How are sustainability and smart packaging related, and what does the future hold for partnerships between these two areas? Andrew Manly, Communications Director of AIPIA, reflects on this in our last commentary.
Sustainability is a complex word, reflecting a very complex subject. Defining sustainability as a single concept is a bit like trying to explain smart packaging as a single technology. But while the two are multi-faceted, whether or not they are compatible has occupied the minds of packaging and sustainability experts for some time. So, let’s take a look.
For the record: when it comes to sustainable packaging, the term can generally mean “easier to recycle”, “made from renewable or compostable resources”, “using fewer resources” and now includes a trend to ” reuse’ rather than ‘recycle’. For smart packaging, the terminology falls into two general categories, “active” and “intelligent/connected”.
In the beginning, most smart packaging elements were considered very un-environmentally friendly; hence silver and copper conductive inks, metallic RFID tags and active coatings using chemicals (often with metallic elements such as silver) which had antimicrobial properties, but made them impossible to recycle.
As with most things, oversimplification can lead to misconceptions. I have long advocated that sustainability should not just refer to the packaging but to the whole product – and throughout its life cycle – food waste can often have a far greater environmental impact than the packaging.
Likewise, there are many smart packaging components that can be extracted and recycled or, by extending the shelf life or condition of the product, make a huge contribution to its sustainability.
Additionally, the technologies for both of these types of packaging have taken giant leaps forward, as has thinking about what constitutes a sustainable and smart path to a circular economy. So, lately, the idea that reuse might be a more effective strategy than recycling has gained traction.
This is partly due to recycling capacity issues (not so much collection rates as the ability to use all materials efficiently) and partly because it can be uneconomical to recycle everything and even harmful to the environment. environment. According to a study conducted by Flexible Packaging Europe, there is clear evidence that some flexible plastics have less environmental impact with zero recycling than rigid plastics with 80% recycling. Whether that message gets across is another matter.
Likewise, smart packaging has developed more environmentally friendly products, such as paper RFID tags, conductive inks made from recyclable materials such as graphene, and active packaging components derived from natural sources such as such as cellulose, plants, essential oils or durian skin.
There has also been huge publicity recently for digital watermarks and codes that can help identify and sort different plastics for more efficient recycling. But in terms of the leverage that smart packaging can bring to the sustainable arena, in my opinion, it’s probably its ability to inform that has the potential to create the most impact.
Packaging Europe’s Sustainable Packaging Summit in Lisbon from 13e at 14e September will explore the sustainable transformation of packaging that requires system-level change and a willingness from every stakeholder to embrace a new mindset as well as new technologies. Although the sustainable versus smart packaging equation is only part of this, it definitely has a role to play in the debate.
People want to recycle their packaging, but often don’t know how, where and even why. Connected packaging can tell a story and provide those answers in a very simple and accessible way. Companies such as Tetra Pak and Coca Cola have already recognized this and are using smart packaging technology to achieve their sustainability goals.
Of course, it’s a work in progress on every level. But there is certainly room for optimism.
This article was created in collaboration with AIPIA (Active and Intelligent Packaging Industry Association). Packaging Europe and AIPIA join forces to bring news and commentary on the active and smart packaging landscape to a wider audience. To learn more about this partnership, click here.