With Earth Day just around the corner, we asked our Mission: Packaging students to do some research on sustainability in packaging for their second mission.
It has become increasingly important for manufacturers and businesses to consider the environmental impact of their production – including what happens when the product is out the door and in the hands of the consumer. Packaging poses a challenge because the majority of it is discarded by the consumer after the product is opened or used, leading to excessive waste and potential harm to the environment. Fortunately, many businesses have addressed this issue by taking strides toward developing more sustainable packaging.
Read on to learn what Caroline, Kari, and Tristen discovered about advances in sustainable packaging:
Caroline: An Overlooked Sustainability Challenge
Sustainability in packaging is a far-reaching umbrella that extends beyond just packaging materials. Developing a package that meets the manufacturing, transportation, and preservative needs of a product all while being expected to break down in a landfill or be repurposed is not as easy task. The increased environmental awareness of consumers encourages companies to provide environmentally friendly packaging. One area of packaging that presents a bottleneck in recycling packaging materials is printing inks. Once inks are bound to the substrate, they’re difficult to separate and the high-energy processes to do so results in harmful byproducts. Therefore, more effort has been put into printing technologies to develop sustainable inks.
New renewable materials have been identified that can be used in the manufacturing process of printing inks to reduce dependency on petrochemical resources, which drive commonly used solvent-based inks (Robert 2015). Inks are composed of four components: Colorants, Binders, Solvents, and Additives. Binders, which bind the ink to the printing stock, and solvents, which dissolve the binders and determine ink viscosity, present the biggest problems when developing sustainable inks. Sustainable ink technology aims to reduce or eliminate petrochemical solvents and produce renewable binders that won’t jeopardize print quality and definition. Eco-friendly printing inks include water-based, UV-cured, and renewable-based inks. Some examples of commercially available inks based on renewable materials, specifically soy and vegetable oil-derived compounds, include Arroweb, Quickfast, and SunLit Diamond (Robert 2015).
These ink alternatives help the environment by reducing release of volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) in the printing process and by utilizing waste products from other operations to extract new materials. Waste products in the paper and pulp industry, specifically hemicellulose and nitrated lignin, have potential to be applied as binder components (Robert 2015). Mello and co-workers reported that used frying oil can be applied in printing inks, which addresses the disposal and treatment of frying oil that otherwise can have a serious environmental impact (Melo 2013). This technology not only benefits the environment, but also benefits companies due to the advantages over solvent-based inks. UV-curing printing inks have virtually instant drying time, higher printing speeds, and reduced energy demand which ultimately saves money and reduces the use of fossil fuels in the printing process. By utilizing waste products, especially the previous example of frying oil, inks can be made from cheaper materials available in larger quantities that exhibit the same quality as petrochemically based inks. Only 2.5-3.5% of the 2.4 billion liters of used frying oil produced annually in Brazil is recycled, leaving a vast amount available for commercial use (Robert 2015). It’s in a company’s best interest to get behind and lead this sustainable technology because national and international governments are adopting environmental regulations that specifically address the content of ink, like the European Union’s EN 134323 standard (Lo 2012).
Ink is a big source of information and marketing potential, but ironically it makes up a small part of the package. Often, ink isn’t thought of as a priority in sustainable packaging. This perception contributes to why I think sustainable ink is an interesting topic worthy of exploring. Recent advancements have furthered the cause, but have also demanded more research, which is another reason why this topic appeals to me. Renewable binder precursors that are economically compatible with those from petrochemical feedstock is an important area for future research involving UV-curing inks. I think this challenge is of utmost importance for the future of sustainable inks because UV-curing technology has a growing presence in the industry and its success with sustainable inks would stimulate more interest and confidence in other alternatives. It’s important to note that setbacks are still evident in this sustainable technology, but numerous examples of compounds derived from renewable resources show their potential and applicability in printing inks.
Kari: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
It is very important to be environmentally conscious in the packaging field. Packaging has had a lot of issues in the environment, especially when it comes to plastic. The best ways to combat waste and promote sustainability are to reduce the amount used, reuse material, and to recycle. These three done in conjunction can save a lot of resources.
In “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement” the study found that because of the strength of plastic compared to its relative light weight, substituting the material for alternatives that provide the same function would increase environmental costs from $139 billion to $533 billion annually.
A new technology, however, has changed the final step of the process: recycling. Most recycling processes, while doing a load of good, take up a lot of other valuable resources. Ak Inovex in Mexico has developed a new technology that uses zero water to recycle plastics. This process recycles up to 90% of plastics like polystyrene, Styrofoam, PET and ABS. The process uses specialized walls within the machinery that are able to cool the plastic at the same time as it forms it into tiny pellets. The machinery also saves because it does not have to do the dramatic heating and cooling cycles that are common in recycling.
