How do you make eco workable? For all the right reasons, eco friendly packaging is a top priority for every business involved in processing, production, logistics and retail – in other words, for almost everyone. The awareness of businesses and the public about emissions and plastic waste is at an all-time high, and concern about the global environment is only going to increase.

So how are companies addressing the challenge of using packaging that protects goods without causing lasting harm to the planet? What are the latest trends and where can businesses go to find solutions that will work for a wide range of very different needs? PPMA provides an indispensable gateway to practical and cost-effective eco-packaging solutions. Here we look at a cross-section of what our members are doing.  

Eco friendly food packaging

Research by the charity WRAP (the Waste and Resources Action Programme) has found that over a billion tonnes of plastic packaging are used by the food, drink and hospitality sectors in the UK. The good news is that recycling by consumers and businesses is on the rise, but an effective long-term solution to the plastic waste problem has to involve a range of different approaches.

Shelf life and food waste

A fundamental issue for food producers is shelf life, and the use of plastic packaging has extended the longevity of fresh food in particular. That’s good news for producers, logistics operations and retailers, as well as consumers. From an environmental point of view, long shelf life means less food waste. Reducing our food waste from the current levels of around 20% remains an important driver for a greener approach to food production and consumption.

Air Products have created a carbon footprint calculator for a range of fresh food products and different kinds of packaging. It shows how a lack of packaging (eg for over the counter sales) has a greater carbon footprint than packaged food, because of the level of food waste that arises with unpackaged food. It is clear that packaging which gives food a longer window for consumption has real environmental benefits.

But what if the use of plastic is to be kept to a minimum?

Ulma Packaging UK has recently developed a tray sealing packaging method with a plastic reduction of up to 80% (on a 100% recyclable board that is separable from the top layer of film). This modified atmosphere packaging (MAP) solution is for sliced products, like meat and cheese. ULMA Packaging has also partnered with compostable packaging supplier TIPA to optimise the use of films for packaging which will decompose and be good for the environment.

How to reduce plastic waste

The aims for businesses are plain to see:

  • use less single use plastic
  • use more recyclable plastic
  • use more compostable and plant-based packaging

Sealed Air has designed an automated packaging system that utilises shrink bags and shrinkable films which can be easily recycled. The company is committed to challenging targets on recycling and the elimination of plastic waste. Southgate Packaging has addressed the issue of using bubble wrap, airbags and foam chips by offering recyclable Kraft paper void fill.

Use more paper, paperboard and cardboard

The drive for sustainable packaging is resulting in an ever more inventive use of paper and paperboard (otherwise known as cardboard).  We are seeing paperboard trays for pharmaceuticals, replacing the plastic and foil blister packs which are still commonplace. The same approach is also increasingly being seen in cosmetics, and indeed for a growing number of smaller, dry products. 

Paper is also coming into its own in filling machinery. It works well for flexible bagging in VFFS (vertical form fill and seal) machines, amply demonstrating how a theoretically fragile material like paper can be used. 

Jenton Group has developed packaging equipment including paper banding machinery which involves no plastic at all. Before these new developments, all materials, even paper, had to have a plastic heat seal coating.

Cardboard trays and sleeves for fresh fruit are increasingly common on supermarket shelves, and they represent a significant step forward from the ubiquitous presence of plastic. Cardboard sleeves for trays of all kinds are also reassuringly familiar.

Making eco workable for meat and fish

For fresh meat and fish, cardboard trays are also being used but they invariably make use of plastic coatings to ensure the products keep well and that the packaging isn’t degraded by moisture. Sealing under film used to be a challenge for paper type trays, but no longer. Advances in film application and adhesion ensure that the packages are safely sealed and ready for transport, display and a few days’ home storage.

Sealing machinery is now available which will deal not just with paper trays but also with containers made with previously unused materials ranging from PLATM (a type of polyester made from fermented plant starch) to bamboo.

Bradman Lake Group makes flow wrapping machines that run with recyclable, biodegradable, paper and single substrate mono materials. Future developments will also ensure higher throughputs, increased sealing times and lower operating temperatures.

Technology for eco friendly packaging

There is no end of high tech approaches to improving the use of materials which can only be good news for the environment. For example, high speed hot melt glue application systems have been designed to cope with eco-friendly materials. Systems work with infrared cameras in combination with intelligent machine vision software to ensure that glue is used in exactly the right amount at the right place and the right temperature. High tech vision systems are also available to identify defects at various points in processing and packaging lines.

When it comes to waste sortation and recycling, vision systems are now used to spot non-plastics in plastic waste. They often work alongside robots used to pick out different types of waste and contaminants, thereby increasing the speed and accuracy of recycling operations.

Using less

One of the key principles of sustainability is to use less material to arrive at the same result. A great example is from Robatech who have developed an anti-slip solution for pallet stabilisation. A small amount of hot melt adhesive is applied to goods before they are stacked on a pallet. The result is a safe and stable unit for transport and storage. This approach can significantly reduce, or even eliminate, the need for traditional plastic stretch wrap film and intermediate layers of cardboard sheets.

Other examples of using less are pillow packs made using 10% less material than larger crimped sheets and the use of banding rather than full plastic hoods. Where stretch wrap is used, less is needed if the process is started with a tight wrap before shrinking it.

The packaging sector is looking at every way of reducing the amount of material used, and that’s important whether it is recyclable, biodegradable, compostable or not.  

Testing the eco friendly approach

IMA Illapak is a global leader in packaging machinery. Alongside their core machinery, the group has a lab testing facility called OpenLab. Here they evaluate emerging eco-friendly and breakthrough materials before they are commercially available, so they can be run on the IMA Illapak machines. For businesses exploring new materials for use with the company’s machines, this is an excellent opportunity to understand what will and won’t work.     

Eco friendly packaging in summary

The top trends in packaging unquestionably take environmental issues into account and include:

  • Alternatives to single use plastic
  • The move to paper, cardboard, paperboard
  • Recyclable, biodegradable, compostable and plant-based packaging materials
  • Packaging machinery designed to work with eco friendly materials
  • Using less packaging material for the same results
  • Partnerships between materials suppliers and machinery suppliers
  • Alternative packaging such as pouches not trays

You can explore more on these vitally important topics on the PPMA Show website:

The Future of Sustainable Packaging
The Future of Sustainable Packaging Part 2
Compostable and biodegradable packaging for the anti-packaging age