There’s no doubt that consumer scrutiny of plastic in packaging is at an all-time high. Between the ‘Blue Planet effect’, ongoing media attention and companies pledging to address and reduce their plastic use through varying initiatives, it’s understandable that consumers are developing a confused, complex relationship with the substrate.
In reality, the almost total vilification of plastic in the media does not necessarily reflect the truth or talk to the very real potential benefits of opting for plastics over other substrates in certain applications. Plastics are present in almost every aspect of modern life, enabling all kinds of innovation and convenience that simply would not be possible without it.
Its inherent durability and longevity can, of course, present issues if improperly disposed of, as highlighted in the BBC’s 2017 series, but these properties are also what make the substrate such a valuable asset – strong and stable enough to be used again and again. While resource efficiency is absolutely good practice when designing any packaging and excess should be minimised, the real problem is not plastic itself – no substrate is inherently bad or good – it is ensuring its responsible use and disposal.
Though consumers are understandably focussed on what they see on supermarket shelves, packaging is about so much more than just presentation. Many of the products used and consumed on a daily basis have lengthy stories before they ever hit our shores, let alone stores. Well-designed packaging helps to protect and preserve the product against the rigours of the supply chain, ensuring it arrives fresh, undamaged and most of all, safe.
Traditional plastics like PET and PP have high gas barrier properties, meaning they perform well in locking-in product odour and sustaining product freshness. This allows food to travel further distances, stay longer on the shelves, and ensures that large amounts of food do not go to waste. Studies by the British Plastics Federation have shown that when creating food products, plastic packaging accounts for less than 10% of energy use; 75% is expended during food production, processing and transport. Plastic can therefore play an absolutely vital role in protecting products as long as possible, so the significant resources used in their production are not invested in vain.
Flexible packaging in particular can deliver significant sustainability benefits above and beyond its more traditional rigid plastic counterparts, offering a prime example of how not all plastics are made equal – despite the largely single-note media attention. Not only does it still deliver the product-protecting properties outlined above, it also requires significantly fewer resources and less energy to create than other popular ‘sustainable’ substrates. As it can be shipped flat-pack, it minimises the need to transport voluminous empty, ready-formed packaging, delivering significant further carbon footprint savings. The point is illustrated in this recent infographic from the Flexible Packaging Association, which shows that transporting one truckload of unfilled flexible pouches is the equivalent of transporting the 26 truckloads of unfilled glass jars it would take to package an equal amount of product.
It is of course important to acknowledge that in the past there have been a number of challenges when it comes to recycling flexible packaging, as the substrates have usually been created using a multi-material laminate construction, which cannot be separated to allow for recovery and reuse. This has generally been off-putting to consumers, who see recycling as a basic sustainability requirement, and has led them to overlook the wider reaching benefits this type of packaging delivers.
With this in mind, many packaging manufacturers are working to create innovative new substrates that help combat this issue and allow the creation of flexible packs that can be recycled. For example, Parkside has developed Recoflex-PE, which is a fully-recyclable single polymer laminate with the barrier properties and sealing performance to mirror a range of commonly used laminates that can be recycled through an established recovery stream. Designed to help the industry move towards a circular economy, which will be absolutely vital in achieving long-term sustainability, the 100% polyethylene material can be recovered through the existing infrastructure for recycling plastic carrier bags, making it easy for consumers to recycle whenever they visit a supermarket.
While those of the industry recognise the importance and benefits of plastics in packaging, it is vital to increase consumer education and help to create a more balanced view of this now much-maligned substrate. By injecting time and resources into enhancing consumer knowledge of the benefits of appropriately used plastic packs, the industry can increase understanding, ensure recycling systems and streams are robust and well-publicised and help to create a world in which plastic is used properly and responsibly by all.