The importance of plastics in the packaging industry
Plastic is an essential material in industrial activity. Due to its weight-strength-price ratio and its ability to protect and preserve products of all kinds, it is irreplaceable in the packaging sector, especially when it comes to primary packaging. It also has numerous applications as a protective element in the rest of the supply chain.
The eradication of plastic would undoubtedly solve a serious environmental problem. However, it would aggravate another: food waste. According to PlasticsEurope, the issue is already treated as a problem in Europe and only 3% of production is wasted. In developing countries, where plastic packaging is not so common, the same percentage rises to 40%.
However, it is undeniable that there is a major global problem related to waste generation, both in the production and consumption of plastic waste. According to data collected by Euromonitor International, between 2004 and 2018, packaged goods increased from 2.5 trillion units to more than 3.6 trillion, and the weight of plastic in packaging grew from 57% to 64%. Packaging consumption is expected to continue to increase over the next few years, especially given the acceleration of online commerce caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
Measures to make plastics more sustainable
Yes, plastic is indispensable, but there is a problem of waste generation. It is clear that recycling, reuse and sustainable materials are the way forward. Biodegradable plastics are gaining ground, and more and more companies are moving towards the circular economy.
The European Strategy for Plastics in a Circular Economy recognises the benefits of plastics and is promoting measures to change the production model to minimise waste and encourage innovation to achieve maximum productivity from each unit of raw material, i.e., to keep it in the economic cycle for as long as possible.
Every million tonnes of plastic recycled is equivalent to one million fewer cars on the road in terms of reduced CO2 emissions. In an effort to reduce pollution, especially of the seas, the European Directive on single-use plastics bans from this year the manufacture of disposable plastic products for which alternatives exist. The European Union has set itself the challenge of achieving 90% recovery of plastic bottles, which should have a minimum recycled content of 25% by 2025 and 30% by 2030.
What does biodegradable mean?
Although all materials are biodegradable, nature's capacity to biodegrade is far less than the rate at which we manufacture and dispose of all kinds of products. When we talk about biodegradability, applied to the industrial sector, we are referring to materials that do not need hundreds or thousands of years to be reintegrated into the natural environment, and which do so without polluting it.
Biodegradability is the ability of materials and substances to be broken down into simpler chemical elements by the action of micro-organisms and climatic conditions. However, what defines that a given component is reintegrable without altering the environment is compostability.
A material is compostable when it is degraded by the action of micro-organisms, which produce CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass from it. In addition, it must not generate fragments that last more than twelve weeks in the medium, nor contain heavy metals or toxins, and it must allow the growth of plant organisms.
In other words, not all biodegradable materials are compostable, and obviously, to take advantage of this quality, they must be properly treated. In the case of plastic, in industrial composting plants.
What are compostable biodegradable plastics?
Biodegradable plastics are classified into those of synthetic origin and those of plant origin, called bioplastics. Among the latter, we find:
Polylactic Acid (PLA): It is produced from lactic acid from 100% renewable raw materials and is used in the manufacture of food packaging.
Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA): It is obtained by bacterial fermentation of vegetable raw materials, mainly used to make caps and bags.
Bioplastics from starch: They are water-soluble, not too strong, and degrade quickly.
Bioplastics from cellulose: They are used in the manufacture of labels and caps, as they are rigid and resistant.
What is the shelf life of biodegradable plastics?
The shelf life of biodegradable plastics is about 18 months. From then on, they start to degrade, and the time it takes for them to disintegrate completely varies from about one to three years.
To facilitate the recycling process, it is best to work with mono-material products. The combination of several plastics complicates their recovery, as each component usually requires a specific treatment.
For industrial activity to be sustainable, it is not enough to choose bioplastics or recycled plastics in the manufacture of packaging. All associated processes such as energy efficiency, waste generation, optimisation of production lines, including, of course, coding, marking, and labelling of goods, must also be taken into account.
One aspect that is often not considered is the composition of the inks used to mark the packaging. If the ink is not biodegradable and free of toxic components, the recycling process will be much more complicated.
That is why, at UBS, we manufacture inks for our printing equipment that are certified by international regulatory bodies to be environmentally friendly. They are free of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), pyrrolidone resins, ITX photo-initiators and other toxic substances.
Sustainability is fundamental, and it depends on us. It is up to us to embrace a sustainable culture, not only in our direct activity, but also by using conscientious suppliers with whom we can take care of the planet while guaranteeing the best quality results.
Unpopular opinion: plastic is necessary. The problem, or the solution, lies in how we manage it.