Packaging is Evolving to Achieve a Circular Economy

As the circular economy matures, packaging materials and machinery are evolving to meet the demand.

Biobased Materials, Recyclable Packaging and Biodegradability Are Essential

By Maria Ferrante, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies

As consumers are making sustainability a key factor in their purchasing decisions, both consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies and packaging suppliers of both materials and machinery are investing time and money in developing more circular packaging solutions. There is renewed interest in creating solutions where packaging waste is either infinitely reprocessed or can re-enter the system as raw materials for other products.

As this circular economy matures, packaging is evolving to meet the demand. There are three approaches the industry is taking to move the sustainability needle forward:

  • Shifting to biobased materials
  • Designing easy-to-recycle packaging
  • Enhancing biodegradability

The use of biodegradable materials contributes to sustainability and reduction in the environmental impact associated with the disposal of oil-based polymers.

Shifting to biobased materials

Transitioning from fossil-fuel-based plastics to alternative materials made from renewable feedstocks can significantly reduce packaging’s carbon footprint. Biobased materials, derived from biological sources rather than petroleum sources, are ideally suited to meet sustainability requirements. To make this shift, CPGs need to work with materials suppliers to secure sustainably sourced virgin feedstock from biomass. It is important to ensure that biobased alternatives are high-performing and scalable up to commercial production, according to a report from European researcher VTT.

These biobased materials support circularity as they are easy to reuse, recycle and biodegrade. Cellulose is the most abundant biopolymer and, therefore, a valuable, readily available resource for sustainable packaging applications. Derived from biomass such as wood, forestry residues, agricultural residues, algae, plants, and some bacteria, cellulose-based materials can extend the shelf life of dry foods while reducing waste.

Design easy-to-recycle packaging

Currently up to 95% of the value of plastic packaging materials is lost due to its single-use status. To achieve true circularity, plastic packaging designs—whether they use traditional oil-based plastics, biobased solutions, or both—need to be highly reusable or be made of easily recyclable materials.

To ensure reusability, packaging materials must be durable, robust and free of harmful additives. In some cases, such as plastic bottles, technologies are already commercially available to chemically repair the polymer to multiply its use cycles.

The second path is simplifying packaging designs and materials to enable easy recycling. High-performance food packaging materials, for instance, are usually composed of complex layers of different polymer-based materials, which makes recycling challenging. Reducing this complexity or designing it to allow for different materials to be easily separated can greatly enhance recycling capabilities.

Recyclable packaging seems to cater most to consumers because it is something they can do to contribute. Some large CPG companies are adopting targets as ambitious as using 100% recycled materials in the production of new packaging and limiting the use of unnecessary virgin materials. Unfortunately, recyclable packaging has some limitations. Collecting packaging at the end of a product’s useful life to kickstart the recycling process is one of the biggest barriers for organizations, especially for CPGs whose products are used by millions of people around the world. Consumers are often unaware of how to take the extra steps needed to recycle or return packaging products, e.g., bottles and cans, or unwilling to change their behavior if there are no clear benefits for doing so. Not only are packaging changes needed, but consumers need to be educated to increase recycling’s contributions to the circular economy.

Some large CPG companies are adopting targets as ambitious as using 100% recycled materials in the production of new packaging and limiting the use of unnecessary virgin materials.

Enhancing biodegradability

Biodegradable solutions are increasingly used in packaging due to their low environmental impact, government emphasis on efficient packaging management, rising consumer awareness of plastic waste and the growth of bans on plastics. According to the European Association of Bioplastics, global bioplastics production capacity is increasing from around 2.11 million tons in 2019 to approximately 2.43 million metric tons in 2024. The use of biodegradable materials will contribute to sustainability and reduction in the environmental impact associated with the disposal of oil-based polymers.

The increased interest in bioplastics is not only consumer driven; there are also regulatory considerations. The US Plastic Waste Reduction and Recycling Act aims to reduce plastic waste and, as further research is conducted, there is a possibility that US-based packaging companies may see stricter regulations concerning plastic manufacturing in the future.

About the Author

Maria Ferrante, Senior Director of Marketing and Communications at PMMI, the Association for Packaging and Processing Technologies.

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