The circular economy of plastics

A look at managing plastics in the food industry through innovation

By Carol Zweep

Plastic waste is a global issue. When plastic is released into the environment outside a managed waste stream, it becomes pollution. Plastic pollution found in waterways and oceans causes harm to wildlife. According to Plastic Oceans, more than 10 million tonnes of plastic is dumped into oceans every year and 1 million marine animals die every year when they become entangled in plastic or mistake it for food.
Plastics have many desirable properties as a packaging material: they are durable, strong, lightweight, water-resistant, and relatively easy and inexpensive to manufacture. Unfortunately, plastics in the environment degrade very slowly. Although excessive use of plastic packaging is concerning, some form of packaging is often necessary to maintain the hygiene or freshness of food or to maintain the integrity of a product during storage and distribution. Finding alternatives to plastic that combines all the desirable properties the material offers can be challenging.
In Canada, over 3 million tonnes of plastic waste are thrown away every year. With only 9% of plastic waste being recycled, most of the plastic ends up in landfills. Up to 15 billion plastic bags are used every year and close to 57 million straws are used daily.
The Canada-Wide Strategy on Zero Plastic Waste was introduced by the Canadian Council of Ministers of the Environment (CCME) in November 2018. This strategy was built on the Ocean Plastics Charter and takes a circular economy approach to plastics, providing a framework for action. Currently, plastic material flows are largely linear. The circular economy aims to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible and closes the loop in the use of natural resources by reducing, reusing, repairing, remanufacturing, recycling and composting materials, and by recovering energy at end-of-life.
To support the Zero Plastic Waste Strategy and promote the circular economy, the Government of Canada published the Single-Use Plastics Prohibition Regulations on June 22, 2022. The regulation prohibits the manufacture, import and sale of single-use plastic checkout bags, cutlery, foodservice ware made from or containing problematic plastics, ring carriers, stir sticks and straws. Single-use plastics are found in the environment and often not recycled, but viable alternatives are available.
On February 12, 2022, the Government of Canada published a Notice of Intent and a technical issues paper on the development of proposed regulations that would set minimum recycled content requirements for certain plastic manufactured items. As part of Canada’s plan to achieve zero plastic waste by 2030, the Government of Canada will require all plastic packaging in Canada to contains at least 50% recycled content.

Tips for making the most of plastic packaging

Front-end Design
Packages should be designed to eliminate problematic or unnecessary plastic packaging. The materials and components (e.g. labels, closures, sleeve, etc.) should be selected to ensure packages can be reused, recycled or composted. The Golden Design Rules developed by the Consumer Goods Forum provide guidelines on which plastics should be primarily used for packaging and address specific design elements. The purpose is to maximize recovery of recyclable materials and increase the value of plastics in the marketplace.

Development and investment are required in collection systems to enable convenient and necessary recovery of waste. Rural and remote communities, residential buildings and businesses pose collection challenges. Extended producer responsibility (EPR) programs are recognized as one of the most effective mechanisms to support the creation of a circular economy. EPR is a strategy to make the producer (i.e., brand owners, first importers or manufacturers) responsible for the waste management costs of their packaging and shift it away from municipalities and taxpayers. EPR programs also incentivize producers to change packaging design to support waste reduction, reuse and recycling activities.

Participation and Engagement
Two key ways of increasing the capture of recyclables are raising consumer awareness and inspiring participation in sustainable practices, including behavioral changes around recycling. Other means to improve engagement include the education of youth by providing information on plastics to teachers to incorporate into school programs. Leading initiatives and encouraging good waste management practices at businesses, organizations and institutions will also improve recyclable material capture.

Technology is used to sort and maximize the capture of recyclable plastics in an efficient manner. Advances in technology include robotic recycling sorting that uses artificial intelligence and robotics to sort plastics.

The expansion of facilities for easy-to-recycle products and capacity to deal with plastics not currently recycled in Canada is required. Scaling solutions of advanced recovery and recycling methods, including both mechanical and chemical recycling, is also needed.

