Paper and glass packaging protect the environment and resources, while plastic packaging has the exact opposite effect and should therefore be avoided. This sounds nice and simple, but the reality is not always so clear-cut. Factors such as logistics, actual shelf life, product protection and barrier properties must be taken into account in order to be able to realistically assess the ecological footprint of packaging. The increase in packaging waste, on the other hand, and the efforts made by developers, producers and consumers to change this situation, are nothing to write home about. The following trends in the industry are indicative of this:
1. looking through the sustainability footprint of glass.
Glass has some great and proven advantages as a packaging material: It recycles well and can be reused often, is tasteless, impermeable to gases and does not interact with other substances. What sounds like an ideal solution for food packaging, however, is not always so - especially with regard to the sustainability balance. Here, single-use jars and bottles perform particularly poorly, because their production and transport consume a lot of energy and usually also produce highCO2 emissions. Reusable glass packaging is clearly preferable, especially if the cycle functions regionally. 'Important factors that strongly influence the sustainability of glass are the weight of the package in relation to the contents, which makes transportation more costly and the CO2 footprint larger due to the large amount of energy required. Reuse, of course, puts these factors into perspective significantly, but too often the number of circulations is still limited by the appearance of the glass rim, rather than the actual shelf life," says Pacoon managing director Peter Désilets. "Incidentally, I found it exciting to hear the statement of a glass industry association chairman who, when I asked 'how he sees the future of reusable rather than disposable containers?" replied, "if we produce in a climate-neutral way in the future, then there will be no difference. Maybe that's a bit of a sweeping judgment, but the direction is clearly marked," says Désilets.
2 Zero Waste City: Can a city without waste be realized?
Kiel not only calls itself a "Sailing City," but has also been allowed to call itself Germany's first "Zero Waste Certified City" since February 2023. Munich wants to catch up soon and has also decided to go through the certification process to become a Zero Waste City. But what exactly is behind this concept? The central goal of Zero Waste is to prevent waste from being generated in the first place. Avoidance is therefore at the top of the so-called waste hierarchy, which requires a rethinking and redesign of materials and products. What cannot be avoided should be reusable or at least recyclable. If this is ruled out, the waste is recycled by incineration, for example, to generate energy; everything else must be disposed of in landfills. This percentage should be as low as possible. "For us, it is important to see how cities and municipalities are actively involved in the issue and see their role not only in waste disposal, but also in supporting reusable systems. In the future, will municipalities not only collect waste at home, but also collect reusable containers for sorting and cleaning, will they operate these washing stations themselves and redistribute them in the city?" says Désilets, outlining the requirements for municipalities if they really want to bring the concept of Zero Waste City to life.
3 Better plastic recycling with the help of artificial intelligence
Dealing with plastic packaging is one thing: The amount of packaging waste is increasing, but the recycling rate for plastics in Germany is stagnating. Only slightly more than half of the waste from plastic packaging is theoretically recycled, but in reality only about 15% of this remains recyclable. The decisive reasons for this lie in the value chain. Currently, there is a lack of knowledge about the different qualities of recyclates, as well as a lack of knowledge about the possible applications. Many processors therefore refuse to use recyclates. The use of artificial intelligence (AI) should provide a remedy. The KI Plastics Packaging Application Hub is a funding measure of the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research and aims to close the loop for plastic packaging to a large extent. 51 partners from industry, science and society, including pacoon, are working together here. They are relying on the exchange of data along the entire value chain. Peter Désilets says it is unclear how the experiment will turn out: "We at pacoon are in charge of the packaging development work package. In this context, we regularly exchange information with the other work packages and are very close to the developments. At the same time, we are trying to find out via studies how consumers accept such new packages made of recyclates, which parameters are perceived, accepted or rejected, be it for food or cosmetics. A broad, exciting field will accompany us until mid-2025. In any case, there will be new findings at the end, partial failure not excluded."
4. challenge of composite packaging
The crux of composite packaging can be seen in its definition. Namely, composite packaging consists of at least two different materials that are bonded together in such a way that they cannot be easily separated by hand. Because this is the case, recycling them becomes a challenge. Recycling convenience for consumers is non-existent; hardly anyone will go to the trouble of separating the different materials at home and then dispose of them cleanly. This is only possible if the different raw materials can be separated. Triggered by the plastic debate, many companies are currently relying on packaging that is partly made of fibers but often also contains a plastic component - for example in the form of a coating. Packaging made of just one material that can be easily recycled is currently still ahead from an ecological perspective. "Product protection is always the top priority. In any case, a paper solution by hook or by crook is not helpful. But new solutions are continuously emerging. We ourselves are in contact with barrier suppliers who can also feature bio-based barriers with high recyclability in paper recycling and can apply layers that are nanometer-thin in some cases. We are also approaching more and more highly sophisticated barriers in the food sector. I estimate that in one to two years we will also be able to realize barriers similar to aluminum vapor deposition on papers," says Désilets, giving an outlook on the near future.
5 Bagasse: the future of fiber-based packaging?
Bagasse is actually a residue or by-product of sugar production, yet it is quite in demand and versatile. The fibrous residue of sugar cane can be used as fuel and fed to animals. But bagasse is also used to make packaging. These are used, for example, in take-away or in the sale of fruit and vegetables in supermarkets. Disposable cups and plates can also be made from bagasse. To be as impermeable as possible to fat and water, bagasse is coated or bonded. This limits the compostability of the material. In any case, Peter Désilets has high hopes for the material: "Bagasse, as an alternative fiber raw material and as an original waste material, is a great material to conserve wood resources, to do without a lot of chemicals and energy during processing, and thus to use raw materials even more effectively. Therefore, there have been developments with bagasse for a long time, which are very promising and have already found their way into packaging in many ways."
Do these topics sound familiar? Then you've probably already looked at the SOLPACK 5.0 program. Because on June 20 and 21, we will be taking a critical look at these topics in Munich at our major trend conference for sustainability in packaging. Hopefully together with you.