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Home > News > Packaging

Sustainable packaging at tipping point as supply chain integration accelerates

Source:Adsale Plastics Network Date :2023-04-16 Editor :Professor Li Bin
Copyright: 原创,请勿转载

As the epidemic comes to a close, sustainable development once again becomes the focus of attention. The 2025 or 2030 sustainable goals that many brand-name companies have pledged will need to speed up their pace in order to accomplish their targets. After going through these few years of industrial chain development, the packaging industry – both upstream and downstream – has gradually found clear goals for sustainable development, reached a consensus, started to build related production capacity, and stepped up innovations of every kind.


Critical point: The industry is about to enter a new stage


The sustainable development of plastic packaging is at a critical point. On one hand, after years of industry promotion, everyone has basically reached a consensus on how to recycle and collect plastic packaging. On the other hand, there are many types of plastic packaging, with relevant technology accumulating rapidly and supply chain preparation accelerating. We look forward to seeing different types of innovative solutions in the coming year to push the sustainable development of plastic packaging to new heights.


In terms of regulations, the European Union released the latest Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR) Directive which sets detailed goals for areas including recyclable design, the establishment of recycling mechanisms, the use of recycled plastics, deposit system and waste reduction. The proposal points out the direction for the sustainable development of plastic packaging. In addition, the EU's upcoming Carbon Border Adjustment Mechanism (CBAM), together with plastic tax and other regulations, also create new opportunities for the recycled plastics industry. Meanwhile, the Chinese government has issued the "14th Five-Year Plan" for plastic pollution control, setting clear goals for reducing plastic pollution.


Technically speaking, plastic packaging is generally divided into rigid packaging and flexible packaging. Rigid packaging is mainly produced by injection molding and blow molding, while flexible packaging is mainly produced by blown film, cast and blister.


Rigid packaging technology: Weight reduction, recycled materials, metal reduction


In rigid packaging, the industry has basically determined the basic technical path to achieve sustainable development, which mainly includes weight reduction, the use of recycled materials and the reduction of metal parts.


The path of weight reduction has been widely accepted by supply chains. Without affecting product quality and transportation, brand-name producers and processing manufacturers have implemented weight reduction solutions for quite a few categories of plastic packaging.


As for the use of recycled materials, since the Chinese government has not yet permitted the use of recycled plastics as food contact materials, recycled plastics is mainly used in the field of daily chemicals, including shampoo, shower gel and detergent. Mainstream brands have begun to use recycled plastics, including recycled PET and recycled HDPE, in the rigid packaging of daily chemical items. Countries in the Asian-Pacific region outside of China basically allow recycled plastics to be used in food contact areas. That is to say, in addition to daily chemicals, these countries have all started to use recycled plastics in other areas such as food and beverage and cosmetics. For example, recycled PET is used in bottled water and recycled HDPE is used in the middle layer of toothpaste tubes.


The refined and automated recycling of PET bottles is gradually developing.


Recycled materials used in rigid packaging are mainly recycled PET and recycled HDPE. For recycled PET, with the introduction of the daily chemical industry and the increasing demand for the beverage industry (mainly supplied to the Asia-Pacific region outside China), a lot of production capacity has been newly launched in China. Mainstream recycled PET production equipment suppliers include BoReTech, Guangdong Juannuo Machinery, and so forth. Their equipment has been able to meet the technical requirements of bottle-to-bottle. On the recycling side, the refined and automated recycling of PET bottles is gradually developing with companies such as Databeyond and Taichu at the forefront of this field. On the collection side, LOVERE smart reverse vending machines have been deployed in more and more cities in China. The implementation of these new technologies and new projects has enabled the full traceability of the PET bottle-to-bottle recycling chain, which is of great significance to the sustainable development of the food and beverage and daily chemical industries that use PET bottles.


