Flexible packaging’s sustainability has been an important topic for brand owners for several years. In the last year or two, however, the need to implement meaningful solutions has accelerated pace. Consumers are rapidly becoming more environmentally conscious. Packaging recyclability is now a major decision factor in their purchasing.
Indeed, 48 percent of consumers in the US said they would definitely or probably change their consumption habits to reduce their impact on the environment. Among millennial consumers, the figure reached 75 percent, according to Nielsen research. As a result, a number of consumer product companies have publicly declared very ambitious sustainability targets, promising entirely recyclable materials in their packaging production. In several instances, alternatives to plastic are being espoused.
“What we have seen in the last 18 months is very different to what was happening before,” according to Eric Pavone, business development director, web fed business unit at Bobst. “Pressure has grown to the extent that the industry has really shifted gears and now companies have dedicated huge R&D budgets to the sustainability, biodegradability and recyclability of their packaging. Many of the self-imposed deadlines are challenging, but there is a real focus on this area that makes them more achievable.”
Sustainability is now driving great innovation, and the potential rewards are significant. Innovative delivery models and changing use patterns are calculated to be worth approximately $9 billion to the plastics industry, noted the World Economic Forum and its Platform for Accelerating to the Circular Economy (PACE).
Most flexible packaging is a combination of several materials, or polymers (e.g. polyester, polypropylene, polyethylene). Multi-polymer materials used in flexible packaging are sophisticated formulas, adept at protecting food from oxygen, water and so on. Mixing polymers makes the task of recycling much harder and, given there is no standard composition of multi-polymer packaging, there is no feasible standard method to unpick and recover these materials. Hence, the key challenge for brand owners—particularly in the food industry—is producing new packaging materials without sacrificing the security, freshness, appeal and visibility of the product inside.
“Recyclability really means mono-polymer,” Pavone explained. “As soon as you mix, you have problems. Mono-polymers traditionally don’t perform to the level of multi-polymer materials. The big challenge we face is that today’s flexible packaging is a highly sophisticated engineered product, which is the result of two decades of innovation and development. We need to recover 20 years of engineering, as soon as possible, to find mono-polymer materials that perform as well as today’s packaging, while also ensuring the same machine efficiency in the whole value chain of packaging. It’s a moving target, but one we are making good progress with.”
Bobst has teamed with several partners—Dow, a resin supplier for the first step in the production chain; Brückner Maschinenbau for the production of the biaxial stretched polypropylene and polyolefin-based films; Hosokawa Alpine for the production of MDO LDPE; Elba to convert the finished reels into pouches; Constantia Flexibles to produce metallized, high-barrier LDPE stand-up pouches—to produce new high-barrier mono-material flexible packaging solutions designed for recyclability. The effort involved using different high-barrier mono-material structures, each one thoroughly tested to guarantee all industry requirements were met in terms of processability, barrier, safety and optical quality. The different types of mono-materials are the outcome of considerable investment and intense research.
“Development of a new generation of mono-material laminates is a pressing challenge and we need to work together and pool our engineering know-how,” Pavone stated. “Separately, we will get nowhere!” Admittedly, he added, “There are industrial high-barrier solutions existing in the world. Now, we need more and more solutions and adopters, in order to start to see more industrial-scale offerings.”
A major focus for Bobst and its partners—now that they have produced a range of mono-polymer materials—is to optimize their viability in the packaging production process. The mission: ensure the quality achieved today on multi-polymer is matched on mono-polymer.
“These classes of substrates react differently. Parameters are distinctive to each class, mono and multi. We need to keep moving forward to ensure these materials perform as well in all aspects as the ones we currently use,” Pavone declared. “Yes, sustainability is the No. 1 priority for brand owners. Still, they do not want to make concessions on visual appeal of product packaging. So, a challenge for us is to bring 100 percent recyclability without any compromise. We need material to be scratch-resistant for example, which is challenging with mono-materials.”
So, what’s next?
“A major focus for everyone in the industry is developing biodegradable plastics that meet sustainability criteria and can be widely utilized in packaging processes,” Pavone observed. “We have all the relevant technology to be able to test the viability of industrializing new offerings—from raw material to printed and converted packaging and labels. Collectively, we can add a lot of value in this area.”
Pavone highlighted the potential of paper, which he said has high interest in the industry. “Consumers already like paper and because it is a natural fiber, it is degradable and recyclable. But paper does not have the high-barrier properties needed of plastic and similar materials, so a lot of current R&D focus is on finding ways to bring the high-barrier properties to paper.”
Ultimately, packaging must fulfill its primary purpose: to protect the product inside. Pavone maintained, “As environmental pressures increase, the need for packaging to be completely sustainable and recyclable reaches an equal priority. With the rate of current innovation, it may not be too long before we achieve it.”
About Bobst: Bobst is one of the world’s leading suppliers of substrate processing, printing and converting equipment and services for the label, flexible packaging, folding carton and corrugated industries.
Founded in 1890 by Joseph Bobst in Lausanne, Switzerland, Bobst has a presence in more than 50 countries, runs 14 production facilities in eight countries and employs more than 5,600 people worldwide.