Packaging Innovations 2023: Are plastics struggling to sell in a “post-LCA world”?
21 Feb 2023 --- At this year’s Packaging Innovations trade show in Birmingham, UK, fewer paper and cardboard-based companies were present than in previous years. Plastics manufacturers, however, were on full display. We discuss how this could be a sign of tightening legislation against greenwashing, a continued move toward fiber-based solutions and an answer to consumer demand for non-fossil fuel-based solutions.
PackagingInsights speaks with Paul Foulkes-Arellano, circularity educator at Circuthon consulting, who says the strong smell of plastics throughout the tradeshow hall reflects how the packaging industry is changing.
“Now we’re back, a lot of the big packaging companies are probably so busy they aren’t exhibiting and I would say that is more on the paper and pulp side – probably because they are in huge demand,” he remarks. “If you look at the guest list from three years ago, a lot of them aren’t here anymore.”
“What is interesting is if you look around the predominance of plastics companies. Why do you come to a show unless you want to sell and that suggests that they are struggling to sell.”
Foulkes-Arellano says this is largely due to regulatory changes against greenwashing and the build-up of anti-plastics sentiment among consumers globally.
“The plastics industry is having to come out and be on the front foot about what they’re doing. If you look at the stands, almost everyone has words like ‘recyclable’ or ‘sustainable,’” he continues.
UK Plastics Pact, he claims. Every brand that has signed up to the pact, which has over 100 members from various areas of industry, including major F&B producers like Coca-Cola, supermarket chains like Lidl and FMCGs like Unilever, must be compliant by 2025. The pact requires them to achieve 100% plastics recyclability and a 70% recycling rate.This trend has come in response to the
The fight against greenwashing
Recently, the UK’s Competition and Markets Authority implemented new rules that could impose fines of tens of millions of pounds sterling on companies making false or misleading claims about their products.
“What is interesting to me is that we now have new guidance on messaging – we’ve just had a whole pile of expressions outlawed in the UK. Expressions like ‘planet-friendly’ and ‘eco-friendly’ are now seemingly banned unless you can back it up,” Foulkes-Arrellano says.
“I am a circular economy consultant, and everything at the show is pretty much part of a linear economy. We are seeing a lot of people who’ve gone from multilayered to monomaterial designs that are theoretically recyclable.”
ProAmpac, for example, was showcasing its RT-3000 Retort Pouches, which have a monomaterial structure designed for recycling.
However, the UK neither has the capacity nor the collection infrastructure to accommodate such products, asserts Foulkes-Arellano.
“Even if we had 20 plants that could take flexibles, it would not work. Local authorities are not collecting them. Supermarket drop-off is being warehoused because there is nowhere for it to go.”
“‘Recyclable’ is almost a red flag word now – where is it recyclable and when and how? For me, the paper stream is very solid. One of the main things I’ve been looking at is migration into paper – it's happening in every format – pouches, pallets, bottles. It’s happening across the board,” he continues.
“If you want to get toward a high recycling rate, you have to go metal glass or paper.”
A post-LCA world?
Not all experts and industry players agree that the shift away from plastics is beneficial for the environment. Studies have shown that paper production from trees, for example, can contribute to droughts and forest fires and can produce more greenhouse gas emissions than the aviation industry.
Life cycle assessments (LCA) often point to plastics having a far lower emissions rate than alternatives, regardless of recyclability or recycling rates.
Foulkes Arellano, however, says we now entered “a post-LCA world.”
“Every single manufacturer in here will have an LCA, but they are just telling you about carbon. Their LCAs are based on something that is recycled. If the recycling rate is actually 2-3%, then the LCA is invalid.”
“The LCA for a virgin material is one thing, but what happens to that LCA as you recycle multiple times?” he asks. “There is not a direct correlation between LCA figures and your planet friendliness.”
“Smart packaging suppliers are looking at whole ecosystems; they’re looking at toxicity and renewables, both in energy and feedstocks. An LCA is a snapshot in time – it’s literally looking at one metric, whereas the metrics are four-dimensional if you add time.”
“Nothing is static and what you can see here at this exhibition is a point in time. Six years ago, it was all about flexibles, lightweighting and convenience, and now you don’t see those trends. It’s a different world,” he says.
By Louis Gore-Langton
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