There is a well-intended drive in motion to eliminate single-use packaging, because the world is choking on trash and it’s only getting worse. A very large part of the problem is that developed nations are shipping their trash to developing nations, which necessarily are the least prepared to manage it. Too often in the process, trash spills into waterways leading to oceans, disrupting and entangling animal inhabitants, and presenting a health hazard for the residents of these developing nations. All of these factors and more create a mess that is most imperative to solve, and which is something that can be corrected with our help.
Of course, the complete elimination of packaging is not possible, because packaging has been and continues to be key to solving social problems, like maintaining the freshness of foods, medicines, and other critical supplies. The importance of good packaging in these areas has most certainly been highlighted during the COVID19 pandemic.
Another important point, is that it is neither economically feasible nor logistically possible to recover all packaging after it leaves the originator in global trade, especially given the increasing expense of international freight forwarding.
The industrial sector can help by choosing the best recyclable materials and recycling them. Here are five areas in which industry can reduce trash:
1. Industry can help lead the way - Recycle sorting is difficult, even with the sophisticated sorting equipment available today. Household recycling offers a mix of plastics, paper, and glass, where some is valued in the recycle stream, and much gets in the way for recyclers. Food stuffs make sorting messy, and can lead to inferior quality in the resulting recycled material. Conversely, when done correctly, industrial packaging reclaimed can be much cleaner and separated more easily, as long as the use of protective oils from the product shipped doesn’t contaminate the recyclables.
2. Chose packaging materials that recyclers value - Once separated, does the recyclable material have any value? Many times, it does not. Based on simple economic principles, some considered recyclables are not valued and end up dumped in the trash anyway. For instance, the thin plastic shopping bags are #4 colored polyethylene, which is technically a recyclable plastic, but at a very thin gauge and with no weight to them. They have no value, and in fact, being so light, can fly off and make unintended messes both in the reclamation center and during transportation. Industrial entities have the option to specify materials that are valued in the recycle market.
3. Eliminate packing materials that aren’t recyclable - Laminated packaging flexible films can work well as moisture barriers and have other helpful properties, but laminated material is expensive to pull the layers apart in the mechanical recycling process, hence, limited to recycle. Certainly, the food industry must be concerned about moisture permeation. For industrial manufacturers, it may not be strictly moisture that is the problem, but that moisture causes corrosion and degradation to the product inside the package. Identifying what the atmospheric attacks damage and changing packaging specifications to mono-layered flexible film helps the recycling effort.
4. Packaging made with virgin materials is good - With paper and plastics, each recycle turn lowers the integrity of the resulting product. Paper fibers become shorter as do the polymer chains in plastics. They get to the point where they must be mixed with virgin fibers or resins, to ensure that the end results are materials that can be made into something usable. Purchasing packaging materials made of recycled material is not the only answer. There must be a mix of virgin and recyclable in order for recycling to continue.
5. Be sure co-extruded plastics are recyclable - Consider that “reduce” alone is not necessarily the best practice for recycling. As discussed in number 1, there needs to be a value to the recyclable material in order for it to be recycled. Many flexible film manufacturers are co-extruding multiple plastic layers to gain efficiency, reduce weight, and/or to maintain desired performance. This co-extrusion process could make the resulting material less valuable and in many cases non-recyclable. It’s best to first investigate which layers of a co-extruded plastic can be recycled together.
Now is the time to open up your packaging specifications and make changes. We are doing damage to our planet.
Recycling rates must improve. We can all play a part in this effort.
"It makes no sense at all to take and actually ship materials that are going to create problems for someone else on the other side of the planet." -1998 Arnie Bailey, former Packaging Engineer, Analogic Corp.