Although sustainability is so much more than what happens to your packaging when you throw it away, it is still essential that we have a good understanding of life after packaging. In 2018, 40 per cent of global plastic produced was used for packaging, this equates 161 million tonnes. Less than one-fifth of this figure is recycled globally – so what happens to the rest?
Landfill is the most notorious of all ending points for plastic waste. Its estimated that 78% of global plastic that has been produced is accumulating in landfill or discarded in the natural environment as litter. Of the 161 million tonnes of plastic packaging produced each year, approximately 10% ends up in our oceans. This is a knock-on effect of landfill waste as, during transportation, plastic packaging is often swept into our waterways by the wind. The final 12% of packaging waste is brought to incineration and used to produce energy.
By increasing the rate by which we recycle plastic packaging, we could offset the problem of landfill waste and ocean litter, however, this alone is not enough to reverse the effects of environmental pollution. By adopting sustainable packaging in conjunction with changing our waste disposal habits, the global packaging waste crisis can be averted at a much faster pace. But what happens to our new and improved sustainable packaging at the end of its life?
Compostable packaging is made with the intention of breaking down into natural elements in a compost environment. Today, not only do we have conventional home composting that is suitable for the disposal of household waste, there are also industrial composting facilities designed to effectively process large volumes of public and commercial waste. There are three types of industrial composting techniques; windrow, in-vessel and aerated static pile composting. All three will produce the same results however, In-vessel composting is the most versatile with the ability to accommodate virtually any type of organic waste — meat, animal manure, bio-solids and food scraps etc. during the industrial composting process, waste material is placed in an enclosed environment where temperature, moisture and airflow levels can be efficiently controlled. The waste material is mechanically turned to create aeration that encourages bacterial activity and material breakdown. The entire process can take between 21 and 84 days to complete. The end product is a high-quality compost that is rich in nutrients. This can be used in gardens, landscaping, horticulture, urban agriculture and organic farming to name just a few.
Recyclable packaging is packaging made from the same plastic or plastics within the same polymer family. This allows it to be successfully melted down during the recycling process without contamination. Today, the majority of plastic packaging can be recycled and remade into new products. Plastic waste recycling reduces our use of fossil fuels, saves energy, landfill space, and emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Plastic recycling is broken up into a few distinct steps however these may vary depending on the packaging. packaging waste is disposed of in the home and collected by the waste management companies. Once the waste has been transported to the recycling facility it is then sorted by type of plastic, colour and even by the way the plastic was manufactured in the first place. Once sorted the plastic is then washed to erase any traces of contamination from food, labels or adhesive that may be present. The washed plastic is then shredded into small particles, making it easier to process. The shredded plastic is identified and separated into like categories, this is done by testing characteristics such as density, thickness, melting point and colour. Once the plastic is sorted it is compounded into small pellets that can then be reused to make alternative products such as rope, plastic toys, piping, beer mats, plastic pallets and even recycling bins.
Paper is one of the most easily recycled packaging materials. Each metric tonne of recycled paper can save approximately 19 trees, 2.68 meters of landfill space and 127 kilos of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere each year. Much like plastic packaging, recycling paper packaging will result in a product that can be used in the same or similar capacity than the original. Whether you recycle your paper at home or on an industrial scale, the process is essentially the same. Paper packaging can be disposed of in our recycle bin at home and will end up in the dry recycling waste streams. Once collected, waste management companies sort the paper into grades which essentially measure the quality of the fibres. Each grade is then transported to a paper mill recycling facility where it is further sorted based on its surface treatment and structure. After sorting, the paper is then shredded and added to a mixture of water and chemicals such as hydrogen peroxide, sodium hydroxide, and sodium silicate to facilitate the breakdown and separation the paper fibres into a solution referred to as pulp. The pulp is then passed through a number of screens to remove larger contaminants such as staples, tape, plastic film etc that would be included in the recycled paper. Once the larger contaminants are removed the pulp is added to a flotation tank where chemicals and air bubbles remove any inks or dyes present. At this stage, hydrogen peroxide and other whitening agents may be added to further enhance the whiteness of the pulp. Once the desired brightness is achieved, the pulp is passed over heated rollers to press out any excess water and form continuous sheets of flattened paper ready to be reused for applications such as newspaper printing, wrapping paper, printing paper, and blown-in cellulose insulation.
For more information on our Generation Green range and advise on which sustainable packaging option is best for your product, get in contact with us and a member of our team will be happy to talk you through your options in more detail.
Thanks for reading,