Plastics in packaging

How to tackle plastics in packaging

In recent years, there has been a tremendous change in public perception of the use of plastic in packaging. Sustainability activism from world-famous celebrities like David Attenborough and rising environmental star Greta Thunberg is helping to fuel a shift to alternative packaging material.

The fact that this will have an impact on the landscape of the packaging and packaging machinery industry is almost too obvious to be worth noting. While some are calling for a broad overhaul of plastic in favour of alternative sustainable packaging materials, these issues must be explored through a more realistic lens.

The reality is that, in some form, plastics are here to stay in mainstream packaging. Although consumers have been whipped into a frenzy that has vilified plastic, on further inspection, it’s clear that the problem isn’t the material itself, but instead the way it is used.
The demonisation of plastic is an unproductive approach to overcoming the problem. A better starting point is to tackle the underlying misuse.

It might not come as a revelation to some, but investment and innovation in recycling and reuse will be the principal route to managing the plastics problem in packaging. We are already seeing companies such as Coca-Cola make huge progress with its commitment to increasing the recyclability of drinks bottles. The brand has consistently reduced the total weight of plastics used in drinks bottles over the last five years and by 2020 the plan is that its bottles will not only be 100% recyclable, but also made from 50% recycled PET.

Smart approaches from industry leaders like this will be a driving force in overcoming the plastics problem. It is a nice idea that we could achieve the same results by simply using canvas bags and buying loose vegetables at the supermarket, but it is unrealistic.

We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. On the one hand, we want to reduce our use of plastic but on the other we aren’t willing to sacrifice the benefits that it gives us. This is particularly apparent in food packaging. The reality of what we expect from our food products, such as long shelf lives and clear presentation, are just two elements on a long list of things that we would have to forego. Are people prepared to do so?

Similar challenges are seen in the supply chain. Especially in the West, where consumers are accustomed to a range of exotic fresh produce that was unimaginable even 50 years ago. No more plastic means losing things people have become used to having.

This isn’t to say that it is all doom and gloom. The ideology of demonising plastic to the end of its wholesale abandonment is unproductive and ultimately unrealistic; however, we can focus on innovation in areas where a real impact can be felt.

As providers of industry-leading packaging machinery and automation solutions, Mpac’s role in driving innovation is slightly different. We are a facilitator of change. As companies start to introduce new packaging materials over the coming years, with Nestle’s new paper packaging an early example, our role is to innovate our machinery to be able to handle them.

Plastic is a very forgiving material when it comes to packaging machinery. Paper, on the other hand, is far more prone to damage. This is a challenge frequently faced by companies that decide to replace plastic with paper-based packaging. The problem is not only the technicality of paper packaging products, but at the same time being able to do so at the high speeds that the market demands. Mpac’s machines are already more than capable of doing so.

Innovations like these are ones that Mpac are prepared to make. But, they can only be achieved once the products are available on the market. Adapting machines to be able to handle new materials is only possible when we know what those materials are.

Beyond adapting machines to handle new sustainable packaging materials at high speeds, innovations that improve the overall efficiency of packaging will also be an area of interest for Mpac. We are already taking action here with our development of our Cartoner 4.0.

In the wake of the growth of e-commerce, a frustration voiced by many consumers and producers alike is the sheer volume of wasted packaging material. Cartoner 4.0 is an automated robotic solution that could help solve this problem.

Using two collaborative, vision-system-equipped FANUC robots, this solution uses scanning technology and algorithms to identify the optimal packaging size. The robotic arms then intelligently place items into the correct configuration to fit the packaging. This can drastically reduce waste.

These are two examples of how smarter thinking at all stages of the supply chain can reduce the plastic problem. Sustainability is a collaborative project. This means that it is a responsibility shouldered by every stakeholder in the market. Changing attitudes have helped move the conversation forward, but single-minded thinking about how to tackle plastics risks bordering on the unproductive.

Instead, the solution lies in companies working together to innovate and discover the ways to use plastics sustainably alongside new materials. This is something that we at Mpac are more than prepared to do.

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Posted by Jenny Millington