Plastic packaging recycling calls for better design, fewer materials

Much of the environmental footprint of our packaging could be reduced by better design.
Much of the environmental footprint of our packaging could be reduced by better design. Source: Osoon

Experts told ERR's "Ozone" that planning for recycling is as crucial as sorting waste, even though separating waste has become a social norm.

Every Estonian generates an average of 160-170 kilograms of packaging waste per year, causing massive environmental damage.

However, according to the Estonian packaging design guide, up to 80 percent of the environmental impact of packaging is determined before it reaches the consumer: the materials used and the design of the packaging influence whether or not an item is recyclable.

"It is critical to consider the material used. Diverse composite materials, such as plastic, paper and possibly metal are commonly used in combination for marketing purposes to make packaging more attractive. However, in terms of natural resources, eventual disposal of such packaging is exceedingly costly. So ecologically friendly packaging still consists of one material type," Rainer Pesti, business development manager at Ragn-Sells Waste Management, explained.

Ragn-Sells has installed a sophisticated infrared detecting device on its sorting line to distinguish between the various types of packaging materials that arrive.

This device can detect different types of plastic and direct them to the appropriate tubes. Plastics, according to Pest, are the most difficult to recycle; it is nearly impossible to recycle packaging made of complex plastics.

"With each each year, the complexity of the plastics produced is growing. What this machine certainly can't do is change the composition of the material. Because a significant portion of current packaging is still made of composite materials, it is simply converted to energy after sorting," Pesti said.

Smart solutions

This is not to say that manufacturers of packaging ignore the issue of recyclable materials.

For example, Marek Harjak, CEO of EstPak Plastik, said that despite the fact that each of their customers has unique requirements, the company has progressed to the point where they only make so-called mono-materials.

Food packaging is typically the most difficult aspect to master because it must consider both commercial appeal and food safety.

Harjak used meat containers as an example; they typically have a suction pad attached to the bottom to collect liquid in the box. "It has been now replaced by a honeycomb base, which works on the same principles as before: it absorbs the liquid, preventing the product from coming into contact with it and no additional substances are required to preserve the food," he said.

Even if a manufacturer develops a novel packaging solution that reduces material costs and improves recyclability, critical food packaging considerations emerge immediately, such as how the novel packaging will affect the food's shelf life and safety.

Kart Saarniit, director of the Center of Food and Fermentation Technologies (CFFT), is investigating which packaging is best for a specific food product.

"There is no avoiding plastic packaging. Personally, I do not believe that plastic is bad. Unfortunately, plastic provides the best and most necessary qualities for food products. We simply do not know how to use it properly, as we do with glass and metal," Saarniit said.

Saarniit said that there are times when corporations want to add "very nice marketing extras" to packaging, but it is always better to use as few materials as possible. Food safety, on the other hand, must not be compromised in any way.

However, creating sophisticated packaging from mono-materials is not always easy. Tere Dairy, for example, launched a new line of yogurts wrapped in cork containers that are 100 percent recyclable earlier this year.

Katrin Tamm, Tere's head of sustainable development, said that what distinguishes this packaging is that both the container and the cap are made of a same material.

This type of packaging is now unique in Europe, and it has reached the Estonian market in large part due to the fact that Estonia is a small country with a small market.

Clearly, food manufacturers are constantly striving to reduce the amount of material used in packaging. EstPak, for example, has developed meat containers with ribbed walls that reduce the amount of material used by 10 to 15 percent.

Katrin Tamm, for example, told about an effort to make yogurt containers more environmentally friendly:

"It eventually stopped resembling packaging. It morphed into a monster. Moreover, the packaging lines still set us some pretty tough limits. The investment in packaging lines is substantial, still in the millions of dollars. We must be certain that if we decide to invest in a new packaging line, we will use it for at least ten years," Tamm said.


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Editor: Kristina Kersa

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