The use of plastic packaging in the manufacturing industry is pervasive. The environmental impact is devastating, and the demand for plastics is expected to double over the next two decades.
However aware we are as a society that we must reduce our dependence on these products, we continue to create more than 300 million tons of plastic every year. Plastics don’t appear to be going anywhere any time soon, but there are innovative recycling projects on the horizon that aim to reduce their impact on the environment.
According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, it is estimated that only around fourteen percent of the world’s plastic packaging products are recycled. What remains, more than 80 billion dollars’ worth of material, is discarded after a single use because it is either too small or too complex to be recycled using contemporary methods. As a result, more than eight million tons of waste plastic finds its way into the world’s oceans every year. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation is a not-for-profit whose mission is to bring together experts and innovators from around the world to work in collaboration toward building a circular economy.
A circular economy is one that is designed from the ground up with recycling as the goal. “How can our economy really run in the long term,” says Ellen MacArthur, “when it’s dependent on taking a material out of the ground, making something with it, and ultimately throwing it away? Surely there’s a way to design our economy from the outset to be regenerative.” In the context of plastics, a circular economy would mean, for example, that a manufacturer that uses plastic packaging would design that packaging from the outset for reuse, and then use the recycled material in its production. Rather than depending on traditional depletive processes that take non-renewable resources from the planet and turn them into waste, a circular plastics economy can be sustainable.
According to research, of the fourteen percent of the world’s plastic packaging that is collected for reuse, only around five percent actually survives reprocessing to be recycled. Of that five percent, most of it will be discarded after a single reuse. This is due to the fact that, while recycling has been a growing priority among manufacturers, packaging products aren’t designed with reuse in mind. This means that even when attempts are made to incorporate reuse into a manufacturing operation, the plastic material can be difficult to recycle. In order to mitigate this problem, there are many technologies being developed that can help enable recyclability.
Progress has been made in removing additives from some plastics. This means that in cases where recovered plastic is not pure enough to be effectively recycled, a process can be applied to purify it. For multi-material packaging, where adhesives are used to attach, for example, cardboard to plastic, the non-plastic materials make the plastic unrecyclable. Reversible adhesives are thus being developed whereby the adhesive property can be triggered to turn off, releasing the two materials from each other.
Another very promising enabling technology is chemical marking. This technology can be used to mark a plastic packaging container with a substance that can be detected by sorting equipment. One application for this technology would be in reusing plastic water bottles. In order to recycle plastic water bottles to be reused for the same purpose in the future, the recycler must be able to determine that the bottle was in fact manufactured to hold water and not some other substance that isn’t suitable for human consumption. The company can chemically mark the container during production and the recycling equipment can detect the mark later. This gives recyclers very fine control over the sorting of plastic material.
Near-Infrared (NIR) is another sorting technology, but it doesn’t depend on pre-marking the material. Recycled plastic is moved along a conveyor belt where near-infrared light is cast onto it. Depending on the thickness, the density, and the roughness of the plastic, different amounts of that light are reflected into sensors. This enables the equipment to sort the recycled objects into specific categories. For example, water and other beverage bottles are usually made of hard clear plastic, while shampoo is usually in an opaque bottle. There are at least eight different recycling categories that can be detected with NIR technology.
There are pilot programs operating right now that can turn greenhouse gases into plastic. Traditionally, plastics are generated from limited, greenhouse gas-emitting, non-renewable fossil fuel sources. But a technology exists that can extract the carbon from greenhouse gases and convert that carbon into plastic. This way, the plastics industry can recycle waste carbon and reduce its dependence on fossil fuels. Further, if this technology is widely adopted it will create a market-driven carbon capture system that will reduce emissions to a large degree.
In order to motivate innovators toward developing these technologies, a philanthropic organization called the Eric and Wendy Schmidt Fund for Strategic Innovation has funded a two million dollar Innovation Prize consisting of two contests: the Circular Materials Challenge, and the Circular Design Challenge.
In 2017 and 2018, eleven prizes were awarded across both contests. The University of Pittsburgh was awarded a Materials Challenge prize for its work on nano-engineering plastic food packaging to make non-recyclable material recyclable. Currently, food packaging is often made out of layers of bonded materials, such as aluminum bonded to plastic. Each material has its own set of desirable properties, but together they are nearly impossible to recycle. Through this project, researchers have been able to modify plastics at the nano-scale to emulate the properties of other materials. The result is a multi-layered material that is purely plastic, and therefore recyclable.
Toward the same goal, Anorax Technologies out of Spain has developed a magnetic coating that can be applied to plastic packaging in place of aluminum. Being magnetic means that the non-plastic material can be easily separated from the plastic material during the recycling process.
Full Cycle Bioplastics and Elk Packaging, two American companies, were awarded through the Materials Challenge for their work on compostable bioplastic. Prior to this research, bioplastics had not been able to meet the needs of the food packaging industry, but the result of this research is a compostable material that can replace multi-layered plastic packaging. The bioplastic is made from naturally occurring biological polymers rather than non-renewable petroleum, and through this project its usefulness has been greatly expanded.
An Indonesian company called Evoware was given a Design Challenge award for its development of seaweed-based material for replacing small, single-use plastic sachets. These sachets, often used for things like product samples and seasoning packets, are so small that they are rarely collected for recycling. Evoware is working to solve this problem by replacing the plastic with a seaweed based material that is water-soluble and even edible.
CupClub is a UK-based company that won a Design Challenge award for an innovative approach to eliminating disposable single-use cups. CupClub provides reusable, trackable cups to beverage retailers. The cups can be returned to any participating store where they are scanned in using RFID tags that are built into the cups and a smartphone. They can then be later collected, cleaned, and redistributed. A consumer can purchase a coffee at one location, return their cup to a different location, and eliminate single-use cup waste. Presently, over 40 billion disposable cups end up in landfills in Europe and the United States every year.
These are a few of the projects that have won Innovation Awards. As part of the prize they will be included in an accelerator program designed to help them bring their innovations to the global market.
These and similar technologies help to improve the recyclability of product packaging for manufacturers, and as they are implemented the circular plastics economy will become increasingly viable. This noble goal has attracted the attention of thirteen giant multinational corporations who have come on board with a highly ambitious plan to have one hundred percent recyclable, reusable, or compostable plastic by 2025. These companies include Amcor, Colgate/Palmolive, Evian, L’Oreal, PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, Nestlé, Mars, Marks & Spencer, Ecover, Unilever, Walmart, and Werner & Mertz. All of these companies have made extensive use of plastic packaging in the past, and are all committed to major change going forward.
Certainly, plastic packaging is ubiquitous, steadily growing, and devastating to the environment. Experts believe that by 2050 there will be more plastic waste in the oceans than fish. A circular plastics economy is the next step in the fight for a sustainable existence for humanity on planet Earth.