There is a lot of’ loose talk’ about sustainable packaging in current months. While the shift in focus to our waste crisis and the impact we have on our environment is leading us in a better direction, we have to be careful of the immense ‘Greenwashing’ that is going on in the industry, as this actually hinders our ability to move forward and create legitimate long-term solutions.
So many companies are selling ‘biodegradable’ products that aren’t compostable at all, or aren’t certified for Australian standards. No biodegradable or compostable products will break down quickly in landfill, and they actually require vast natural resources to create at their start of life. Furthermore, these materials are still influencing our ‘throw away’ culture and do not help move towards a sustainable, circular economy.
In the recycling space, we’ve seen high barrier recyclable materials advertised about the market, with the most common films that are being discussed your generic polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) films.
We are seeing that structures consisting of multiple polymers in the same family, such as Low Density Polyethylene (LDPE- recycling no. 4) and High Density Polyethylene (HDPE- recycling no. 2). These are being co-extruded together, and being passed as either one recycling number or the other. While these films together have great end-of-life potential compared to multi-polymer films, due to the inherent nature of PE, they will offer little oxygen barrier. A similar issue occurs with PP and BOPP (Biaxially – Orientated Polypropylene) when used in a single-polymer, recyclable application.
To fix this barrier issue, companies are re-engineering films and adding thin layers of Ethylene Vinyl Alcohol (EVOH) or coatings of Aluminium or Silicon Oxide (AlOx/ SiOx). These are solutions that have actually been around for some time, but are being marketed as new, high-barrier recyclable solutions. But consumers need to be aware that these products are adding an element of contamination into the recycling stream, and will still not replace or provide the performance of complex laminate structures for the majority of products at this point in time (but trust me, we’re all working on it).
Furthermore, we must not forget our main barrier to recycling and reusing flexible material is the lack of infrastructure. Australia has no capacity to collect, sort, and re-purpose recyclable soft plastics, which is a huge opportunity for removing material in landfill. Currently, even fully recyclable flexibles are not permitted at kerbside recycling collection in Australia.
There is work being done, however, with multiple organisations and government sectors collaborating to find infrastructure solutions, while multiple large chemical companies have developed polymer modifier versions of EVOH and coatings that are fully compatible with the recyclable stream. Unfortunately change takes time, but we need to be vigilant in educating ourselves and not falling prey to misinformation.
Please do your research, and ask the questions of your packaging supplier.