Flexible packaging technology: Single material and use of recycled materials


Flexible packaging has always been a hurdle for plastic recycling. After years of development, the industry has gradually unified the path for sustainable development of flexible packaging, which are: single material and the use of recycled materials. They try to use one material to achieve all the functions of flexible packaging so as to make it conducive for recycling. For a single material, achieving barrier function, especially high barrier function, is currently a hot topic in the industry especially for food packaging that needs to control oxygen and moisture. The industry has tried aluminium plating, vapor deposition of metal oxides, PVA coating, EVOH co-extrusion and other methods to achieve high barrier of a single material.


For flexible packaging that has specific applications, in the field of daily chemicals, Liby is working with Dow, Kaida and other upstream and downstream companies to launch single-material packaging based on BOPE to replace the previous non-recyclable PET/ PE packaging. Meanwhile, in the field of food, Mondelez has launched a single-material packaging based on BOPP/ aluminised CPP so as to make it recyclable. As for beverages, Scholle IPN has launched a bag-in-box BIB made of all PE single material, eliminating nylon in the packaging structure and making the bag recyclable. The above are just illustrative cases of single-material flexible packaging in the industry. In fact, more single-material flexible packaging has been developed and put into use.


However, identifying the type of flexible packaging material is a challenge. In order to solve this problem, the Plastic Recycling Association of China National Resources Recycling Association is working with the Green Recycled Plastics Supply Chain Working Group (GRPG) to jointly initiate the establishment of the "Flexible Plastics Rebirth" project. The project attempts to establish a "white list" of recyclable flexible packaging through special pilot tests, demonstrations, replications and promotions, so that flexible packaging waste can be identified by the recycling system and recycled in large quantities. Through working with brand-name companies and recyclers, it is expected that by 2025, at least 50,000 tons of flexible packaging waste plastic can be recycled per year.


Recycled materials in flexible packaging are mainly used in non-food contact areas, such as e-commerce packaging, logistics packaging and industrial packaging. Among them, as far as e-commerce packaging is concerned, e-commerce companies and brand owners are promoting direct delivery packaging, that is to say, brand owners design the packaging of the final product in a form that can be directly delivered by the e-commerce company, without the need for e-commerce companies to do a secondary packaging. A typical case is the "Air Capsule" launched by Procter & Gamble. Its innovative design enables it to be directly delivered to the consumer after packaging in the factory, eliminating the need for secondary packaging in between. What’s more, its packaging structure is totally recyclable.


The packaging industry has gradually unified the path for sustainable development of flexible packaging.


Markets and global regulations: Driving sustainability without delay


From a market perspective, the sustainable development of plastic packaging is still driven by leading brands of multinational companies, including Coca-Cola, Nestle, Procter & Gamble, Mondelez and Unilever, which have promoted related technological innovations and boosted production capacity in the industrial chain. Local Chinese brands have gradually realized the importance of sustainable development. The focus of the market is on ESG that makes low-carbon and packaging waste reduction extremely important.


As the major food delivery platform, Meituan launched the “Green Hill” project that focuses on environmental protection. It aims to step up the green transformation of the food delivery industry, including recycling food delivery packaging waste. The company also invested 500 million Yuan in establishing the "Meituan Green Tech Fund" to promote related innovations. The latest event is Meituan working with stationery brand M&G and other upstream and downstream companies to launch the first "carbon neutral" stationery product, in which take-out lunch boxes are recycled to make ballpoint pen casings. Meanwhile, Alibaba launched the "88 Carbon Account" which created a consumer carbon account system covering 1 billion people. Carbon credits can be earned by reducing packaging waste or using related products. This has opened up the recognition of carbon reduction efforts that link consumers with brand owners, and provided a new momentum for the sustainable development of plastic packaging.


