Plastic Innovation: The Future is Sustainable

There are signs of a continuing shift in the packaging industry from a linear model to one that is more circular. Innovation in plastic packaging from design to recovery and re-use, following circular economy principles, serves to reduce reliance on the finite supply of petroleum-based plastics by optimising use through responsible design and sourcing or through alternative renewable materials to minimise the environmental footprint.

Design optimisation for circularity importantly helps address material scarcity, depletion of natural resources and consequent environmental impact; taps into the growing consumer demand for ethically sourced products and services; and can deliver cost savings for manufacturers. Innovative, ethical re-thinking of product and packaging design through to recovery and beyond is in practice within the plastics industry and will continue to rise across all materials and industries as the importance of and requirement for sustainable packaging grows.

Altering the consumer purchasing culture to one of return post-use, such as via a deposit-return scheme (DRS), can aid plastics recovery and so reduce waste, and countries like Germany and Norway exemplify the high recovery possible using a DRS.  Refill packaging solutions, outside the core arena of drinks, are encouraging return and re-use. The Loop re-use e-commerce model, another example of this, is currently being trialled and backed by a number of fast-moving consumer goods leaders, like Pepsi, Unilever and Nestlé. Amongst bricks and mortar grocery stores, a re-thinking of packaging via removal and reduction is similarly apparent.  Packaging-free, plastic-free and zero-waste concepts may be niche but they are growing. Early June 2019 has seen UK retailer, Waitrose & Partners, launch an 11-week trial at one of its stores in Oxford, offering unpackaged fruit and vegetables and refill stations for a number of foods, also for detergents, beer and wine.

Consumers play a role to drive this initiative forward. ‘I want a plastic-free world’ is one of Euromonitor International’s top 10 global consumer trends in 2019. The desire for a plastic-free world is largely consumer-led and will gain momentum. However, as the conversation evolves, the understanding of plastics’ value will likely grow too, and the emphasis will increasingly be placed on responsible use.

While plastic alternatives such as compostable solutions will continue to be developed and have their place for difficult-to-handle substrates, the wave of corporate pledges to improve on existing packaging recovery and recycling is a positive step on plastic waste. European recyclers are widely active in new infrastructure initiatives to increase recovery and create new capacity of recycled plastics to meet rising demand from brands.

Momentum is already increasing behind an understanding of the circular economy via community initiatives where plastic waste is being collected and repurposed. Continuing industry progress is apparent through a number of collaborations investing in research and optimisation of plastic. Given regulatory and corporate commitments, further advances by all in the packaging value chain are necessary to ensure a future where packaging is made easy to recover, is recovered and is re-purposed time and again, so we can move towards a plastic-waste free world.