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Packaging beyond lifespan: post consumption solutions

They store, protect and preserve. Ubiquitous, packaging is designed for each type of use, but we also need to consider their disuse, reuse, disposal and recycling to keep the material chain healthy

Overall, making packaging is a simple idea that requires a complex process. Packaging’s main role is to protect a product during storage and transport and to delay the degeneration process to keep the substance fit for consumption for the longest period possible. Packaging protects from in natura to processed foods, and also apparel, shoes, electronic devices, toys, pharmaceutical formulas, hygiene products, cosmetics, cleaning products... the list goes on.

“Packaging is a means by which people can access products that society demands for health, well-being, social interaction or even survival,” explains Luciana Pellegrino, CEO at Abre (Brazilian Packaging Association). In order to manufacture casings so specific, a variety of studies are required on amounts of light, heat, pressure, acidity, transpiration, opacity, gases and microorganisms handled by each element.

There are four materials mainly used for manufacture: aluminum, folding carton, glass and plastic; they come to top on packaging raw material in general terms. Data by Ethical living: Plastic - lose it or re-use it? reports that 1,000 billion flexible plastic units and 500 billion PET bottle units are manufactured each year. Metal beverage cans and glass bottles come next, with 250 billion units, and then folding cartons, with 200 billion units.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation only 14% of the world’s packaging is recycled, while 30% end up in fragile ecosystems, and 40% in landfills. In Brazil, Abre reports that around half of the country’s packaging is dedicated to food. “The packaging industry’s concern is avoiding losses.  To that end, the industry needs to understand each stage of the production chain. Many studies are being conducted to make it efficient, but there’s still a lot to do,” completes Luciana.

“Each product has its own protection balance, meaning that their physiochemical natures are different and they get spoiled for different reasons. So, we think: How to protect that deterioration factor in the most cost-efficient way possible?” explains Eloisa Elena Corrêa Garcia, Deputy Director General at Ital (Food Technology Institute) and researcher at Cetea (Packaging Technology Center).

On top of that, lies the key element in the industry’s economic issue: packing should suit the market and consumer: “First, we have to focus on the product and its delivery: if it’s convenient, its shelf life, if outside conditions are involved, such as cooling or freezing, etc,” adds the Abre director. Market analysis is compared with lab conclusions to define which packing will be employed.

Improper disposal. Credit: Sergio Souza/Unsplash

Improper disposal drawback

According to the report Plastics – the sustainable way to use Oil and Gas, of all plastic used worldwide, 37% turns into packaging, and that is the highest portion of plastic loss to landfills or to unregulated disposal. Out of 78 billion tons of plastic produced every year for packaging, only 2% are recycled and 95% are completely lost, from the economy perspective, after plastic’s first use - a loss of 80 billion to 120 billion a year.

“Upon post consumption, the more you reuse the material, the better. If it keeps use value after being used, it should go back to the production cycle. The PET bottle is one example: it can be turned into car seats,” ponders Eloisa Garcia. “In cases in which it can’t be recycled for such purpose, we have to think of other possible environmental and economical alternatives,” she concludes, citing energy recycling as alternative.

In Europe, the Plastics - the Facts 2017 report states that reuse of plastic packaging went up 75% from 2006 to 2016, while waste destined for landfills fell 53%. The European Parliament has set a target for 2030: by then, 70% of packaging must be recycled, and single use plastic consumption must be reduced. Also, intentional use of micro-plastics will be restricted.

The Plastics Strategy plan is a response to the European population demand. Opinion polls show that Europeans are worried about the impact on health (74%) and on the environment (87%) caused by daily use of plastic-made products. The strategy is aware of the growing problem on marine debris (80% from plastic) and includes campaigns on how to minimize waste at the source. Up to 13 million tons of plastic waste end up in the oceans around the world every year.

