Sustainability - the plastic peril

7th of November 2018
Sustainability - the plastic peril

Everyone is talking about plastics these days as the need to reduce the burden of waste becomes more pressing. But plastic is still one of the most widely-used packaging materials for cleaning products. Why is this the case? And what are manufacturers doing to reduce their plastics waste?

Europeans generate around 25 million tonnes of plastic waste each year according to the European Commission. But less than 30 per cent of this material is collected for recycling - and an even lower percentage actually completes the recycling process.

When improperly discarded, plastic waste often ends up in the natural environment. Every year around 10 million tonnes of plastic pollutes our oceans with catastrophic results on marine life. Sea birds, dolphins and seals frequently become entangled in the debris while some marine creatures mistake it for food.

Turtles cannot distinguish between plastic bags and the jellyfish which form part of their diet, but when consumed a bag may cause internal blockages and result in death. Meanwhile, larger pieces of plastic debris can cause damage to the digestive systems of sea birds and whales, again with potentially fatal results.

Unsurprisingly there has been growing concern about this situation along with governmental moves to ban drinking straws, outlaw disposable coffee cups and limit our use of plastic bags. But plastic packaging is still widely used in all types of industry -  including the cleaning sector where many products are still routinely packed in plastic bags or bottles.

So, are manufacturers seeking alternative packaging materials? And in the meantime, what are they doing to reduce the plastic burden on society?

Diversey uses a range of packaging materials including rigid and flexible plastics says executive director for sustainability Daniel Daggett. “Sustainability is considered in all our packaging and there are times when plastic offers the best option from a life cycle perspective,” he said.

“However, we have a long history of reducing our use of plastics and will continue to improve the sustainability of our packaging footprint. We’ve achieved massive reductions by increasing the concentration of our chemicals which means we ship less water.”

While highly concentrated chemicals offer sustainability benefits they can also present a challenge, he says. “We need to ensure worker safety and packaging durability while finding ways to accurately dilute the products at our customers’ facilities,” said Daggett.

Diversey’s scientists and engineers evaluate all options when developing new packaging materials. “We have a sustainability scorecard for all new projects and our packaging criteria include renewable raw materials, greener chemicals, durability, better performance and recyclability,” he continued.

No landfill

Some plastic waste originates from the suppliers rather than the manufacturer and Diversey receives chemicals in a variety of formats including plastic packs.  “We are currently developing new sustainability goals, but our most recent waste target is to ensure that 100 per cent of our waste from facilities is not landfilled,” said Daggett. “We will continue to target and minimise waste from our operations.”

He adds that there are still instances in which plastics are the best packaging solution. “Certainly when we consider factors such as cost, performance and sustainability it becomes clear that strong, lightweight, plastic packaging is not a bad thing provided the empty materials are collected, sorted and easily recycled or repurposed,” he said.

Diversey has implemented a number of waste reduction schemes, adds Daggett.  “One solution is to create a database of best practices that is shared across all of our plants so that we can learn from each other,” he said. “Sometimes there are clever solutions to challenging issues such as the disposal of flexible plastic wrap. We’ve now identified local recyclers for this.”

Reduce all packaging

He believes that the industry should focus on the reduction of packaging as a whole - not just plastics. “We should avoid a bias against specific materials based on a single criterion such as recyclability in order to select the correct solution and avoid unintended consequences,” he said. “Our overall goal is to reduce our packaging footprint and increase reuse or recyclability at end of life.”

Werner & Mertz also uses plastic packaging in the form of pouches, bottles and cans for most of its cleaning products according to international business development manager Christopher Luening.
“As a supplier of highly concentrated cleaning chemicals we do so for safety reasons because plastic provides the required stability and material behaviour for very high and very low ph values,” he said.

“However, we have accepted the challenge of turning this burden into an environmental advantage and we are now pioneering the use of 100 per cent recycled packaging material from household waste.”

The company also offers its customers a marketing tool that allows them to calculate the plastic savings they can make by using Werner & Mertz products. “In this way they can turn their savings into a business advantage.”

The company tries to reduce its use of packaging material wherever possible, adds Luening. “Our bag-in-a-box systems and pouches incorporate only a small amount of packaging mass, for example, and we encourage the refilling of empty litre bottles,” he said. “And with the high level of concentration of our products we save a lot of unnecessary packaging while also reducing transport-related CO2 emissions.”

