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In praise of plastic

20 October 2019

Martin Leeming argues that plastic could be the most environmentally-friendly packaging solution. 

Plastic packaging is a vital component for the food and drink industry. As well as keeping products protected during transit, it prevents them from spilling, leaking or becoming contaminated, helping to increase their life span. However, the damage caused by plastic packaging which has been irresponsibly disposed of – as highlighted by the BBC’s Blue Planet program – is driving the perception that all plastic packaging is bad.

Some outlets have even suggested that plastic packaging should be banned and replaced with corrugated cardboard solutions which, they claim, is a more environmentally friendly option. What they fail to acknowledge is the carbon footprints of different packaging materials. Although it is biodegradable, corrugated cardboard actually has a larger carbon footprint than plastic due to the huge amounts of energy required to create it. To produce corrugated cardboard, trees need to be harvested, shipped to pulp mills, pulped, formed, pressed, dried and rolled, before being sent to corrugating plants and made into cardboard. Then, when the cardboard decomposes, carbon is released back into the atmosphere, contributing to rising global temperatures.

Plastic, on the other hand, has the lowest carbon footprint of all packaging materials – because it doesn’t decompose, it emits far fewer greenhouse gases than paper or cardboard packaging. It also requires less energy and fewer resources to create, is stronger, more flexible and more lightweight than cardboard, and helps keep food fresher for longer, reducing food waste. 

Finding a way to keep plastic out of the natural environment is therefore crucial. Steps are already being taken to eradicate single use plastics from circulation but we need to go one step further and ensure that the only plastics used in packaging are recyclable, reusable or compostable.

These plastics can be captured as part of a closed loop recycling system by retailers and supermarkets who can recover the packaging on-site and return it to the packaging company where it can be reused again and again.

Unfortunately, some packaging waste is always likely to end up in the natural environment because of end-users failing to recycle it or disposing of it irresponsibly. Luckily, packaging manufacturers are tackling the issue head-on and developing both compostable plastics and packaging solutions and packaging equipment which are more sustainable and able to help fight climate change.

Historically, one of the most common ways to package products was with shrink wrapping, which uses heat-intensive shrink wrap ovens to melt plastic around items to stabilise and secure them for transit. However, shrink wrapping consumes large amounts of energy and plastic, making it environmentally unfriendly.

Today, packaging solutions which eliminate the need for heat tunnels entirely and use ‘cold wrap’ technology instead are readily available. These solutions use an orbital wrapping process to apply a specially designed, ultra-thin stretch film to products and reduce energy consumption by as much as 90% (compared to shrink wrapping) and materials usage by as much as 70% which, in turn, reduces carbon emissions by as much as 70%. The food and drink industry needs to use sustainable packaging solutions such as these wherever possible.

The role of consumers
In the near future, we can expect to see information about products’ carbon footprints being printed on the side of packaging in the same way that calories are printed on food and drink products and this will result in packaging solutions that require fewer materials and less energy to produce – and therefore have a smaller carbon footprint – becoming more common.

When this happens, the impetus will be on consumers to buy these more environmentally friendly products. Only when shoppers stop buying products with larger carbon footprints will they stop being produced. By continuing to educate consumers about the way that packaging is created, the food and drink industry can ensure this happens sooner rather than later.

Martin Leeming is CEO at TrakRap.

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