Plastic films meet the needs of today’s market thanks to both their convenience and sustainability, explains GARY BUCHALTER, Innovations Director, RPC bpi protec…
The current anti-plastic sentiment that is dominating certain sectors of the media, particularly the coverage of ocean pollution, is in danger of demonising a material that in reality can make a major contribution to a more sustainable world.
Leaving aside the fact that the problem of plastics in our seas is man-made through littering, and therefore involves all carelessly-discarded goods or packaging, many commentators seem to solely blame plastic for causing this issue in the first place. The fact is that plastic packaging is merely responding to the demands of the lives we choose to lead. The desire for convenience; the growth in on-the-go consumption; the continuing popularity of ready-to-eat foods – plastic did not create these markets but has enabled them to flourish to meet the demand we as consumers have generated.
At the same time, such life choices are continually changing. Those who advocate the return of heavier packaging materials for many food products should look at recent trends in consumer shopping habits. A report by the Co-op in 2015 found that less than half of people now do a weekly shop at an out-of-town supermarket, preferring to shop locally and more frequently, or online.
The packaging industry has therefore had to respond to this trend with smaller and more lightweight packs that are easier to carry, requirements that plastic has long been able to meet. Lighter packs also play a vital role in minimising the impact of carbon emissions during transportation.
Equally true, there is widespread acknowledgment that the environmental impact of food waste is a far greater problem than packaging waste. Plastic packs have the ability to deliver the required protection to maintain freshness and quality, and even extend shelf-life.
For all these issues, the on-going development and enhancement of plastic film technology continues to make a vital contribution. As a prime example of food waste, a staggering 46% of all potatoes sold do not make it to the meal table. A major factor in this is the green discolouration that occurs when potatoes are exposed to too much light, causing them to develop a bitter taste and become unsuitable for consumption due to a build-up of harmful toxins.
EXCEL WITH X-HANCE
It was precisely the need to tackle this problem that led to the development of RPC bpi protec’s X-Hance breathable opaque film which protects potatoes and other products from light rays to deliver extended shelf life.
For effective portion control, peelable LDPE films offer the convenience of re-sealability, while individually hermetically-sealed pockets, with an easy-tear feature between each one, maintain the freshness and quality of single products until they are consumed.
A similar use of this technology enables two products – for example a powder and a liquid – to be kept separate and then easily mixed at the point of consumption. This is another example of portion control, product protection and extended shelf life that at the same time meets the needs of the convenience market.
Stand-up pouches are one of the fastest growing flexible packaging formats, according to a report from AMI. Nevertheless, the traditional laminate construction of many of the current generation of packs means that they are unsuitable for recycling. By comparison, latest PE film technology is now able to create this type of pack format while also being fully recyclable.
CIRCLE OF LIFE
Equally important, the recyclability of these films is not just theoretical but is actually happening. As one of the UK’s leading plastic
recyclers, the RPC bpi group reprocesses around 70,000-tonnes of this material every year, making useful second life products including refuse sacks, long-lasting wood-alternative products such as park benches, and construction membranes. This ability to build in recyclability into product design and then produce new items from the recycled material is a true example of the circular economy that is at the heart of delivering effective sustainability. And as part of this, RPC bpi group has been working with the Ellen MacArthur Foundation in the production of design guidelines for flexible plastics to facilitate recycling.
We also need to remember that another essential role for packaging is to promote a product. Film offers the ability to produce high quality print and graphics to enhance on-shelf presence and project brand image – but it can also provide the ideal opportunity to outline the sustainability benefits of the material (as well as nutritional information about the product) and emphasise its role in helping to support a more environmentally-friendly world.
Indeed, promoting the many benefits of plastic film will be crucial in helping consumers understand how the material enables them to lead the lives they want to lead while supporting their wish to preserve our planet for future generations.