earth-day-2023The increase of environmentally conscious consumers has put a spotlight on single use plastic waste leading brand owners to announce ambitious goals and targets to make all of their packaging recyclable, reusable or compostable by 2025.

To achieve these commitments, organizations are looking at ways to revamp their entire packaging portfolio for improved sustainability, much of which hinges upon proper packaging design. The root of the industry-wide 2025 goals & targets lies in accountability - accountability from producers, processors & developers of plastic food packaging solutions to develop alternatives that combat the problem of plastic waste. As of 2021, the Environmental Protection Agency and the World Economic Forum both estimated plastic recycling rates to be around 5% in the US - so no one is denying there is a problem. 

But the issue of plastic waste is highly nuanced and go beyond "plastic is bad."

While it may be tempting to ditch plastic altogether, alternatives to plastic solutions in some cases may do more harm than good. A study conducted in 2016 by Trucost in partnership with the American Chemistry Council titled: "Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement" aimed to quantify the environmental cost of what a total shift away from plastic would look like. The study found that plastics reduce environmental costs by nearly 4X compared to alternatives such as glass, tin and aluminum. To help conceptualize this, Trucost quantified the environmental cost in terms of dollars, estimating that this substitution would increase environmental costs from $139 Billion under “business as usual” volumes of plastic, to $533 Billion using a mix of alternative materials. A large part of this has to do with the fact nearly 4X the amount of material and resources would be required to achieve the same product, highlighting the significant efficiencies that plastics provide us in our modern society.

Considering this - what would happen if we stopped seeing the poor recycling rates as a problem, and instead as a missed opportunity? What if we didn't see waste, we saw an untapped resource?

Industry-wide the work is being done to turn these questions into action and develop products that can serve their intended purpose but instead of being sent to the landfill, reused as a resource that are directed back into products resulting in a true circular economy.

When attempting to design for sustainability and circularity a great place to start is with the Three R's - Reduce, Reuse, Recycle. While this adage has been around for several decades, it still holds true in the context of the industry's current goals to increase recycling rates and reuse that recycled material back into packaging, ultimately reducing the amount plastic waste. However, in order to achieve these ambitious goals and commitments brands are often faced with the daunting task of redesigning existing solutions.

With plastics currently accounting for about 1/5th of waste, there is significant opportunity to contribute to the overall goal of waste reduction through substitution and responsible material selection - so much so that we feel that there should be a 4th R - Redesign.

One of the most critical components for brand owners to be able to achieve the other R's is redesign of existing packaging.  While this may seem as simple as sourcing a new material, in reality this is a complex process that must take into consideration existing systems & processes, supply chain, economics, and product performance.

So, the real question becomes: how do you re-design packaging solutions to be sustainable while preserving function and processing compatibility?

1. Consider Sustainability First: Purposeful Material Design

After being faced with the daunting task of redesigning packaging for improved sustainability, the last thing you want to do is spend the time and resources going down the path with a material solution that won't meet your goals now or in the future. The first place to start is to make sure that any proposed solution meets your organizations goals & targets before going any further.

For rigid plastics packaging solutions, there are a few key points that should be considered at the beginning of the process to gauge a material's potential in the circular economy: 

    1. Does it align with design guidelines?

      As concerns surrounding plastic waste have mounted, organizations are working to develop guidelines and standards for sustainable packaging design & recycling to align stakeholders across the entire plastics value chain. The U.S. Plastics Pact, for example, has developed a list of "Problematic and Unnecessary Materials" which identifies to avoid when designing packaging. In addition, the Association of Plastics Recyclers (APR) has developed the APR Design Guide, which helps producers design packaging against industry accepted criteria to ensure packaging is truly recyclable. Relying on these organizations and resources at the beginning of the design process will set a solid foundation to ensure your packaging has the best chance of meeting recyclability standards down the line.

    2. What is the recycling outlook?

      In order for recycling to work, we must have consumer participation. The threshold for a material to be considered "widely recycled" is 60% - meaning 60% of consumers must have access to programs or centers that collect and divert the material so that it can be recycled at scale.  Organizations such as How2Recycle have developed a standardized labeling system and will assess the recyclability of each component of the packaging solution (i.e. paper, plastic wrap, plastic tray, etc.) based on multiple criteria including, public access to curbside or drop-off recycling programs accepting the material, the chances that the package will be sorted and reprocessed correctly and if end markets exist for the material. Selecting materials with a favorable designation from How2Recycle will give your packaging the best chance of being recycled at scale moving forward.

    3. Will PCR materials be an option?

      The market for PCR materials is rapidly evolving and in higher demand than ever before. Recycled content for use in packaging can be derived from two sources: post-consumer recycled materials, or pre-consumer, also known as post-industrial, recycled materials. Use of these materials certainly have the potential to make a significant environmental impact both from a waste reduction perspective but also for reducing energy consumption and the extraction of finite resources. Industry-wide, initiatives to incorporate PCR materials are becoming more prevalent and in some geographic regions, specifically the UK, an added tax is now imposed for packaging with PCR content of less than 30%. Before committing to a solution, it is important to consider what the availability of PCR variations of a given material are now, as well as what investments are being made to increase availability in the future.

