Why plastic packaging will see big innovation

Innovation in plastic waste management is not just about scientific inventions but also about improvements in the logistics process

By Shalini Verma

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Published: Mon 7 Feb 2022, 10:33 PM

In 2014, the New Zealand government signed an agreement with the indigenous Maori about the joint management of the Whanganui River.

The agreement famously acknowledged the river as a legal person. It also accepted the Maori cosmological belief about the intrinsic connection between the well-being of both the river and the people. It stated, ‘Ko au te awa, ko te awa ko au’, meaning I am the river and the river is me.

The Maori view nature as their ancestor. They tell stories about how they are genealogically related to the natural world. ‘Whanaungatanga’ refers to a complex relationship of the Maori with the natural world, which comes with both rights and obligations. So, there is a sense of kinship as opposed to hierarchy and control.

In contrast, we have often used verbs like harness or conquer for our industrial interactions with nature. We essentially viewed nature as a resource to be extracted, which meant that we saw a delineation between human society and nature. The same goes for companies’ and their environment. In the long run this was bound to create an imbalance.

One such imbalance is plastic waste that nature finds hard to assimilate. I could be mulling over the plastics problem while having ice cream with a plastic spoon. If I left the spoon to fend for itself, it would lie there for at least 450 years before it would decompose. So, some 15 generations later, the plastic spoon would still be part of the family heirloom.

The plastics problem is all too familiar now. We have read the oft-quoted statistic that merely 9 per cent of the total plastic is recycled globally, the rest ends up in landfills and our oceans. We have heard about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. The vortex of microplastic waste in the North Pacific Ocean is triple the area of France, weighing 500 jumbo jets. It is just one of the five plastics accumulation zones in the oceans. The stakes are so high now that it is no longer about undoing the damage, but about safeguarding the future of our children.

The dominant use of primary plastics is packaging. According to UNEP, plastic packaging accounts for half of the plastic waste. In 2020, Unilever’s plastic packaging footprint was 690,000 tonnes. The company has pledged that by 2025, it will halve the amount of virgin plastic in its packaging. This amounts to a reduction of 100,000 tonnes, which itself is indicative of the magnitude of the problem.

A few trends become apparent when breaking down the plastic packaging problem. Companies are working to reduce the package size, move to single material packages for easier recycling, and reduce the plastic content in the package.

Amazon uses machine learning to determine the optimum size of packaging for a product, to reduce plastic usage. Some companies are trying robots for sorting plastic waste. Cadbury chocolate producing Mondelez uses single material plastic films on 50 per cent of its packaging. There are companies producing recycled plastic pellets or nurdles from plastic waste. Finnish company Fortum’s recycled nurdles can be used to produce plastics for a variety of purposes such as household appliances and industrial films.

Innovation in plastic waste management is not just about scientific inventions but also about improvements in the logistics process. Some products work perfectly well with reused containers. Unilever has set up in-store systems to allow customers to refill containers with soap. Nestle is now trying to scale reusable and recyclable systems in specific countries for products like coffee, cocoa powder and petcare products. Responsible use of plastics should be part of our curriculum, so that it becomes second nature for future generations. In Finland, schools educate children about plastics right from kindergarten.

Cities, countries, regions are shunning single-use plastic bags. Abu Dhabi has announced its fight against single-use plastic bags. Yet, the problem of plastic packaging is not so simple.

Recycling plastics is complex. Different grades of plastics have different potential for recycling. Plastics that have the recycling symbol marked with 1 (polyethylene terephthalate or PET) and 2 (high-density polyethylene) are relatively easier to recycle.

It pretty much boils down to package materials. The origin of the material and its treatment is critical for producing sustainable recycled plastic. Recycled plastic packaging must match the technical and safety standards of virgin plastic. These standards are particularly higher for food packaging. If the plastic waste is contaminated, which is quite likely when it is used for food packaging, the sorting process becomes expensive. This can even damage the sorting machines.

Plastic sachets used in developing countries like India and Indonesia are even harder to recycle. Sone companies are looking to transition to mono-material sachets that are technically recyclable, and improve sachet collection and recyclability.

Recycled plastic could also be counter-productive at times, leading to other kinds of waste. We would think that alternative biodegradable materials would undoubtedly be the superior option. That’s not true. The superior option is to produce materials that continue to hold value beyond a single use, so that it can be reused.

We need to rethink packaging, even for plastics. A case in point is the horrific story of nurdles that have washed up along the shores of Sri Lanka for hundreds of miles. This ecological disaster was caused when a nearby container ship caught fire, resulting in the spillage of 87 containers of nurdles. If the nurdles had been packaged in safe containers and not plastic bags, the damage would have been far less to the environment and the reputation of the companies involved.

The biggest companies are taking steps to address the plastics packaging problem as the risk of not doing anything is high. Industry stakeholders such as governments, manufacturers, logistics, NGOs are coming together. Some of the biggest innovations will happen in plastics packaging.

No doubt plastic is an efficient packaging material. No doubt the plastic packaging waste needs to be resolved. No doubt there are no simple answers. Yet every company will tackle the problem sooner than later.

Shalini Verma is CEO of PIVOT technologies, a Dubai-based cognitive innovation company.

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