The future of packaging

Hon.-Prof. Dr. Sascha Peters, HAUTE INNOVATION – Future Agency for Material & Technology, Berlin

Guest contribution: Dr. Sascha Peters

The corona pandemic shows once again that plastics in hygiene articles, for food packaging or simply as a protective screen in the checkout area cannot simply be replaced by other materials. Plastics are inexpensive, easy to process and shape and keep hygienically tight.

In the form of face masks, disposable gloves or ToGo packaging, however, they quickly end up in the garbage after their work is done, which is currently driving up the volume of waste. The municipal waste disposal Frankfurt’s FES recorded a total of 2,608 tons in March and April 2020, around 11 percent more packaging waste than in the previous months. In March 2020, the recycling company Der Grüne Punkt found a mountain of waste from private yellow bins that was 10 percent larger. The successes in reducing the amount of plastic that have been achieved in recent years are reversed in the pandemic.

We need to rethink, and it has not only recently been the case. But what to do in an economic system that has had a linear understanding of resource consumption for decades and has not thought in closed cycles. Products were thought of by companies and designers with the customer right up to the point of sale and usually not beyond. There was a decoupling of the manufacture of the products and their disposal, which now makes it so difficult to convert the system. The responsibility for the necessary change process can only be borne on the basis of cooperation between customers, product developers and manufacturers as well as political decision-makers, as the past few years have shown very clearly. The growing desire of the customer for a sustainable use of our resources and our environment will help to change the system and change it in the direction of a functioning circular economy.

Less is more

When it comes to sustainability, society is divided. While some call for renunciation and proclaim “less is more”, others call for innovations. This split can be observed in almost all major topics: mobility, energy, housing, consumption and nutrition. This summer we were able to observe what “less is more” can mean for industries and countries that are dependent on tourism. The urgent need to move away from plastic-based packaging in order to reduce the volume of waste seems to have been reduced to absurdity, at least in the short term, by the pandemic.

Reuse, refurbish, recycle

The fact that the truth approaches shades of gray in black and white arguments is also known by the many initiatives that have committed themselves to promoting a circular economy. The approaches to the design of the material flows are based on technical and biological cycles. Natural materials and biomass should remain natural, should not be treated or coated industrially and, after the end of the life cycle of a product, should be added to the biological cycle or be available again as natural nutrients. All other materials, especially high-quality materials such as metals, which are produced with high energy input, should circulate in the technical cycle. The adherents of the “less is more” principle can also be found here. Not only should the materials be reused, but resource efficiency should be increased through the repeated use of a product, the processing of components in other areas of use and the recycling of the materials. Great importance is attached to designers in this context. Because by designing a product including the packaging, they lay the foundation for which and, above all, how materials are used and how easily they can be returned to the material flows at the end of the life cycle.

Planned recycling quotas for 2019 and 2022 (source: § 16 VerpackG)

The European Union is planning a recycling rate of at least 65 percent across all types of waste and industries for the year 2035; the aim for landfill is a maximum of ten percent. The differences in the individual countries between actual and target are still clear, but the desire for a functioning circular economy is being formulated more and more clearly. With the Packaging Act, the Federal Republic of Germany is attempting to significantly improve recycling rates in the packaging sector. This is essential, especially for polymer materials and plastics. Because if official bodies assume a current rate of recycling of plastics in packaging of 36-39%, the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy has a significantly lower rate of 17.3% for 2019 after deducting usable composite materials and exports Plastics calculated. Similar figures have become known from Sweden.

As a consequence, a tightening of the legal requirements is required in order to prescribe the use of recycling material for plastic producers. But if you look at the damage that incorrectly deposited or recycled plastics can cause in nature, in addition to optimizing our recycling system and reducing the packaging volume as a whole, material and packaging innovations for the biological cycle should be in the foreground. Current developments by a large number of designers and companies give hope that there will be many innovations in the field of biodegradable and compostable systems in the future:

A good example of avoiding plastic packaging in the hygiene area is the “Soapbottle” by Joanna Breitenhuber, which was created as part of a master’s thesis at the UDK Berlin and was awarded the Federal Ecodesign Prize in 2019. As a packaging for liquid detergents, the soapbottle itself consists of soap and, after the contents have been used up, can be used as hand soap or processed as a detergent. Packaging waste is completely avoided, as soap consists of natural raw materials and is therefore biodegradable.

