Today, plastic is an important material in our daily life. Due to its various properties that are superior to other materials in terms of strength, toughness, transparency, and flexibility to be converted into wide range of applications.
In this issue of All Around Plastics, we caught up with Mayuree Paklamjeak, an Advisor of the Plastics Institute of Thailand and a packaging expert, to delve into the world of plastic packaging and learn more about this material through an environmental lens from its manufacturing to consumption by end-users.
Plastics from an Application Perspective
Invented 113 years ago primarily as a substitute for natural materials, glass and metal, plastic has since grown in popularity. Thanks to advances in petrochemicals industry, various types of plastics have been developed for a wide range of applications such as packaging, houseware, office equipment, construction materials, automotive parts, electrical & electronic appliances, medical devices and agricultural equipment. The highest plastic consumption is packaging, especially food packaging due to various types of plastics with different properties available to serve food manufacturers’ requirements e.g. safe for food contact, high heat resistance for sterilization, low temperature resistance for frozen food, high water vapor and oxygen barrier for shelf life extension.
Another advantage of plastic is it can be converted into various packaging types e.g. bottles, boxes, cups, tubes, bags, and pouches. Additional features can be added, such as reclose-able zipper, flip cap for easily one-hand open, dispensing pump, etc. It is lightweight which allows transportation cost reduction whilst the material itself is cheaper than other packaging materials, and when it comes to design, plastic packaging can easily be printed on for branding and marketing purposes. Plastic has become a perfect material from both marketing and application perspectives, especially in the ever-growing food industry.
Plastic from an Environmental Perspective
What many people are not aware of is that plastic is an eco-friendly material as the manufacturing of plastic packaging requires less energy and water, and emits less carbon dioxide compared to that of other types of packaging. However, plastic is often villainized because of where it ends up after it has been used, which could be attributed to consumer behavior and a lack of efficient waste management systems.
Consumers should understand that plastic packaging plays an incredibly vital role. In a world without plastic packaging, we would have to rely on other materials, which would not only be a lot less convenient to use but would also be heavier and more expensive, which in turn would cause a hike in product prices. According to the United Nations’ report, 1.3 billion tons of food is wasted every year across the world, and 30-40% of that amount is due to the use of improper plastic packaging. Therefore, UN has advocated the use of appropriate plastic packaging to extend food shelf life, enabling more food for food shortage population.
Future Trends in Plastics
It is the responsibility of both product manufacturers and consumers to use plastic packaging sustainably by adopting the 4Rs. The first R is Reduce, which means reduction of material consumption. This can be achieved by selecting plastic resins with enhanced strength so as to be able to reduce the thickness or the weight of the product, or designing the packaging to suit product dimension, not to be over-sized. The second R is Reuse/Returnable. This refers to reusing plastic packaging as many times as possible, switching to returnable such as plastic crates for agricultural products.
The third R is Recycle. When designing packaging, product manufacturers should choose recyclable materials. They should even look beyond one-time recycling, as advocated in the circular economy model. Post-consumer plastics are used as raw material for producing the same product or a different product or new & high value products through creative and innovative design, also known as upcycling. However, what’s vital for this R is that consumers must separate plastic waste correctly for collection and recycle processes.
The last R is Renewable, which refers to the use of plant-based materials or bioplastics, to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. However, right now they are not yet perfect substitutes for conventional plastics because of inferior water vapor and oxygen barrier. Additionally, its product cost is higher due to much higher cost of bioplastic resin and higher production waste caused by more difficulty in process control. Currently, bioplastic is used in food packaging that only require a few days shelf life such as fresh fruit and vegetable bags in Germany, and sushi rice ball wrappers and bread pouches sold in convenient stores in Japan.
What brand owners are now seeking from the benefit of plastic packaging is to reduce environmental impacts – an important global trend and higher consumer awareness. It is recommended that plastic resin producers, packaging converters and brand owners should work closely together to develop and design packaging to serve such trend by 4Rs concept without compromising packing and logistic efficiency, convenience of use and preservation ability. For instance, a newly developed grade of plastic resin only to achieve eco-friendly food packaging related to lighter weight and recyclable is not enough, it also shall keep product quality within the same required shelf life, which means this new resin has the enhanced properties of both better oxygen barrier and higher mechanical strength.
Mayuree concluded that plastic packaging is an indispensable part of modern life. Manufacturers in the entire supply chain must collaboratively work to design plastic packaging to provide same functionalities but has less environmental impact. Effective public communication on the benefits and value of plastics as well as promotion of proper waste separation practice are highly recommended. At the same time, the government should not only lend support to the private sector but also has to put in place efficient waste management systems. The success needs full collaboration and contribution among all of us to ensure the sustainability of the world’s resources.
Differences between Plastic Packaging and Single-use Plastics for Food
Plastic packaging for food has basic function of quality protection and shelf life extension. Therefore, it shall be sealed or tightly closed as well as labeled to inform food type, net weight, expiration date, use instructions and manufacturer, etc., according to food labelling law. On the other hand, single-use plastics for food are mostly food containers and related products, such as cups, plates, bowls, straws, spoons, forks and plastic bags. They do not necessarily provide seal integrity because they are intended for convenience rather than shelf life extension. They are not required to label. For these reasons, many countries, including Thailand, have launched campaigns to reduce or ban the use of single-use plastics to reduce plastic waste and promote appropriate waste sorting for recycle.