Sustainable Packaging, Part I: The problem with plastics

Almost all the food that consumers buy – from produce to processed food – comes packaged, and quite a lot of the packaging is designed for single use. Plastics, which are used very often to encase food and beverage (F&B) products, have a lot to blame when it comes to recyclability, or lack thereof.

Unlike what many consumers may think, a lot of plastics that are portrayed as recyclable (because they are separated into the respective recycle bins, after all) are many times not recycled once they hit the waste facilities.

Unfortunately, a lot of what people think about recycling is far from what actually occurs. So much so, that we have decided to create a series of blogs on this information in specific regards to the F&B industry.

This first blog addresses the problem with recycling: why plastics can’t be recycled well; and introduces how F&B producers are proposing to fix it.

The difficulties with recycling plastics

Misinformation at the consumer level

Right now, a major problem with plastic packaging is the fact that it is easy to throw away. Even when recycled “properly” by consumers – or what we think is properly – plastics are still largely discarded.

This means that a consumer may sort the plastic into the correct bin, but this plastic may have residual food waste on it, which means the package must be discarded at the sorting facility. So, if you haven’t properly washed out the plastic container of honey, it’s likely that it won’t be recycled at all after it has left your home. The same can be said for the plastic package that still contains the wax paper where raw chicken was lying. Despite the consumer’s good intentions, recycling does not always end up the way they assume it will.

Plastic types

There are also discrepancies with plastic types, which determine whether or not they are recyclable. These two types are Thermoplastics and Thermoset plastics:

  • Thermoplastics: can be repeatedly reheated and melted down to be hardened again. These are 100% recyclable and are most commonly used for drinking bottles and food storage containers in the form of PET (pictured in the first row of the chart, labelled “1 PETE”).
  • Thermoset: the permanent chemical bonding of heated molecules in this type of plastic mean that thermoset is extremely difficult to recycle because it cannot be melted. An example of these in the food industry are plastic baking molds or bottle caps. Note in the chart how the bottles are all missing their caps because the caps should be separated due to their limited recycling capabilities.

Limited sorting at the plant level

Another cited problem with plastics is that sorting machines cannot always detect the type of plastics that come through the belt, or they cannot separate the paper packages from their interior plastic linings. As a result, these are also thrown away. With its innovative digital watermarks, the Holy Grail project is trying to combat this fact directly.

However, the Holy Grail project cannot compensate for all the current problems with plastic packaging, especially as it is only in its beginning stages.

Are biodegradable plastics really biodegradable?

When packages can’t be recycled and are thrown away, where do they go? In the EU, 40% of packaging winds up in a pile at a landfill which corresponds to approximately 9 million tons of plastic waste.

Some companies have opted for biodegradable plastics– which many of us understand as something that can break down into the earth and turn into elements safe for the environment, e.g. water. This all sounds good, but what many consumers may not be aware of is that these biodegradable plastics can only break down under certain reactive conditions.

They need to be met with high temperatures and pressures in an industrial setting, and often take a lot of time to completely decompose. There is likely no way that an average consumer could properly compost biodegradable packages in their own home.

And it is also likely that biodegradable plastics that are not treated properly in industrial settings will unfortunately end up in our seas – for many, many years.

In other words, yes most plastics are biodegradable, but they will only decompose in natural conditions after hundreds to thousands of years. And if by some luck they do decompose in a shorter timeframe, a lot of the small microfibers that make up the plastic are released harmfully into wildlife habitats.

The food and beverage solution

Unfortunately for us, the food industry does contribute significantly to plastic waste – and largely because for years there was not so much research on the effects of plastic. Before climate change became such a concern in the last decade or so, corporations and citizens alike were not as pressed for proper waste management. Now, as society becomes more aware and active about climate conditions, it is important that key stakeholders play their part.

Fortunately, the food industry is taking necessary steps to find solutions. Some of these solutions concern implementing more sustainable options or changes in material, e.g. moving from plastic to glass. Other solutions include innovative packaging designs with everything from edible cups to at-home-compost-kits.

Want to hear about these exciting new changes? You can read about them in more detail in our next blog of this series.

2020-10-27T08:58:48+01:00Food & Compliance, Transparency|
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