Reducing the carbon footprint of packaging: it's more than just plastic

Dr Trefor Owen, scientist at packaging company Sharp Interpack, looks at how the industry is taking steps to address its environmental impact.

With the Copenhagen Climate Change summit dominating the headlines, we are all reminded of our impact on the environment - our carbon footprint as individuals and businesses.

The packaging industry is among the popular culprits. But it is an industry which has made significant inroads in reducing its carbon footprint and one which continues to strive for improvement.

It is a common consumer belief that food packaging is unnecessary and damaging to the environment; and I sympathise with this. Food packaging can appear excessive. And when it has been poorly designed, this is often the case.

However, what we in the packaging industry sometimes fail to communicate, are the reasons why packaging is often necessary, and the consequences of not packaging food products in a way which enables us to sustain a convenience-driven lifestyle.

Contrary to common perception, more food waste is generated from fresh produce which is 'loose' on the supermarket shelves, than that which is pre-packed.

One well known supermarket had to abandon a trial selling some unpackaged items when food waste began to mount.

A plastic film around a cucumber can increase its shelf life by almost five times compared with that of the unwrapped version, and a modified atmosphere in meat packaging helps keep food fresher, for longer.

That's not to say that the current levels of packaging, and packaging waste, are merely an inconvenient by-product of our western lifestyles; quite the opposite.

The weight of packaging, the non-recyclable content of materials and the energy taken to produce packaging can and should be reduced. But we need to be smart about where, when and how we do this. The carbon footprint of packaging is about far more than the plastic.

My material world

The choice of materials used to produce plastic food packaging is evolving and the considerations for materials are increasingly influenced by the cost, environmental impact and the ability to be recycled.

We are, for example looking at ways in which mineral content can be combined with plastics to produce packaging which changes the balance of raw materials used. There is also pressure on the industry to reduce the weight of packaging.

All major retailers have signed up to the Courtauld commitment, with the aim of having less food, products and packaging ending up as household waste.

The packaging industry is supporting this through the design of the container and the materials used, while making sure that food safety is not compromised. At Sharp Interpack, the average pack weight has been reduced by 25 per cent over the past five years.

On the factory floor

The manufacture of plastic packaging is energy intensive and as a result contributes to the carbon footprint. But this is an area where negative environmental impact can be reduced.

For example, over the past five years, the production process at the Sharp Interpack factory, near Bristol, has changed dramatically. Originally, the production area consisted of relatively inefficient "flat-bed" thermoforming machines alongside energy efficient rotary machines.

The flat-bed machines have now been phased out, and have been replaced by high-output rotary machines. This has resulted in a reduction in energy use.

In fact, Sharp Interpack has reduced the amount of energy used to produce one million trays by 30 per cent. Over time, this efficiency will result in meaningful cost savings.

Recycling and disposal

In theory, plastic packaging has the capability to be a cradle-to-cradle product; a product that can be recycled or reused with no loss of quality. This is the way which we can currently 'dispose of' glass, where the facilities exist to collect and recycle waste. But there are a number of obstacles which currently prevent this happening with plastics.

Generally speaking, 85 per cent of waste plastics goes to landfill, around 10 per cent is incinerated and around 5 per cent is recycled - but even less can go back into food packaging because of food safety issues.

If better collection services existed for plastic trays and if there was a common standard for local authorities collecting recyclable plastics, plastic packaging has the potential to be as recyclable and reusable as glass or tin.

According to three research studies published in June 2009 by the Waste and Resources Action Programme (WRAP), the collection of mixed plastic packaging is "technically and economically viable" on a commercial scale.

The challenges which now lie ahead for local authorities are the provision of collection and dropping sites, and encouraging consumers to utilise these services.

Looking ahead

In the meantime, the packaging industry must continue to work together to drive innovation in design, materials, production processes and disposal.

While the ebb and flow of the economy will present varying financial demands on the packaging industry, the challenges posed by the need to reduce the carbon footprint are sustained and long term.

In my view, it is by mirroring this need with a long term - and credible - plan to tackle these challenges. The plastic packaging industry can then evolve in a way which meets retail demands of convenience and cost, while reducing the carbon footprint.

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Waste & resource management
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