‘As a company you must optimally leverage existing knowledge about sustainable packaging’

In the Netherlands, we are increasingly recycling things. Good work, you might say, but there is still room for improvement. Because not every material is already suitable for recycling. There is still a lot to be gained in the world of packaging, Chris Bruijnes, Director of the Netherlands Knowledge Institute for Sustainable Packaging (KIDV) in The Hague, observes.

The institute advises companies on their packaging, or as Bruijnes puts it: ‘We ensure that the business community stays informed of sustainable packaging.

Many packaging materials are effectively being recycled, such as metal, paper, cardboard and glass. But for plastics this is a different story altogether. ‘We have not been doing this as long, which means that developers of plastic packaging can use any extra available knowledge,’ says Bruijnes, who has been at the helm of the KIDV for the past year.

Knowledge about plastics

Independent packaging experts work at the office in The Hague. They conduct a great deal of research. This year, KIDV has completed a fairly sizeable scientific research programme in cooperation with the Netherlands Top Institute Food and Nutrition (TiFN), Twente University, Groningen University, Wageningen University and the Netherlands Organization for Applied Scientific Research (TNO). ‘We acquired a great deal of knowledge about plastics and materials, consumer behaviour and business operations in this programme.’

Bruijnes considers it essential for companies to give careful thought to their packaging. ‘It is especially important to apply logic in your thinking. Can you make do with the least possible packaging? Is it possible to make it recyclable? Furthermore, avoid wastage with boxes that are too large. That is a typical phenomenon nowadays.’

KIDV also develops online tools that companies can use to determine the extent to which their packaging is circular. Six months ago, KIDV released the ‘Recycle Check’, a tool that makes it possible to determine whether your dimensionally stable plastic packaging (flasks, trays or bottles, for example) is recyclable. When you pass this check, you qualify for a lower waste management contribution rate to the Packaging Waste Fund.

‘In the near future, we will also develop a Recycle Check for flexible plastic packaging such as films,’ Bruijnes explains. Flexible packaging, such as plastic bags are badly recycled. They are lighter and often have added features to give them extra strength or protective properties. As a result, they often end up in a mix of polymers, according to Bruijnes, which is either recycled or incinerated.

Mono-materials

Plastic is therefore more difficult to recycle than other materials. ‘Plastic has a number of fantastic properties,’ says Bruijnes. ‘It is highly stable and long-lasting; it has all kinds of advantages as a packaging material.’ But it also has a major drawback. When it ends up in the natural environment, it does not break down.’

Plastic has gone through a long development process. When the need arose to reduce the materials brought onto the market to as little as possible, plastic became thinner and lighter. This caused its composition to become increasingly complex. ‘For example, different layers are put on top of each other to produce laminated food packaging to ensure that the cheese or the meat stays fresh. But this makes this packaging complex and consequently less easily recyclable. We are investigating how this complex packaging can once again be reduced to mono-materials, which in turn helps stimulate recycling.’

No plastics taken back home

Bruijnes currently perceives two major driving forces in the world of plastics: social pressure and regulations at the European level. ‘The publicity relating to this subject is creating an aversion among consumers to taking lots of plastics back home,’ he says. ‘This is in part why government has introduced regulations, domestically as well as at the European level.’

As a result, we are faced with guidelines that are imposed on single-use plastic packaging. “Today this affects plastic straws and trays, but in the near future it potentially could affect other packaging as well. As a company you will then need to do something about its recyclability.’

This ensures that sustainable packaging is a ‘hot’ item, Bruijnes observes. ‘There is a great deal of attention for this, including in the design and marketing phases.’ According to him, it is large companies such as Coca-Cola and Unilever that are introducing large ambitions to the market. ‘They are interested in closed loop solutions, whereby all materials used ultimately end up back in the market.’

Looking beyond the packaging

What is the future of sustainable packaging according to the KIDV? In any event, do not give up on everything you have been doing up until now, Bruijnes believes. ‘You must always ensure that you look beyond the packaging. What do you do with the packaged product and what is the packaging’s functionality? For many decades, the objective of packaging in the food sector was to safeguard the freshness and shelf life of products. If you ignore this and start doing things differently, there is a higher risk of food wastage.’ This is like putting the cart before the horse, Bruijnes says. ‘Food wastage still has a greater impact on the environment than the packaging materials used to protect the product.’

So now what? As much packaging waste as possible must be processed into high-quality streams and thus be kept in the chain, Bruijnes responds. ‘This already works well with PET, for example for deposit bottles. But this can be achieved even better with other polymers.’

In addition, he sees a future in chemical recycling. ‘This is a fast emerging discipline. Chemical recycling processes the plastic into a form that can be broken down into its original building blocks. You can then make new polymers from this and ultimately new products and packaging.’ According to him it is a promising direction.

Companies continue to be faced with challenges relating to sustainable packaging. The first challenge happens in the short term: ‘You must ensure that your design is consistent with the current state of technology relating to waste sorting and recycling. You must know how your packaging is processed after use. And your design must optimally leverage the knowledge that exists today.’

According to the director, it is important to continue looking for new sustainable materials in the long term. ‘While you continue to meticulously collect and recycle, the contamination by residual materials that end up in the environment ultimately must not cause any environmental damage.’ Bruijnes cites Kipster’s egg boxes as an example of a new packaging product made from renewable raw materials (primarily starch). ‘They are not plastic, nor are they made of paper, but at the same time they have a low carbon footprint and can be easily digested and processed. This way an entirely new generation of packaging products emerges that due to their renewability are sustainable, but unfortunately do not yet fit into existing recycling technology and therefore must be processed differently.’

Balance

It is important for us to do our utmost in this area, says Bruijnes. ‘It is impossible to remove all of the risks from the market. You will always have a waste stream left over. This is also evident for plastics: you lose a part during sorting, collection and the recycling itself. 100 percent recycling simply does not exist.’

‘As a western consumer society, we cause pollution in all kinds of different ways, for example through our way of living, transport and consumption. But we have to keep this in balance with what the earth is able to cope with.’

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