The best packaging materials for the circular economy

Single use packaging and how to recycle it has been in the news since the beginning of 2018, when China stopped accepting much of our waste. Recently the media have been dominated by images of marine plastic, most of which originates from rivers in Asia where there is limited municipal waste disposal. It is clear that our changing lifestyles mean that we are consuming ever more packaged food and drink. Whether this is to minimise food waste or because we consume more food outside the home, the effect is the same. More packaging is used and more is disposed of.  

Aluminium has excellent barrier and structural properties suited to food packaging but its use has been limited by competition from plastic and paper/card. Card is also used in a multilayer structure with plastic and aluminium for certain applications. Large quantities of waste packaging including metals and plastic have historically been sold to China, which viewed them as a useful resource. At the start of this year, China refused to accept the majority of the waste plastic shipments. With European recyclers unable to cope with the additional material, regulators have been spurred into action. Collection and recycling of all packaging in Europe, without outsourcing the problem to other countries is urgently needed.

Reducing the amount of waste going to landfill and redirecting it to recycling is the target of the Circular Economy package of measures. Directives concerning waste disposal have been updated, but they have long time horizons. Over the last few months, the debate has moved on to regulatory measures that will have a more immediate impact.  

Of course aluminium is ideally suited to the Circular Economy as it is infinitely recyclable. In contrast, plastic can only be recycled a few times before it is degraded and must be disposed of. Down cycling to a lower grade use is often the reality of plastic recycling. Multilayer paper containers require an extra step to separate the layers before recycling individual layers. Aluminium has other advantages too. 

It is very demanding to recycle waste plastic to a high specification use like food grade material. This reality is now dawning as the EU process for approving plastic recycling processes is criticised by food safety organisations as insufficiently rigorous to ensure recycled plastic is sufficiently free from contaminants such as fire retardants or toxic legacy chemicals. Waste aluminium retains much of its value compared to virgin aluminium, which is another strong argument in favour of aluminium for single use items. There is a financial incentive for collection and recycling. In Europe and the US this pays for municipal collection. In Asia it encourages individuals to collect waste aluminium rather than discard it. This is not currently the case for most forms of plastic packaging. 

The European Commission in its plastics strategy  has already suggested that the value of recycled plastic needs to increase to pay for waste collection, sorting and processing. But virgin plastic is often cheaper than recycled. A tax on recyclable virgin plastic has been proposed to redress the balance . Recyclers are in favour of a minimum recycled content in all plastic packaging . Both proposals are intended to change the balance between the costs of virgin and recycled material. But measures designed to artificially change market values often have unintended consequences. In the biofuels sector, where fuels from biowaste receive extra incentives compared with virgin biomass, used cooking oil has become so scarce that European biodiesel companies import it from China. To avoid traps associated with market manipulation, it would be better to promote actively materials for packaging that are economic to recycle. 

A new Directive focussing on marine litter  attempts to do something similar. It targets the ten most common items found littering beaches. Governments will be required to bring in measures to reduce the consumption of plastic takeaway food packaging, coffee cups, packets and wrappers. So there could be a mandatory charge for plastic takeaway food containers. Aluminium foil or cardboard packaging could still be given away for free. Some items such as plastic cutlery will be banned outright in favour of alternatives.

The shift away from plastic for packaging may be starting. We are already seeing aluminium cans for water and other beverages. The latest brand of mineral water to enter Europe from the US has eschewed PET bottles for a card based multilayer container . This is certainly the time to remind regulators that in a circular economy, it is best to promote the use of easily recyclable materials. Trying to solve the Chinese puzzle of plastic recycling may not produce the desired solution.


This article was first published in Aluminium International Today

Published: 15 November 18

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