As if that is not enough, the company has partnered its eco-friendly solutions with the ALINSA Group. ALINSA manufactures environmentally friendly cleaning products using biodegradable chemicals. The plans are to replace the lye that is used in the process with the new more ecological product that ensures an overall sustainable method of recycling.
Tristen: Plant-based Renewable Packaging Materials as an Innovative Source for Sustainable Packaging
Plastics are an integral driver of our society today, interwoven into packages, laminates, products, labels; almost everywhere you look you are guaranteed to see plastic. The sad reality comes when it’s realized that ‘everywhere’ isn’t a hyperbole. Non-degradable plastics are being found as far as the poles, circulated around the globe by ocean currents, carrying with them global consequences for the environment. They’re dangerous to ecosystems, “disrupting habitats” and “injuring and poisoning wildlife,” while also serving “as a floating transportation device that allows alien species to hitchhike to unfamiliar parts of the world, threatening biodiversity.”
I believe it’s critical that we work toward reducing this plastic footprint we’ve imposed on the world. Some people in the plastics industry, such as Neal of Plastics Europe, think that “consumers, not the industry, are responsible for making sure plastics don’t wind up littering the environment.” I think this is grossly unrealistic, as it is a much larger expectation to hope billions of people can make the right decisions, rather than give billions of people only environmentally safe decisions to choose from. The heart of the problem lies with the non-degradable plastics that currently pervade the market, which is why I’m such a large proponent for innovative plant-based renewable packaging materials that have slowly been gaining in prominence in recent years.
Making plastics from materials such as bamboo, wood, bagasse (sugar cane), tobacco, and other plant derivatives introduces a safe alternative to the vast number of plastics currently being used. These plant-based materials are a renewable resource, are compostable and biodegradable, which will serve to vastly decrease are carbon footprint, keeping plastics out of landfills and maintaining a healthy environment. Tetra Pak led this charge by releasing the first 100% plant-based carton in 2015, which used bio-based LDPE films and HDPE caps made from bagasse. This motivated other companies such as Coca-Cola to follow suit and aim to use renewable materials in their packages.
Using plant-based packaging materials doesn’t only benefit the environment, but also serves to benefit companies by giving them a “competitive advantage in the overall environmental profile of their products.” Our societal view is quickly shifting toward a focus on global sustainability, and the companies that align themselves with this global vision look more favorable in the eyes of consumers.
Plant-based packaging materials offer a unique and real solution to non-degradable plastics, and it shows by their growth throughout the packaging industry. I look forward to the continued innovation of plant-based materials as companies experiment with our plant derivatives such as tomato and tobacco for packages. These materials have great potential to provide a degree of relief to the damage being done every day to the planet.
Lo, Chris. “Supporting eco-friendly packaging: green inks.” Packaging-Gateway. 26 April 2012. Web.
https://www.packaging-gateway.com/features/featureeco-friendly-ink-uv-flexo-biodegradableink/. Accessed March 2017.
Mello, Vinícius M., Gustavo V. Oliveira, and Paulo AZ Suarez. “Turning used frying oil into a new raw material to printing inks.” Journal of the Brazilian Chemical Society 24.2 (2013): 314-319.
Robert, Tobias. ““Green ink in all colors”—Printing ink from renewable resources.” Progress in Organic Coatings 78 (2015): 287-292.
Investigación y Desarrollo. “Technology to recycle all type of plastics without using water.” ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 4 January 2015. www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2015/01/150104152309.htm
Lord, Rick. “A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement.” Plastics and Sustainability: (2016): n. pag. Web. 24 Mar. 2017. <https://plastics.americanchemistry.com/Plastics-and-Sustainability.pdf>.
Treacy, Megan. “New plastic recycling technology works without water.” TreeHugger. N.p., 07 Jan. 2015. Web 27 Mar. 2017. https://www.treehugger.com/clean-technology/new-plastic-recycling-technology-uses-no-water.html
“9 Great Sustainable Packaging Innovations.” Www.LinkedIn.com. N.p., 15 Feb. 2015. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. <https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/8-great-sustainable-packaging-innovations-paul-jenkins>.
Alana Byrd, Christian Brothers University, USA 06 January 2016 Share On Facebook Share On Twitter. “Demand for Improved Packaging for Pet Food.” Home. N.p., 06 Jan. 2016. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. <https://www.packcon.org/index.php/en/articles/102-2016/130-plant-based-packaging-materials>.
“Tetra Pak Launches First Package Made From 100% Plant-Based Packaging Materials.” Sustainablebrands.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 19 Mar. 2017. <https://www.sustainablebrands.com/news_and_views/packaging/mike_hower/tetra_pak_launches_first_package_made_100_plant-based_packaging_>.
Knoblauch, Jessica A., and Environmental Health News. “Plastic Not-So-Fantastic: How the Versatile Material Harms the Environment and Human Health.” Scientific American. N.p., 02 July 2009. Web. 27 Mar. 2017. <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/plastic-not-so-fantastic/>.