Replacing Conventional Plastics In Flexible Packaging

Monday, September 18th, 2017

With environmental concerns on the minds of both manufacturers and consumers, bio-laminate solutions can soon replace conventional plastics in flexible packaging. Tamaki Kaga, market development manager Asia-Pacific, Futamura, discusses the benefits of these solutions for brand owners.

In the creative and high-tech world of packaging, there area multitude of formats, applications and base materials to choose from.

Every day, millions of people use packaging made from glass, rigid plastics, cartons and flexible plastic packaging—so what do brand owners choose, how does this impact them and is there a viable sustainable alternative?

Here we shall focus on flexible packaging, which offers huge benefits for brand owners, such as lightweight/‘right-weighting’, lower carbon footprint, improved logistics, cost efficiency, convenience, product protection, contamination prevention, presentation opportunities, product information, etc. In general therefore, flexibility equals versatility.

However, with these benefits come mounting concerns for the health of our planet. Although lightweight packs are a great solution for lowering carbon footprint compared to some rigid packs, it can be argued that there is no value after use and that the pack has a higher risk of becoming abandoned waste; after all, how often do we see crisp packets and chocolate bar wrappers littering our streets?

Likewise, using mixed materials for lamination can offer fantastic functional benefits such as product protection and sealability but these laminates cannot practicably be separated and recycled. With this inherent one-way design, landfill or incineration is often seen as the ‘best’ option… but where does this lead?

K-Cups inventor John Sylvan once commented: “I sometimes wish I hadn’t done it”. Why? Well, to quote the Ellen McArthur Foundation and The World Economic Forum in a recent New Plastics Economy journal article; “Eight million tonnes of plastic ends up in the oceans each year… and by 2050 there’ll be more plastic in the sea than fish.”

This statistic is hard hitting and is grabbing the attention of brand owners and consumers alike.

A Better Solution In Bio-Laminates

So what action can brand owners take? They have a difficult decision to make. Brand reputation is based on consistency and the enhancement of that reputation where possible; therefore, any changes have to be well considered.

As brand owners are careful not to make any unsubstantiated green claims, they often take the safe option: to switch from rigid to flexibles and to light weight/ right-weight their packaging.

However, there is an increasing range of bio-laminates that are now available to brand owners, offering the same critical barrier properties of conventional plastics, but with a long list of independently certified and substantiated sustainability claims.

As previously mentioned, conventional flexible plastic laminates deliberately incorporate different layers to provide technical functionality, but if we continue to use mixed, incompatible raw materials, then recycling is compromised.

An example of a typical pack construction could include:

  • Layer A: PET (stiffness, printability, heat resistance)
  • Layer B: Metallised PET or Aluminium foil (moisture barrier, gas barrier, UV light barrier)
  • Layer C: PE (seal strength, integrity)

On the flip side, there are now products such as NatureFlex films, incorporating Futamura’s unique cellulose film and coating technologies, which have been harnessed to provide unparalleled gas and moisture barrier properties, excellent machinability and technical performance, without compromising the levels of renewable raw materials employed or the final compostability of the packaging material.

An example of a bio-laminate alternative for the conventional layers includes:

  • Layer A: Transparent cellulose film (high heat resistance, good optics and printability, good moisture & oxygen barrier, stiffness, easy tear, good dead fold, barrier to aromas and mineral oils, antistatic)
  • Layer B: Metallised cellulose film or PLA (Poly Lactic Acid) (exceptional barrier to moisture, gas, UV and aroma)
  • Layer C: Starch-based materials, PLA, Co-polyesters (PBAT/PBS) or Green PE (containment, offering varying levels of moisture permeability, transparency, renewability and/or compostability)

Still A Budding Revolution

But, if it is so easy to use, why aren’t there many more bio-laminates available today?

The performance of renewable and compostable resins and films has only recently reached a truly viable level: for example, the aforementioned cellulose film barrier performance has improved substantially without compromising compostability and there are now metallised films to further enhance barrier in laminate solutions.

Other recent developments include the arrival of the first true bio-adhesives and improvements in the sealant layer of biopolymers.

Cost efficiency is another point of interest when it comes to sustainable films; yes, there is a premium and, therefore, it needs to fit the right product type such as organic, natural and Fairtrade products, to match waste reduction and management priorities or for extended shelf-life capabilities, but this premium can see a great return on investment.

There are a number of priority markets where bio-based packaging is ideally suited, such as in Food Service. Bio-laminates are perfect for closed-loop situations, whereby stadiums, events and offices can sell products and collect the waste all in the same system; containing and disposing of their waste in a sustainable way.

Compostable solutions work well here because of the high risk of food contamination. Moisture permeable bio-based films can increase product shelf-life in fresh produce for example, and biodegradable labels can minimise compost contamination. In fact, in countries such as France, there is now legislation for all shop ‘point of sale’ bags to be home compostable.

Substantiating Sustainable Benefits For Brand Owners

Most bio-plastics contain readily renewable raw materials. It is therefore important to check that sustainable sourcing is available at the start of the pack life. During the manufacturing process, the Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) of the film is excellent for process impact, and though it might be difficult to understand, Futamura for example has developed its own user-friendly carbon footprint tool with thinkstep software (GaBi).

The next stage of the product life cycle is pack performance, which is critical to the shelf-life of the product and technical properties are therefore vital.

The end of pack life is where bioplastics really score high. As we want to divert waste from landfill, it is important that local infrastructures allow for the recycling of bio-plastics where it makes sense to, such as with bioplastic bottles, or to use bioplastics to aid organic waste recovery where typical recycling is impractical. Home compostable films can simply be put in a garden compost bin; this is the ultimate point of differentiation for compostable bio-plastics versus all other plastics.

What Is The Payback For Brands?

Using Futamura’s customer successes for example, using bio-laminates can really improve one’s business operations with regard to:

  • Increase in sales: An organic tea producer’s packaging upgrade to bio-based films helped raise sales by 64 percent
  • Consumer engagement: A confectionery customer saw excellent feedback as consumers really did compost the wrappers.
  • Positive PR: Concrete proof that your company is moving forward environmentally avoids damage to the brand from inaction.
  • Improved “After use” messaging: for example, UK brands and retailers can use the existing ‘On Pack Recycling Label’ (OPRL) scheme to indicate home compostable materials are used, while it also proves a compliance with emerging legislation in countries such as France, with home-compostable packaging for bags, mailings and foodservice.

What Does All Of This Mean Though?

These examples demonstrate that bio-laminate films really perform. They have a technical functionality that can hold their own against more conventional flexible packaging materials, if not exceed them in some instances.

It means that bio-laminates can now viably match the properties of conventional structures, with enhanced environmental attributes. Brand owners, therefore, do not have to compromise functionality for sustainability.

As for cost efficiency, for a minimal on-cost the packaging now becomes an intrinsic part of the brand’s core values— something to talk about proudly with consumers instead of something to ignore.