitive and require containers with high technical performance that comply with draconian health standards.
In addition to all these considerations, there is the challenge of designing plastic packaging that is increasingly recyclable and greener. Some big names, who use considerable volumes of packaging, are approaching the polymer industry to design bottles, flasks, tubes and other containers that are perfectly in tune with current environmental requirements.
Packaging as small as needed
Limiting the environmental impact of packaging is now a priority for all manufacturers, whatever the material. Their first reflex is generally to reduce the quantity of material used. To do this, plastic packaging manufacturers use software capable of optimizing the quantity of material needed to preserve a product as accurately as possible. Over the past twenty years, improvements in processes have led to the development of thin-walled packaging.
The eco-refill is on the rise! To convince their customers, manufacturers do not hesitate to invest in a product’s design, resulting in very attractive packaging.
Thanks to more efficient machines, the weight of LDPE laundry detergent bottles has been reduced by 13%, that of PET water bottles by 40%, and that of polypropylene or even polystyrene butter pots by 22%.
Evian also stands out, with its latest innovation: Evian® (re)new. It comes in the form of a 5-litre retractable bubble, intended to be placed on a fountain with a contemporary design. Made from 100% recycled plastic, this thin and light bubble takes on a new shape after each use. It uses 60% less plastic per litre of water than a 1.5 litre Evian® bottle (a 5-litre bubble is equivalent to 3.33 1.5 litre Evian® bottles).
Single-material bottles are becoming more versatile
Another major area of research and improvement is that of designing efficient packaging from a single polymer. This is a major challenge, but the hoped-for result is to make packaging more easily recyclable. Today, on average, 70% of plastic packaging is made from a single resin.
The case of certain food bags or pouches, intended for preserving wet products, is emblematic. They are made of several different polymers (mainly PE and PET). The technical characteristics of each contribute to the required performance of the whole. The foodstuffs they are intended to protect are particularly sensitive to oxygen, bacteria, and/or UV light. It is therefore advisable to stack polymer films of different types and with different functions. Although it is uniquely effective, such packaging is still very difficult to recycle using current mechanical recycling processes. By 2030, all plastic packaging in Europe must be recyclable.
The confectionery industry has rethought its approach in order to move away from multi-layered packaging while guaranteeing the perfect preservation of its products.
To do this, they have relied on the characteristics of polyethylene films, which can have different properties depending on the orientation of their weft. Thus, some of these films are given enhanced mechanical properties through a directional stretching process that orients their polymeric structure. It is also possible to add additives to certain film layers to give them specific properties.
Today, 100% polyethylene multi-layer pouches can be found on supermarket shelves. Brands such as Haribo now offer 100% polyethylene multi-layer pouches.
Nestlé has developed pouches for its Gerber brand of children’s compotes that are made exclusively of polypropylene, replacing the multi-layer, multi-material pouches that were previously used. The brand’s objective is to be able to recycle them into similar products.
Albea, one of the world’s leading cosmetic packaging companies, has just launched the EcoFusion Top, a tube where the body and cap form a single unit. This solution has resulted in a weight reduction of over 80% compared to standard solutions. It is said to be the lightest tube on the market!
Opting to use a mono-material means guaranteeing an improvement in the “recyclability” of products. To go even further, some manufacturers, such as Albea, have succeeded in designing a single-material tube made of a single part. This is a great advantage for consumers who no longer have to wonder which recycling bin the product can go in..
Refillable packaging… a new way of life
The principle is simple: consumers buy a product that consists of a case bearing the company and product’s logos and a cartridge containing the cream, the fluid or even the lipstick. Once used, all that needs to be done is to buy a refill or a cartridge. A bit like a fountain pen. The trick is to make them easy to use. Designers have a great deal of fun and are often very imaginative because the main aim is to convince and seduce users. Asquan, a Hong Kong brand, offers the Essential Push Pen Button Tottle. While the case is quite traditional in appearance, the polypropylene refill resembles an accordion. Once installed, the cream is released by pressing a small push button at the end of the case. Once empty, the refill can be recycled like traditional single-material packaging, either mechanically or chemically. Its low cost is another advantage for consumers. Unlike other products, consumers only buy the case once, which is very often designed and made of a more noble polymer such as ABS,. As for the refill, it does not need to be beautiful since it is invisible, it only needs to be practical and resistant, which is possible with polyethylene or polypropylene.
Others, such as Spanish packaging manufacturer Faca Packaging, offer cases made of recycled polymers, in this case PMMA. More transparent than glass and capable of taking on an ultra-shiny, opaque or even coloured appearance, PMMA is one of the polymers preferred by designers.
Cosmetics companies are increasingly adopting refillable packaging. Only the cases are durable, letting manufacturers focus on refining the design of the packaging, which is so important in this field to make the products attractive.
Single-material eco-refills, the ultimate achievement
Reduction of the plastics used, increased use of monomaterials, easier recyclability – the market for eco-refills is growing. Some manufacturers are seeking to design them more and more from a single polymer to facilitate recycling.
Recently, the American Arcade Beauty company, the world leader in sample and single-dose solutions for perfume and beauty products, developed for L’Oréal its first single-material ecofill in polyethylene (PE), including the cap. It is a perfect alternative to the bottle, allowing a material saving of 75% compared to two 250 ml shampoo bottles. The eco-refill is one of the new avenues explored by packaging professionals and it has all the assets to quickly gain momentum.
Eco-refills are an excellent solution for reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging. They become perfect when made of a single polymer, which is increasingly common.
Another way to make plastics greener is to move away from using hydrocarbons to manufacture them. This is known as decarbonisation. In concrete terms, this means using raw materials derived from plant biomass (corn starch, castor oil, sugar cane, algae, forestry waste, etc.) or animal biomass (fats). The polymers produced in this way are known as bioplastics, a term that can lead to confusion. Contrary to popular belief, a bioplastic is not always biodegradable or compostable.
(For more information, see our feature.)
Although the path of bioplastics and recycled materials represents an interesting solution for freeing ourselves from hydrocarbons, it is far from being the most ambitious. Recently, American company LanzaTech, a world leader in gas fermentation specialising in carbon recycling, oil company Total and the L’Oréal group announced that they had succeeded in jointly producing a polyethylene cosmetic bottle made from captured and recycled industrial carbon emissions. A world first! This world first represents another avenue for decarbonising plastics.
These new ways of packaging evolving are a good step to sustainability and circularity.
DR SAMEER JOSHI
Sameer Joshi Ph.D. works in plastic waste management and in the field of circular economy and is on the Committee of Global Plastic Action Group of the World Economic Forum for South Asia
Sharang Ambadkar is a first-generation entrepreneur and works for sustainability and Circular economy and upscales plastic waste to tiles