From the earliest cellophane wrappings to the modern tubes of yoghurt and baby food, plastic packaging has come a long way over its 150-odd years. Matmatch investigates how the use of plastics changed modern life and explores some of the innovative trends set to change the face of plastic packaging well into the future.
Today we can assert without any doubt that there is a plastic suitable for almost any application. Plastic materials are very versatile, relatively easy to shape and they offer a wide and always growing range of formulations covering a broad spectrum of physical properties.
Plastics had and continue to have a huge impact on our everyday life, especially when we talk about packaging applications. They raised the standard of living and made goods, we nowadays take for granted, more readily available at lower costs.
In 2016, the world plastics production reached 335 million tons and about 40% went into the packaging industry. The most common polymers used worldwide for packaging are polyethylene terephthalate (PET), high-density and low-density polyethylene (HD-PE and LD-PE), polyvinyl chloride (PVC), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS).
Plastic Packaging in Modern Life
Polymers have brought important innovations in food and drink storage. Plastic packaging provides safety and hygiene, keeping the food fresh, protected from bacteria and germs thus reducing waste in the home. The food in your fridge may be wrapped in PVC cling film (accidentally discovered back in 1933 and named Saran), your yogurt is probably in polypropylene tubs, leftovers from yesterday’s dinner stored in Tupperware® (developed in the 1940’s featuring for the first time polyethylene airtight food containers) and milk in Tetra Pak® cartons (where a polyethylene film acts as a water-tight barrier).
PET bottles allow hygienic access to clean drinking water and are less resource-intensive to produce than alternative materials. Even the inside of aluminium cans is often protected by a microns thick polymer film (such as epoxy, vinyl, acrylic, polyester, styrene, polyethylene or polypropylene).
Plastics employed for this purpose have to have excellent barrier properties, be suitable for contact with food and free of dangerous chemicals for human health like, for example, bisphenol A (BPA). This substance is employed as an additive during the manufacturing process and it can migrate to our food, water and finally our bodies causing alterations in the endocrine system. Additional performance requirements include suitability for microwaves, dishwashers and freezer safety.
The same is true for personal care and cosmetic products where plastics are important for shelf life and appeal. The polymers used for the packaging must be in compliance with international regulations, with negligible moisture absorption, resistant to solvents, allow for superior aesthetics and offer excellent physical performance to the end user.
In pharmaceutical drug delivery, polymer film coatings are frequently applied. The motivation for that ranges from cosmetic considerations (colour, gloss), improving the stability (light protection, moisture and gas barrier) and ease of swallowing. In addition, functional polymer coatings can be used to modify the drug release behaviour from the dosage form. Depending on the polymers used it is possible to either delay or sustain the release of the drug over extended periods of time.
In addition to the above-mentioned advantages, plastics also contribute to saving resources and reducing emissions. Since they are lightweight and strong, fewer vehicles and less fuel is needed during transportation.
Bioeconomy Applied to Plastic Packaging
Along with benefits, there are also downsides. Because many plastics are so durable and do not corrode (many will persist for hundreds of years), they create considerable disposal problems. Nonetheless, progress has been made and now many plastics can be chemically, mechanically or thermally recycled or eventually used for the generation of energy. At the same time, material producers are developing bioplastics, which are made from plant crops instead of fossil fuels, to create more environmentally friendly substances than conventional plastics.
Typical and widely used bioplastics include polylactic acid (PLA) and polyhydroxybutyrates (PHB). Others are working to make biodegradable plastics.
The 12th European Bioplastics Conference that took place in Berlin at the end of November 2017 was an opportunity to explore the direction of growth and innovation of a segment that will play an increasingly prominent role in packaging.
PepsiCo announced their plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 20% between 2015 and 2030 and to work towards 100% recyclable, compostable or biodegradable packaging by 2025. The adoption of bioplastics is, therefore, an acknowledged key component of its long-term sustainable packaging strategy.
Meanwhile, Danone and Nestlé Waters introduced the NaturALL Bottle Alliance, an unprecedented initiative in which the world’s biggest bottled water companies are working together to create the next generation bio-based PET bottle. The project expects to achieve industrial-scale PET resin production featuring 75% bio-based feedstocks by 2020, rising to 95% by 2022. The initiative is planning to use second-generation lignocellulosic biomass such as used carton board and sawdust.
Major brands and manufacturers are continuously investigating new ways towards sustainable packaging and the promotion of a circular plastics economy because plastics are not perfect but they are an important and necessary part of our future.
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