The Australian packaging industry has traditionally been seen as being at odds with the diligent efforts of the WARR industry to deal with the impacts of a society highly dependent on packaging.
This year the AIP Australasian Packaging Conference 2020 faced the issue head on with the theme of sustainable packaging threaded throughout its October online event. It was attended by 300 delegates and featured 80 speakers.
President of the World Packaging Organisation (WPO) Professor Pierre Plenaar opened the conference with his keynote address Global Perspective on Packaging: Fit for the Future.
“Plastic has its place but that place is not in our environment” he stated, adding that “it needs to be kept in a circular economy where they can be recycled, reused or even composted.
“But plastic is a necessity for keeping food safe, protected (especially during COVID) and for reducing food waste. But we do need to develop many solutions that reduce packaging volume and impact without compromising on protection.”
According to Plenaar, the WPO envisions a world without waste by increasing plastic recycling and identifying alternatives. He outlined the three main areas where the organisation has focused to reduce packaging waste:
- Reduction of food waste
- Reduction of packaging waste
- Increasing packaging education
“The WPO works with the UN and its Industrial Development Association where we have been focusing on helping developing countries to create systems to reduce the packaging and transition it to a recycling program.”
Shocked at plastic waste
The focus for the WPO in 2021-2023 is the identification of key countries that require WPO assistance in achieving their Extended Producer Responsibility schemes.
Plenaar said that he was “shocked” when he visited developing countries and saw the vast amounts of packaging on the beaches and in the oceans. “It’s much worse to see this in person than just looking at a photo.”
He added that another area of focus for the WPO was mono-material packaging. According to the Food Packaging Forum, mono-material films are said to be ‘fully recyclable’ in contrast to ‘conventional multi-layer composite films [which are] difficult to recycle because of the need to separate the different film layers.’
Twenty-five per cent of food waste can be eliminated
Plenaar cited the UN which claims that, of the existing figure of 35 per cent of food waste, up to 25 per cent of that could be eliminated through packaging. “We are concentrating on this through our Worldstar Award categories.”
However, Plenaar noted that pushing against the WPO attempts to curb packaging waste was a demand by consumers for convenience, which was illustrated by the growing amount of single-use packaging.
“This is a heavy burden on the environment and we need to manage that waste better. We are facing a crisis due to the unresolved challenges of packaging recyclability and recycling. Our rates across the world are not great. In the US it is 28 per cent, Europe is much better at 40 per cent but in Asia the schemes are not in place yet.
“Unfortunately, India has shelved plans for a full ban on single use plastics for now, but is pushing increased awareness campaigns and collection points. Meanwhile Latin America has relatively low commitments to sustainability with few regulations in place,” he added.
No Time to Waste
A breakout session on Day 2 of the conference focused on multiple aspects of the circular economy, from consumer awareness, to economics, materials and design.
Amcor Flexibles director, safety, quality, and sustainability Richard Smith stated succinctly what many in the WARR industry believe, in his presentation No Time to Waste, “because that’s exactly where we are right now; we have no time to waste”. Drilling down into soft plastics, Smith noted that despite their ubiquitousness, these materials have been extraordinarily successful in reducing waste over the past 20-odd years, along with delivering significant environmental benefits.
“Flexible packaging offers the ability to substantially reduce the amount of plastics we use because it replaces other more difficult waste material,” he said. However, he acknowledged that a paradox that lies within the flexibility of the material.
“It’s lightweight with good barrier qualities and low cost with a low carbon footprint. But this has also created some of its challenges in that, at the end of its life, there is little mass and, as a result poses a challenge to the waste industry which depends on a large amount of mass to collect and recycle.
“So, it has low value in collection at its end of life while also being hard to compete against the cheap cost of virgin materials,” he said.
Smith also said, for soft plastics, mechanical recycling wasn’t going to be able to close the loop on its own, the industry must turn to chemical recycling.
“This is the way where we can close the loop on soft plastics. We need to consider that soft plastics are a very large portion of the plastics we use in Australia now.”
Smith noted that another aspect is that the amount of mechanical recycling infrastructure which has been put into place has been very much around rigid packaging materials.
“But against the paradox, there is a huge opportunity if we can turn that linear economy model into a circular economy,” he said.
Smith added that the solution to the circularity problem has several dimensions, including the packaging itself, the waste-collection infrastructure, consumer behaviour, and the recycling infrastructure itself.
He referred to Amcor’s involvement in the Holy Grail project in Europe, which aims to ensure a purer recycling stream using digital watermarks on packaging.
Smith said that he considered targets to be an important tool in encouraging investment in the circular economy.
“There is a strong future for us with the technology available; it’s just a matter of a concerted effort across the supply chain, and that’s where the [2025 National Packaging] targets will come into play,” he added.