2. Simplify without Sacrifice: Product Protection & Function

At the end of the day, materials used in food packaging were designed to perform a specific function - to preserve and protect the product until it reaches the consumer and/or stay fresh through the products intended shelf-life. This is often achieved by combining materials to achieve specifications and requirements that would extend beyond the capabilities of any one material. However, this is often-times in direct conflict with sustainability ambitions because of the inseparable nature of these materials, which under current MRF capabilities will render them non-recyclable.

xpp-hummus-guac-pretzlesFor example, packaging made from PET will typically provide adequate moisture barrier protection, but require the addition of a specialty barrier materials such as EVOH through coextrusion or a barrier laminate to achieve oxygen barrier protection. While PET may be recyclable on its own in certain formats such as bottles, issues arise when it comes to separation of these materials for recycling - i.e., they can't be - therefore the packaging must be sent to the landfill, or risk contaminating the PET bottle recycling stream.

However, not all material combinations result in a non-recyclable product. Certain materials, namely Polypropylene & EVOH, because of their chemical makeup, even when combined in a multilayer structure do not impact the recyclability of the material, as long as the EVOH makes up less than 5% of the total structure. 

The ultimate goal is to develop a material solution that delivers on all product protection and preservation specifications while achieving sustainable packaging goals & remaining within recyclability guidelines. Therefore, understanding how different material combinations impact recyclability and selecting solutions that align with recycling guidelines, infrastructure and investment is key to achieve successful sustainable packaging redesign.

3. Work With What you Have: Process Compatibility

An often-overlooked part of the equation in evaluating sustainable alternatives for packaging redesign is process compatibility. The material solution has been identified that aligns with industry-guidelines and organization-wide targets; initial evaluation of properties and specifications indicate that it will meet application requirements for product protection and shelf-life targets. But can you process it? At this stage, evaluating a solution against a list of processing parameters from material performance and forming parameters, to heat requirements and cutting and trimming requirements significantly impact the viability of a solution._MG_2427with lid bkgd removed (1)

For example, various materials such as PET and traditional PP have been evaluated in the past as PS replacement alternatives for form-fill-seal processes. However, traditional PP shrinks at a much greater rate than PS, leading process incompatibility on existing FFS lines, and PET is high stiffness, requiring the addition of additional cutting and trimming capabilities. In each case, characteristics of the material, while sustainable and functional, result in process incompatibility rendering each solution infeasible.

In the end, processors cannot adopt a solution that creates more problems - so sourcing an alternative that offers compatibility with existing platforms in conjunction with checking the box on sustainability goals & product protection and function is essential. When evaluating any solution, organizations should develop a list of non-negotiable processing requirements to ensure compatibility with existing systems & platforms.

4. Get the Total Picture: Economic Viability

When it comes to comparing alternatives for sustainable packaging redesign, cost and economics can make an evaluation come to a screeching halt. Some solutions and materials simply cost more than others - but it's not a cut-and-dry scenario. Evaluating the total cost of ownership for a proposed solution is essential to understanding the long-term economic implications before you get too far in the process. Three key aspects to consider when evaluating cost include:

    1. Material characteristics:

      Individual materials carry a specified density & weight which directly contributes to the cost & consumption of one material vs another. Polypropylene, for example is the lightest with a density of 0.91, compared to a density of 1.33 for PET and 1.04 for PS. This density reduction results in a higher yield (more parts) during thermoforming processes and reduced material consumption in comparison to PS and PET:
      Material Yield Factor Consumption (lbs)
      PS 1.04 10,000,000
      PET 1.33 12,780,000
      XPP 0.91 8,800,000

    2. Price:

      Considering the effect that density and weight has on material volume, taking price at face-value does not give you the full picture. When it comes to the price of materials, density and yield also have a significant influence on the total cost of a project: 

      Material Yield Factor CDI ($/lb) Feb. '23 Yield (vs PS) Total Resin Spend
      PET 1.33 $0.975 1,220,000 $1,189,500
      PS 1.04 $1.258 1,000,000 $1,258,000
      PP 0.91 $0.825 880,000 $726,000

    3. Infrastructure investment:

      As noted above, an often-overlooked aspect of sustainable packaging redesign is equipment compatibility. Varying characteristics of different polymers means the potential to behave differently on existing equipment and machinery. If modifications to equipment, tooling or equipment replacement is required, this cost cannot be ignored, as it can be significant and run upwards of $500,000 - $1,000,000 per line depending on your process.

Going green doesn't have to cost more:
Download the Achieving Environmental & Economic Cost Savings Case Study

Check All the Boxes: The Perfect PS Replacement Solution

Finding a viable PS replacement material for thermoformed & form-fill-seal (FFS) applications will require companies to take into account not just sustainability goals, but various functional, equipment and business considerations.

With these considerations in mind, ICPG has developed XPP - a material that is functional, economical & sustainable — and can be implemented as a drop-in replacement for PS utilizing existing equipment:

  • Sustainable: Produced from 100% polypropylene materials, our lightweight XPP solutions reduce material consumption, offer compatibility with the Polypropylene recycling stream (RIC #5), and result in a reduced carbon footprint.
  • Functional: Our XPP materials offer advanced product protection and are available in varying degrees of barrier protection. The advanced stiffness of our XPP materials mirrors PS to maintain the snap-ability and score-ability required of certain FFS applications.
  • Compatible: XPP is a high stiffness and low-shrink material solution - which means it behaves similar to PS during processing to offer drop-in process compatibility with existing thermoforming & FFS equipment and tooling.
  • Economical: The low density & lightweight nature of our 100% polypropylene solutions means reduced material consumption, increased yield, and an overall reduced cost compared to PS & PET alternatives.

To learn more about how you can achieve sustainable packaging redesign at a cost savings, download our XPP Product Sheet today:

Download the product sheet


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