Within the past two months, two European industry organizations released reports that overlap on issues about plastics and sustainability: “The impact of plastic packaging on energy consumption and GHG emissions” by the trade association PlasticsEurope, and the “Green Paper on Packaging and Sustainability” by the trade and industry organization EUROPEN --The European Organization for Packaging and the Environment.
As you’d expect, both organizations paint attractive pictures about the value of plastics packaging. Their arguments are persuasive, though at times a bit theoretical. The PlasticsEurope study demonstrates how plastic packaging’s net energy consumption and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions are lower than those produced if the plastics were replaced with alternative packaging materials such as glass, metal, and fiber. The paper’s main findings show that across all packaging categories, the total mass of packaging using the alternative materials would be 3.6 times higher than with plastic packaging, the “life-cycle energy demand” of the alternatives would be 2.2 times higher, and GHGs produced would be 2.7 times higher, “comparable to 21 million cars on the road or equivalent to the CO2 emissions of Denmark.”
Both the PlasticsEurope paper and the EUROPEN “Green Paper” emphasize plastic packaging’s value in preventing food waste. And the EUROPEN study observes that from 1998 to 2008, GDP and economic growth in the EU has actually outpaced increases in packaging consumption and waste, all while packaging recycling has increased.
The “Green Paper” also identifies and examines “seven key considerations” that all packaging producers and users should reflect on when making decisions: material selection, packaging design, consumer choice, transportation issues during use, end-of-life and recycling issues, communication between partners in the value chain, and more innovative business models.
Yet these arguments and considerations are starting to sound very familiar. If more progress is to be made in the area of sustainable packaging, the real focus for investigation must be directed more at the numerous unique challenges companies face when deciding on and implementing sustainable practices, designs, and materials. Future postings of Plastech’s “Sustainable Plastic Packaging” blog will attempt to connect readers with real-world efforts in sustainability – the successes and failures, both of which can be learned from.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years.