This September, McDonalds restaurants in the UK and Ireland made the commitment to replace their plastic straws with paper. The move is strongly supported by customers and anticipates a proposed government ban on certain single-use plastics. The new, sustainably sourced, straws are supplied by Transcend Packaging, a startup based in South Wales, and the Belfast arm of global food packaging supplier Huhtamaki.
The story demonstrates how, as consumers become more environmentally aware and legislation accordingly tightens, new manufacturing opportunities may present themselves. Those in the packaging industry are bound to wonder: how deeply will shifting customer preferences impact on their field? What are the implications of a greener future for the industry’s materials and technologies? What other opportunities might emerge?
About 80% of marine litter is composed of plastic waste. Every year, 8 million tonnes of it goes into the world’s oceans. The implications of this are still being documented and measured. The facts so far, however, have impacted heavily on public opinion and lawmakers. This year the EU Parliament backed a raft of measures to cut down on the use of throwaway plastics. And China’s recent ban on the importation of foreign refuse has brought the issue into urgent focus.
The sustainable packaging industry is profiting from these developments. A recent report by Transparency Market Research forecasts a 6.2% annual growth rate in the green packaging market up to 2021.
It is no surprise that much of the new business activity associated with the move towards sustainable packaging is centred on the development and application of new, eco-friendly materials. Polylactic acid (PLA), to take a prominent example, is a biodegradable polyester derived from plant starch that in many respects, including heat sealability, behaves like petroleum-based plastic.
Should PLA and related polymers establish themselves widely across the packaging industry, then industrial equipment manufacturers can expect increased business from the factories that produce it. At the same time, thanks to its similarities to conventional plastics, the packaging industry will retain the need for machines such as tray sealers, slitters and perforators.
Besides bioplastic innovators, manufacturers of more traditional packaging materials have prospered in the current climate. Amazon customers, for example, are familiar with the sight of paper void fill inside their parcels instead of polystyrene chips or bubble wrap. In fact, environmental concerns aside, the rise of online shopping at the expense of the high street has done much to shape the contrasting fortunes of the cardboard delivery box and the plastic shopping bag.
For the pulp and paper industries, the rise in demand for packing paper and cardboard may be seen as welcome compensation for the twenty-first-century decline in the call for other types of paper, such as graphic paper and newsprint. And equipment manufacturers, in turn, have a continuing role to play in the supply of cartoners, corrugators and other machinery in the pulp-based packaging production process.
Another traditional material – glass – may see a more limited renaissance. Plastic bottles are popularly regarded as a prime offender against the environment and more and more high-profile venues (including the UK Houses of Parliament) no longer sell water thus bottled. Some UK dairies, on the other hand, have seen a recent upsurge in the demand for milk in glass bottles.
Glass, being energy-intensive to manufacture, however, its future as a packaging material among green consumers is neither straightforward nor assured. For it to make sense, it must be extensively reused and recycled.
In fact, recycling – not just of glass and paper but of most plastics – may be seen as the standout growth industry to emerge from the environmental movement. The aspiration to minimise the impact of human waste – to establish a sustainable, even circular, economy of materials – requires a far-reaching recycling infrastructure.
Much of the work done in recycling facilities – sorting, shredding, compacting, baling – is automated and requires industrial equipment. This is before the reclaimed materials have even begun to be turned into new clothing, benches, engineering components, even, indeed, new packaging materials. Should the manufacturing of materials from scratch ever, as an industry, become smaller, here might be significant new territory.
The implicit irony in this picture is that certain elements of the recycling equation – not just kerbside collections and road transportation but the energy emissions of recycling plants themselves – have the potential to renew some of the environmental damage that their agenda seeks to contain or reverse.
In fact, there are very few green ‘solutions’ that are entirely free from this kind of paradox. A bioplastic such as PLA, for example, is derived from the cultivation of arable land. If it eventually goes mainstream, vast swathes of land will be given over to producing it. Raising cotton too – for our sustainable alternatives to plastic bags – is environmentally taxing in the amount of water and fertilizer its cultivation involves.
This is not to say that environmentalist trends are bound to founder. But it does suggest one reason why the phasing-out of something as unarguably undesirable as single-use plastics is happening in a gradual, tentative fashion. Crackdowns tend to focus only those items, such as straws and cutlery, that can be replaced without high-risk investment in unfamiliar materials or technologies.
This means that very little of the industrial work associated with the packaging industry as it stands is under immediate threat. But it also means that, as routes to a greener future are explored – as the range of viable materials is expanded and their usable lifespans extended – new opportunities for appropriate industrialisation are there for the taking.