In addition to promotion efforts by brands, EU market regulations on "plastic tax", carbon border and the latest PPWR regulations have also affected relevant industrial chain of exports to Europe. As the EU is China's second largest trading partner, companies exporting to Europe begin to understand and implement sustainable development of plastic packaging. One evidence is that, according to statistics, Chinese companies obtained 60% of the global GRS certificates in 2021, and this trend is accelerating. Previous GRS certificates were mainly on the production of recycled materials and the textile industry. Now we see that more and more GRS certificates have been obtained in the film and packaging industries. Furthermore, in 2022, the U.S. FDA issued a total of 27 No Objection Letters (NOLs) for recycled plastics, of which 10 were obtained by mainland China and Taiwan region, including Ceville, Veolia, Guolong, Re-Mall and Intco. It is expected that more recycled plastic companies will enter food contact packaging in the future.


Meituan has worked with stationery brand M&G to launch carbon neutral stationery product.


Plastic recycling: Progress made in China and abroad


Plastic recycling consists of two paths: mechanical recycling and chemical recycling. In mechanical recycling, from a technical point of view, high-end manufacturing equipment mainly comes from European manufacturers such as TOMRA and EREMA. Chinese equipment companies are still in the stage of catching up and have made some great progress with quite a lot of equipment exported to all over the world including Europe.


In addition, application development has always been a focal area in the industry. Recycled plastics differ from virgin plastics as they come from different sources. After mechanical recycling, the performance of recycled plastics remains in a certain range which can only correspond to some specific fields of application. For example, take-out lunch boxes are mainly processed by PP thin-wall injection molding technology with a melt index of the PP around 30. After the lunch box is used, it goes through the process of crushing, cleaning and granulation, and the melt index of the recycled material of the lunch box is in the range of 30-40. Thus its downstream application can only be developed based on this performance, such as making PP fibre/ non-woven fabric, or the same thin-walled injection molded ballpoint pen shell.


Currently, mechanical regeneration faces the main difficulty of removing impurities, odors and colors, which requires the formulation of rules that starts from upstream collection and sorting, followed by the use of advanced cleaning and processing technologies, including melt filtration to improve the performance of mechanically recycled materials.


Chemical recycling is currently one of the hot spots in the industry. Upstream petrochemical companies, including SABIC, ExxonMobil and Dow Chemical, have invested in chemical recycling equipment in Europe and the United States. Although they use different technologies, they are basically decomposing plastics into small molecular monomers, and then purified and repolymerized into plastics for use. As Europe and the United States lack plastic industry chain support, a considerable part of the waste plastics chemically recycled is polyolefins, whereas in China, these waste plastics are likely to enter mechanical recycling.


In addition, the scale of chemical recycling is one of the factors restricting current development. In China, chemical recycling is concentrated in the field of PET. For example, China Resources Chemical is recycling PET bottles to produce rPET and rPETG, Shuye Environmental Protection is recycling PET waste films into double-drawn PET films or selling intermediate products BHET, while Zhejiang Jiaren is depolymerizing polyester from recycled textiles and repolymerizing them into polyester fibres. At present, there is a strong demand for this kind of chemically recycled PET in the food and beverage industry and the clothing industry, and it is believed that there will be greater production capacity later.


In contrast, the chemical recovery of polyolefins is still at an exploratory stage with no commercial facilities yet. The reason is that the degradation process of polyolefins is more complicated with more products and higher cost of separation, raising the cost of chemically recycled polyolefins.


Consensus: Packaging is not a problem, the key is proper recycling


Plastic packaging has been widely favoured by all walks of life for its low cost, easy processing and good protection. However, plastic packaging needs to be disposed of properly after use to avoid entering the environment and causing pollution. To achieve this goal, the sustainability of plastic packaging is on the agenda.


From mono-material packaging design, waste plastic recycling granulation, to the use of recycled materials, the plastic packaging industry has joined hands with brand owners, processors and recyclers, together with the government, NGOs and retail platforms to make progress by leaps and bounds. The general public has realized that plastic packaging itself is not a problem, and as long as plastics are properly disposed of and retrieved, they will not pose a threat to the environment. All these efforts are aimed at making plastic packaging more sustainable, serving consumers for a long time and releasing its value to the fullest. 

Professor Li Bin, Center of Advanced Low Dimension Material, Donghua University

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