Plastic packaging has become an integral part of our daily lives, and it’s hard to imagine a world without it. However, some of the negative impacts of plastic waste on the environment has led to a growing concern and the need for newer technologies and innovations that can transform the plastics industry.
Plastic Bubbles has always been working towards reducing its environmental impact and trialling alternative raw materials, testing new production methods that decrease the amount of plastic used in product (like light-weighting) and contributing to our sustainability drive using long-term recycling initiatives.
In this blog, we have a look at 7 technologies and innovations that are transforming the industry and shaping the future of plastic packaging:
Unlike traditional plastics, these plastics are made from renewable resources such as plant starch, cellulose, and sugarcane which are biodegradable and compostable, making them a suitable alternative for single-use packaging. Plastic Bubbles has experimented and successfully made products from corn starch and PLA. However, the cost implications of these biomaterials in a price- sensitive country like South Africa remain a challenge.
Positive: Bioplastics do not contribute to greenhouse gas emissions when extracted and processed. They offer environmental benefits as they are typically made from renewable resources such as plant starches, vegetable oils, or other organic materials. Bioplastics are also biodegradable or compostable, meaning they break down more easily in the environment compared to conventional plastics, reducing their potential for long-lasting pollution.
Negative: One of the challenges with bioplastics is their production and disposal. The production process still requires energy and resources and, in some cases, the agricultural practices used to grow the feedstock for bioplastics may contribute to deforestation or compete with food production, raising concerns about sustainability. Additionally, bioplastics often require specific conditions for proper degradation, such as industrial composting facilities, which may not be readily available in many regions. If bioplastics are not disposed of properly, they still contribute to litter and pollution, as they do not degrade in natural environments they were intended to.
2- Recyclable plastics:
Plastic packaging manufacturers are now designing products that are easier to recycle. This includes developing new materials that are compatible with existing recycling processes and designing packaging that is easily separated into its component parts.
Positive: Recyclable plastics reduce the demand for virgin plastics and conserve valuable natural resources. By recycling plastics, we also reduce the need for new plastic production. Recycling plastics helps divert waste from landfills and reduces the overall environmental impact of plastic waste.
Negative: Despite being recyclable, many plastic products still end up in landfills or incineration facilities due to inadequate recycling infrastructure, lack of consumer awareness and participation, and the complexity involved in recycling certain types of plastics. In addition, the recycling process is energy-intensive and involves the use of chemicals and water, which has its own environmental consequences.
3- Chemical recycling:
This is a process that breaks down plastic waste into its constituent parts and is then used to make new products. Chemical recycling has the potential to recycle plastics that are currently difficult to recycle, such as mixed plastic waste.
Positive: By breaking down the plastic waste and using the building blocks to create new plastics, chemicals, or fuels this technology has the potential to increase the overall recycling rates of plastics and reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills or incinerators.
Negative: The challenges and drawbacks associated with this process is the lack of widespread commercialization and scalability. Chemical recycling technologies are still in the early stages of development, and large-scale implementation and cost-effectiveness remain significant challenges. The infrastructure required for chemical recycling is complex and expensive, making it difficult to establish viable facilities on a broad scale. The energy requirements for chemical recycling processes is also substantial, leading to potential environmental impact when the energy is not sourced from renewable or low-carbon sources.
4- Reusable packaging:
Many companies are exploring new models for reusable packaging, such as refill stations and deposit systems. This is an attractive alternative to single-use packaging, as it reduces waste and can be used multiple times.
Positive: By reusing packaging materials and reducing the need for single-use plastics, the positive environmental impact is realized in the decreased waste generated and the amount of plastic that ends up in landfills or pollutes our oceans, thereby contributing to a more sustainable and eco-friendly approach to packaging.
Negative: Implementing reusable packaging involves higher upfront costs compared to disposable alternatives. Companies need to invest in designing, manufacturing, and distributing the reusable packaging materials, as well as setting up collection and cleaning processes. This initial financial investment can be a barrier for some businesses, especially smaller ones with limited resources..
5- Smart packaging:
Smart packaging incorporates technology such as sensors and RFID (radio frequency identification) tags to monitor and track the condition of the product inside. This can help reduce food waste by ensuring that products are stored and transported under optimal conditions.
Positive: Enhanced Product Safety and Quality Control – Smart packaging incorporates sensors and technologies that monitor various aspects of the product, such as temperature, humidity, and freshness. This enables real-time tracking and monitoring of the product’s condition throughout its journey, ensuring optimal safety and quality control. In the food industry, smart packaging can detect and alert consumers about potential spoilage, reducing the risk of consuming unsafe products.
Negative: Environmental Impact – Smart packaging often includes electronic components, which contributes to electronic waste if not properly disposed of or recycled. In addition, the manufacturing process of smart packaging requires the use of non-biodegradable materials or energy-intensive processes, which can increase the carbon footprint and contribute to pollution if not managed responsibly.
This form of technology is being used to develop new materials that are stronger and more durable than traditional plastics and together with light weighting, reduces the amount of plastic needed to create packaging thus extending the lifespan of the packaging as well.
Positive: Nanotechnology allows scientists and engineers to manipulate matter at the nanoscale, which is 1 to 100 nanometers in size. At this scale, materials and devices exhibit unique properties and behaviours that can be harnessed for numerous applications.
In the field of medicine, nanoparticles are designed to specifically target and deliver drugs to diseased cells, minimizing side effects and improving treatment effectiveness. Nano sensors detect diseases at an early stage, enabling early intervention and improved outcomes.
Negative: There is still limited knowledge about the long-term effects of exposure to nanoparticles on living organisms. Some studies suggest that certain nanoparticles may have toxic effects on cells and tissues, potentially leading to inflammation, oxidative stress, or other harmful effects.
7- Edible packaging:
Edible packaging is made from natural materials such as starch, seaweed, or even edible films made from fruit or vegetable extracts and can be consumed along with the product inside. This eliminates the need for packaging waste and is particularly attractive for food items such as wrappers.
Positive: Edible packaging’s reduces waste and environmental pollution as it is easily consumed or decomposed and does not require hundreds of years to decompose in landfills or oceans. In this way, it offers a more sustainable alternative that can help minimize the negative impact of traditional packaging materials on the environment.
Negative: Edible packaging is designed to be lightweight and easily digestible, which means it may not provide the same level of protection as traditional packaging materials. This may be a concern for perishable or fragile food items that require longer shelf life or a higher level of protection. The use of edible packaging introduces the possibility of cross-contamination between the packaging and the food it contains, especially if the packaging is not properly sealed or stored. This can pose a risk to food safety and consumer health if proper hygiene practices are not followed.
The future of plastic packaging is likely to be shaped by a combination of these 7 technologies and innovations. While there is no single solution to the problem of plastic waste, the development of new materials and production methods, along with increased recycling and reuse, can help reduce the impact of plastic packaging on the environment.
It’s an exciting time for Plastic Bubbles and for the industry and researchers as manufacturers work together to create a more sustainable future for plastic packaging.