End Markets
Seeking opportunities and markets for commonly recycled plastics as well as contaminated and hard-to-recycle plastics will drive the recycling business. Challenges include virgin resins that are available at lower prices than recycled resins. Diverse measures are needed to increase the supply, demand and quality of recycled plastics.
There are, however, a few important considerations. New packaging will need to meet municipalities’ infrastructure for recyclability and composability, which varies from region to region across the country. This requires food and beverage companies to consider how the change in materials or design of the package will affect their product. Specifically:
If new materials are used, they will need assurance of safety for food contact.
Change in material should not impart taste and odor to the product or appreciably affect its shelf life.
The redesigned package will need to withstand applicable thermal processing conditions and the rigors of handling, transportation and storage.
Lastly, presentation — and ensuring consumer-friendly use and acceptance of the new package — is critical for its success.

Plastic packaging game changers & barrier breakers

In recent years, several solutions have been introduced to address the challenges presented by plastic waste.
Edible and biodegradable packaging: Ooho is made from brown seaweed, a renewable natural resource. It is safe for consumption and can replace plastic single-use beverage bottles, cups, and condiment sachets.
Elimination of plastic packaging: Apeel is a plant-derived coating for fruit and vegetables that slows water loss and oxidation. It extends shelf-life without the need for plastic packaging, such as shrink-wrap on fruit and vegetables.
Reusable Takeout Container: Friendlier has designed a system with the circular economy in mind. After use, its entire takeout container can be returned to Friendlier collection bins, where the package is picked up, washed, sanitized and redistributed to create a closed loop system. At the end of its life, the polypropylene container can be recycled.
Recyclable Meat Tray: Klockner Pentaplast has developed a unique design for the bottom of the meat tray. This tray traps and retains liquid and keeps it away from the meat at any angle. This feature eliminates the use of an absorbent pad and improves the quality of the product while also providing clear product visibility. The PET (polyethylene terephthalate) tray has recycled content and is recyclable.
Compostable Packaging: Given the challenging nature of recycling single-use plastic-based coffee pods, composting is a preferred alternative and one recently explored by Nabob and Maxwell House brands, which developed a zero-waste solution for the entire package. All of the pod components, including the lids, rings and filter, along with the used coffee grounds, are compostable. The pods successfully break down real world-tested in a variety of composting conditions and processes. Additionally, the bag that holds the coffee pods is also compostable and the carton is recyclable.
Increasing recycling rate:
A relatively new innovation on the scene is digital watermarking technology, which enables a much higher sorting and recycling capture rate for packaging and helps reduce waste. Digimarc technology works by modifying the pixels of the packaging to carry an imperceptible code that is undetectable to the consumer but can be picked up by cameras, such as one installed on a sorting line at a waste management facility. Digimarc has been used for Procter & Gamble’s Lenor Fabric Softener but has applications for food packaging as well.
Processing of Recycled Plastic:
Ice River is a bottled water company that uses post-consumer PET from bottles and thermoform clamshell packaging to make new food containers and water bottles. The material is collected from municipal recycling facilities across Canada and the Northern U.S. Post-consumer material is often contaminated and requires rigorous purification to make food grade recycled plastic.
Hard-to-Recycle Plastics:
Companies are diverting hard-to-recycle plastics into other non-food products. For example, the recycling service company Firstar Fiber Corporation (Firstar) is working to transform hard-to-recycle plastic waste into value-added products, such as plastic lumber for use in decking and furniture. Also, CRDC Global announced scale solutions for converting hard-to-recycle plastic waste into a concrete additive for building and construction applications.
Innovative packaging solutions will require development activities, pilot evaluations and scale-up exercises at each step within the supply chain and at the end of life. Expanding citizen awareness, increasing collection and diversion of plastic waste are also key elements of the circular economy. The Zero-Plastic Waste action plan is ambitious. Collaborative efforts and support from government, industry and citizens are critical to achieving a circular economy that keeps plastic out of the environment.

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