“Reverse logistics needs stimulation, and heavy Government and industry participation may encourage and add value, using recycling material” - Luciana Pellegrino, CEO at the Brazilian Packaging Association

“The biggest problem is improper disposal, but we’re dealing with the general picture on the solid waste question,” ponders Luciana Pellegrino. “Reverse logistics needs stimulation, and heavy Government and industry participation may encourage and add value, using recycling material”, she concludes.

Natural packaging. Credit: Charles Deluvio/Unsplash

Packaging for food and packaging as food

There are many and diverse benefits of consuming peels of certain types of food, such as vegetables and fruits. In addition to avoiding waste, they are rich in nutrients that even the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) recommend. For some years, the industry and academy have devised packaging solutions that emulate, through biomimicry, the peels of nature to protect food, keeping its property such as color, flavor and scent; plus, they do not generate waste and show high nutritional value.

Among edible polysaccharides, for instance, the most common are alginate, carrageenan, cellulose ethers, pectin and starch derivatives. Their work is to regulate transport of oxygen, carbon dioxide and moisture, and they also reduce loss of flavor and scent, aiming to keep nutritional properties.

During the material manufacture, the food undergoes a freeze drying process, that is, it is frozen and the water inside goes from solid state to gaseous state. Then, the dehydrated food is mixed into a nanomaterial, which binds to plastic fabric, reducing the loss of food. Tests showed a 30% reduction of waste for fruits and 20% for cheese.

There’s also milk packaging. Use of casein protein as raw material can be included in the production of edible and biodegradable packaging, capable of isolating food oxygen 500 times more efficiently than conventional plastic. But the value of natural packaging of fruits and vegetables is not to be overlooked.

The banana peel, for example, contains amino acids that increase levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that regulates sleep, mood and even pain perception. Combined with the peel’s vitamin B6, magnesium and potassium, they help regulate metabolism and protect proper functioning of bowel and brain.

Apple peel stores polyphenols, flavonoids and phenols. These substances reduce artery oxidation, helping to prevent cancer and heart diseases. Pectin helps in improving the digestive capacity and the ursolic acid has anti-inflammatory, anti-diabetic and antibiotic actions. Onion skin is rich in antioxidants and anti-inflammatories that help reduce bad cholesterol, and also combats allergies and depression.

Recicle. Credit: Pawel Czerwinski/Unsplash

Home and corporate alternatives

For large producers of specific waste, consulting firms focused on implementation and selective collection maintenance can be hired. Offices generating large amounts of paper can find an ideal solution in the recycling chain by reincorporating their own disposed documents, which can be transformed into new sheets and have new uses. As for refectories, organic waste can become fertilizer with local composting. Cans and glasses can also be placed inside containers ready to accommodate them, with their right destination either for reuse or recycling.

As for domestic routine, some apps may help answer questions about recycling and connect professionals, cooperatives or companies dedicated to recycling activities; moreover, they provide important data on how to save natural resources and adopt sustainable habits for consumption and disposal choices. Cataki, for example, highlights that there are 800,000 workers in Brazil in selective waste collection, but only 300 of them are registered. To broaden the network, all you need is to register the collector who circulates in your street, neighborhood or district. If you want to dispose of any recyclable material or waste, all you need is to use the application to find the nearest collectors from the collection location.

The application developed by Movimento Plástico Transforma (Plastic Transforms Movement), supported by Braskem,  can be used in tablets or smartphones, either by recyclable material collectors or by citizens who need to dispose materials. The platform is able to show 1,936 delivery spots in 61 cities and towns across 20 states in Brazil. The website also brings content on educational and interactive campaigns, encouraging innovation, recycling and environmental responsibility for conscious consuming.

As for long-life cartons, Tetra Pak has created Rota da Reciclagem (Recycling Route). The app shows, in an educative manner, how any interested person can participate in the process of sorting and delivery of long-life cartons. In addition, it informs where collector cooperatives are located, as well as companies buying recyclable materials and delivery spots that receive their packaging.