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Does plastic have a future in secondary packaging?

23 July 2018

Martin Leeming offers his thoughts on what the future holds for plastics in the secondary packaging industry. 

Earlier this year, several supermarkets in the UK announced that they were taking steps to reduce the amount of plastic on their aisles. The UK Government has also announced its intention to ‘eliminate all avoidable plastic waste’ within 25 years, while the Chinese Government has introduced a total ban on the import of plastic waste.

These developments have brough the issue of plastic waste sharply into focus for UK businesses. I believe that this is good news because it is already having an impact by creating a ‘positive crisis’ – a situation which is forcing innovation and necessitating more efficient recycling solutions. By generating a call to action and providing a catalyst for urgent change, this confluence of actions is having a positive effect.

With the issue of plastic waste – particularly that of ‘single use’ plastics –in the public eye, consumers’ desire for change is growing rapidly, and this has been accelerated by the likes of Mars and The Coca-Cola Company committing to the new plastics economy initiative led by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation to ensure brands, retailers and packaging companies work towards using 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025 or sooner.

For those looking for evidence of the benefits plastics deliver to the packaging industry, it is important to note that these global businesses are not calling for a ban on plastics, but simply want to ensure that all plastics used can be reused, recycled or disposed of in an environmentally-friendly manner. Consequently, there is plenty of room for optimism with regards the future of plastic in the secondary packaging industry.

Closed-loop recycling
Unilever, another of the companies involved in the new plastics economy has described the initiative as a move towards the circular economy, an important element of which is closed-loop recycling: the process by which plastics are collected, recycled and used to make new products without them ever needing to leave the loop, enter the hands of consumers, or be shipped overseas for disposal. Because they can be reused and recycled back into themselves an infinite amount of times, the plastics used in closed-loop recycling are often more resource efficient, cost-effective and environmentally-friendly than their alternatives. I believe that this is where the long-term answer to the problem of plastic waste in the secondary packaging industry lies.

By investing in and adopting closed-loop recycling system we can ensure a sustainable future for plastics in the secondary packaging industry. Similarly, as consumers come to realise that big companies are taking positive steps to ensure any plastic used in the packaging industry is sustainable, we should expect to see a shift in the attitudes of both packaging manufacturers and consumers away from the traditional ‘Take-Make-Dispose’ system and towards a circular economy model, something which will also be critical to overcome the problem of plastic waste.

Looking even further ahead, the industry should ultimately aim to extend the concept of closed-loop recycling to consumers and waste streams, such as landfill, in order to continue benefiting from the advantages that plastics can offer.

The public demonisation of plastics in recent months has been harsh and often reactionary, grouping all plastics together and giving the impression that they are all bad. This is simply not the case and overlooks the good work that plastics have done in revolutionising the packaging industry by creating a vast range of packaging solutions that can keep food fresher for longer and help reduce food waste. Put simply, a shift towards the use of plastic from closed-loop recycling is the long-term solution to removing single-use plastic from secondary packaging that the industry has been crying out for.

Martin Leeming is CEO of secondary packaging company TrakRap.

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