Werner & Mertz’ packaging material of choice is Systalen. “This is made out of 100 per cent waste,” said Luening. “In cooperation with waste collectors in Germany and our packaging partner Alpla we have established full production of a range of recycled polymer packaging types including recycled HDPE, PP and PET within our Green Care Professional brand range.”

He adds that plastic packaging cannot be reduced or replaced for most typical applications where stability, user safety and transport safety are all matters for concern. “However, there is no reason to replace it if the material is based on a full circular design,” he said. “We know that in reality much more innovation is needed in waste management and sorting to bring about a true closed loop. But this is a development that is being brought forward by politicians globally.”

External pressure

According to Luening, external pressure is helping to force a change in attitude towards sustainability and packaging waste. “For instance, new packaging laws in Germany will increase the costs of non-sustainable packaging,” he said. “And new ambitious recycling targets will soon require markets to use more recycled plastic products. It is only a question of time before minimum recyclate ratios will be on the table.”

Werner & Mertz has its own We for Recyclates website that continually logs the number of plastic bottles the WM Group recycles as a whole. “We expect to reach 200 million bottles soon,” said Luening.

Metsä Tissue’s managing director Mark Dewick agrees that plastic is still superior to many current alternative packaging materials. “It is lightweight and protects the products well from moisture, dirt and damage in transport,” he said. “And in our market area, packaging mainly ends up in the recycling bin anyway. But there is always room for improvement and that applies to the more efficient collection of plastic waste throughout Europe.”

He says Metsä’s aim is to reduce, reuse, recover and recycle as much of the raw material it uses as possible - and this includes plastics. “We are currently evaluating different ways in which we can make an impact on the current situation, such as by reducing additional packaging materials or developing the use of recycled plastics in future,” he said.

Other options

Plastic is not the only option when it comes to packing tissue products, according to Dewick. “We have a large range of products that we deliver in cardboard boxes, and these offer equal if not better protection than plastic when there is no fear of moisture. There is a place for both alternatives.

“We also invest a significant amount in R&D and our ongoing development - along with technological advances - allows us to use thinner qualities of plastic to minimise consumption. We also keep our packaging to a minimum and focus on bigger transport units to minimise plastic usage per delivered product.”

He says waterproof plastic packaging is hard to replace when it comes to shipping liquids. “There are currently not enough suitable alternatives available for substances such as soaps and disinfectants,” he said.

And in any case, plastic packaging is engineered to minimise the waste burden where possible, he adds. “For example, our Katrin Handy Bags for hand towels are made from plastic foil which makes them safer to carry for staff compared with large hard cases with corners and sharp edges,” he said. “However, in designing the Handy Packs we made them as re-usable as possible so that they can become bin liners or waste receptacles when empty.”

Metsä applies strict criteria to ensure that its suppliers adhere to the company’s own sustainable principles, adds Dewick. “The topic has a very high profile at the moment - and this is a good thing,” he said. “We would encourage all commercial businesses to do their utmost to reduce their plastic use, and urge recycling companies to continue to invest in solutions that make recycling easier and more pervasive.”

So, will plastics be replaced or re-engineered in the foreseeable future? According to Dewick there is a great deal of current research into creating non-fossil raw material-based alternatives to plastic which would also be biodegradable.

“Our parent company Metsä Group has already created products from wood pulp-related material which could provide a natural alternative to many current raw materials,” he said.

Systems-based approach

Werner & Mertz’s Christopher Luening says progress is being made in the development of new materials and sorting processes to reduce the plastic burden. “There are indications that there will be some new ‘intelligent’ materials watermarked for better sorting,” he said. “One interesting concept being pioneered is that of ‘edible water’, where a biological seaweed polymer encapsulates drinking
water and is biodegradable. A similar, non-edible but dissolvable capsule could be found for chemicals.”

Diversey’s Daniel Daggett adds recent reports about plastic litter in our oceans prove that we are not currently doing enough to ease the burden. “Our position is that we need to use good science and a systems-based approach to find the right solutions,” he said.  “But of course, Diversey can’t solve this alone: we need suppliers, governments, customers and NGOs to all work together.”


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