22 Jun THE FUTURE OF PLASTIC AND PACKAGING: ADAPTING TO NEW CUSTOMER DEMANDS
Plastics have revolutionized the world with their versatility, durability, and affordability. However, the environmental impact of these items, from production to disposal, has become an increasingly pressing concern. The future of plastics therefore (at least, we suspect) lies in developing innovative materials and strategies to reduce waste, mitigate environmental harm, and support a circular economy. Bearing all this in mind, we figured it’s a good time to consider where things were trending. As futurists and keynote speakers, let’s put our thinking caps on and think about the future of plastics and the path towards growing sustainability.
If you’ve been paying attention, you’ll doubtless be aware that one of the most promising avenues for sustainable plastics is the development of biodegradable and bio-based materials. These new plastics can help reduce dependence on fossil fuels, lower greenhouse gas emissions, and minimize plastic pollution. Some topics to consider here might include:
- Polylactic acid (PLA): Derived from renewable resources like corn starch or sugar cane, PLA is a bio-based plastic that can be composted under industrial conditions. IT’s widely used in packaging, disposable tableware, and biodegradable medical devices.
- Polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA): Produced by bacteria, PHA is a family of biodegradable plastics with diverse applications, such as agricultural films, food packaging, and medical products. This material can be composted in both industrial and home environments, making it a promising alternative to traditional plastics.
- Bio-based polyethylene (bio-PE) and polyethylene terephthalate (bio-PET): These bio-based counterparts of conventional plastics are produced from renewable sources like sugarcane and can help reduce the carbon footprint of plastic production.
Of course, the majority of plastic waste is either incinerated or ends up in landfills, contributing to pollution and resource depletion. To support a circular economy, the future of plastics must involve improved recycling techniques and infrastructure. Some helpful technologies to keep at the forefront of your mind might be:
- Chemical recycling: This process breaks down plastics into their original building blocks (monomers) or other valuable chemicals, allowing them to be repurposed into new plastics or products. It can handle a wider range of plastic types than traditional mechanical recycling and produce higher-quality recycled materials.
- Enhanced mechanical recycling: Advancements in mechanical recycling, such as automated sorting technologies and near-infrared spectroscopy, can improve the efficiency and quality of recycled plastics. These innovations enable better separation of different plastic types and contaminants, resulting in purer recycled materials.
- Recycling of multi-layer plastics: Multi-layer plastics, commonly used in food packaging, are difficult to recycle due to the different materials they contain. Emerging technologies, like the CreaSolv process, can selectively dissolve and separate the layers, allowing for the recovery and recycling of these challenging materials.
All of this being said, reducing the consumption of single-use plastics is also vital for a sustainable future. Innovations in packaging and product design can help minimize the reliance on disposable plastics:
- Edible and dissolvable packaging: Fun fact – edible films made from seaweed, proteins, or other natural materials can replace single-use plastic packaging, particularly in the food industry. What’s more, water-soluble packaging made from materials like polyvinyl alcohol can dissolve when exposed to water, reducing plastic waste.
- Reusable and refillable systems: By designing products and packaging with reusability and refilling in mind, companies can decrease the need for single-use plastics. Examples include refillable personal care products, reusable food containers, and bulk purchasing options.