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Looking at the alternatives to plastic

22 July 2019

Miguel Campos offers advice on plastic packaging alternatives, and how to integrate them into existing products. 

Reducing single-use plastic has become urgent, but at the same time, impulsively nose-diving into using the wrong ‘plastic alternative’ could also be detrimental to the environment. 

Bioplastics are currently creating a buzz as a viable alternative. Instead of using petroleum oil, the raw material used to make conventional plastics – bioplastics are made from raw plant materials such as agricultural waste products. This means they are renewable and most importantly, biodegradable.

At first glance, bioplastics appear to solve the problem. The carbon footprint of manufacturing bioplastics is reportedly 75% lower than that of PET. Equally, they are non-toxic and, unlike plastic will not leach chemicals into food. 

However, looking more closely, bioplastic is not without its limitations. It is marketed as biodegradable, but in reality, the consumer cannot throw it into their compost bin at home and expect it to decompose. Instead, most types of bioplastic are only compostable in industrial facilities, at high temperatures. 

While this isn’t a huge issue, as the bioplastic simply joins the same stream as food waste collected by many councils, it highlights the fact that it will not biodegrade at colder temperatures, or in our oceans. Equally, not all councils collect organic waste, as their recycling centres do not have industrial composters. This results in bioplastics ending up in landfill with regular plastic. 

A better alternative
A better plastic alternative would be a material that is collected and valued by all councils. Rather than focusing on returning resources back to nature, it is more effective to return resources back to the circular economy. That way, biodegrading is not required and it cuts out the time and energy required to return organic elements back to the environment. 

Aluminium is arguably a better plastic alternative. While it doesn’t claim to be biodegradable – this high-value material can be consistently and endlessly recycled. There is also a huge market for aluminium recycling because it is cheaper to recycle the material than it is to make new aluminium. 

Considering plastic is not a homogenous material in packaging, A-PET trays and C-PET trays have very different properties for very different prices. Although both will be seen by the consumer as ‘plastic’, the A-PET trays are merely holders of food and the C-PET trays are used in the cooking process in a similar way to aluminium trays.

Aluminium pans and C-PET pans offer the same kind of packaging experience, and interestingly, C-PET pans and aluminium pans are very similar in price, if not the same. This makes the switch easy on the wallet.

Even with similar costs, some businesses see moving to aluminium as a giant leap of faith, and there are a lot of decision makers that need to agree with the switch. One pain point is often thought to be that of existing factory equipment. Ideally, businesses want to be able to use the same equipment as before for a seamless transition to reduce the need for large capital investment. Thankfully, there are identical aluminium equivalents to existing plastic packaging products, meaning the same conveyors, machinery and processes can be used. Often the same tray sealing equipment can be employed too – all it requires is a higher temperature.

Once the consumer is finished with the packaging, it is curbside recycling where aluminium sits as the highest value material in the bin. Aluminium’s high scrap value means it is snapped up by recyclers rather than sent to landfill – which certainly cannot be said for bioplastics. 

Choosing the wrong ‘plastic alternative’ will be detrimental to both businesses and the environment, as the government continues with the ‘producer pays’ mentality. Aluminium could be the best alternative to plastic. 

Miguel Campos is export sales manager at Advanta.

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