Image: Soapbottle (Source: Jonna Breitenhuber)

The Munich mechanical engineering company Landpack shows with its insulating packaging “Landbox” that even agricultural residues are suitable as a resource for packaging systems for the growing online food trade. This consists of straw and can be disposed of in the organic waste bin or composted in the garden. According to the manufacturer, the packaging is produced in a climate-neutral manner. Only a fraction of the energy is required for the production of comparable packaging made of Styrofoam with a similarly good insulation capacity. The straw used comes from farmers in the area.

The paper industry in particular is one of the drivers of innovation in the development of environmentally friendly packaging systems. One example is the development “Compostella”, a high-purity special paper made from unbleached wood cellulose , Water and sugar is produced and can replace conventional aluminum foil and cling film as well as siliconised baking paper. Thanks to the mechanical treatment of supercalendering, it is grease-proof, heat-resistant and suitable for direct contact with food. In production, the material is passed over hot steel rollers and extremely tightly pressed and highly compressed. It does not contain any chemical additives and is neither coated, lacquered nor impregnated. The wood used comes from Scandinavian thinning wood, which is obtained from forest maintenance.

A number of companies have tried in recent years to develop an environmentally friendly alternative to PET bottles based on paper. These should have sufficient tightness for the transport of liquids and should be able to degrade in nature after use if improperly disposed of. The “Green Fiber Bottle” is a development from Denmark and should be 100% bio-based and completely recyclable. At the end of 2019, a research prototype was presented that was made from sustainably sourced wood fibers and contained an inner barrier layer made of a bio-based PEF polymer film barrier that has no negative impact on the environment. Originally, at the start of development, the use of a thin glass coating inside the packaging was assumed.

Developments by designers who are currently not only innovators but also as entrepreneurs and producers on the market show that resources from the sea are particularly suitable for the development of biodegradable materials for packaging want to establish.

The Vietnamese designer Uyen Tran, for example, combines the biopolymer chitin with coffee grounds to produce a flat material called Tômtex. Chitin is not only the main component of the exoslcone of insects, it is also found in the clamshells and shells of shrimp and other marine crustaceans. The word “Tôm” means “shrimp” in the Vietnamese language and thus gives an indication of the most important component of the biodegradable sheet material that can be used in packaging systems.

With MarinaTex, designer Lucy Hughes has a compostable material based on waste from the fishing industry such as in her thesis at the University of Sussex Fish scales and red algae developed as an alternative to single-use plastic films. Most of the biodegradable bioplastics that are used in packaging today can only be composted at high temperatures and humidity in industrial plants. In contrast, MarinaTex can also be returned to nature in four to six weeks in the garden or in your own household at temperatures between 7 and 26 ° C. In 2019 the innovation was awarded the James Dyson Award.

The British start-up Notpla shows with its Ooho a that home-compostable disposable packaging based on resources from the sea has already arrived on the market > Solutions. The packaging for drinks and spicy sauces is based on algae extracts and vegetable ingredients and is biodegradable in a few weeks or can even be consumed. The basis of the manufacturing process is the possibility of encapsulating liquids through “spherification”, which comes from molecular cuisine. The alginate contained in algae reacts as a thickening and gelling agent with calcium ions and cross-links to form a three-dimensional sponge network. Notpla has developed the technology to the point that Ooho could eliminate the waste problem at major events by replacing plastic cups and bottles. For example, the company has already given 35,000 oohos to runners in the 2019 London Marathon.

It looks like innovations in the biological cycle can make a significant contribution to reducing the amount of waste in the packaging sector and to designing closed material cycles. The future will show how many of these exciting innovations will establish themselves on the market and how they will be accepted by the food companies.