“Sustainable packaging” can mean different things to different brands, depending on what their product is and the objectives they are trying to achieve. At Alpha Packaging, we typically define something as sustainable if it uses fewer raw materials – either through reduced package weight or through recycled content that replaces virgin material – or is made from renewable resources such as sugar cane or plant-based starches. While there are many ways to achieve a more sustainable packaging solution, not every solution suits every product. When customers ask us which “sustainable option” is best for them, we take them through a series of questions to determine the options that might be right for their products, customers and retail environment.
Most of the sustainable options we offer to customers fall into one of four categories: recycled post-consumer resins (PCR) for both PET and HDPE resins; recyclable packaging made from PET or HDPE; plant-derived (bio-based) resins; and light-weight bottles and jars that use less resin per bottle. To become a sustainable partner to this industry, we’ve had to make a commitment to find FDA-approved sources for all sustainable resins. We’ve also had to refine our own manufacturing standards in order to run 100 per cent recycled content in all of the manufacturing processes we use to serve this market.
It is increasingly common to see PET and HDPE packaging made from 100 per cent post-consumer (recycled) content, which is frequently referred to as PCR (post-consumer resin). There are also a lot of advancements in plant-based resins (also called bioresins), which will ultimately give brands options for safe packaging that is not petroleum-based.
In our customers’ experience, and on our production lines, recycled PET and HDPE perform just as well as virgin resins – although there can be some visual discoloration, particularly with clear or white PET. Some bioresins do not perform as well, depending on the feedstock. For example, corn-based bioresins are more brittle and have poorer water vapour transmission rates than conventional resins, and they also tend to disfigure in high heat. Other bioresins, such as bio-based HDPE made from sugar cane, perform exactly like petroleum-based HDPE but at a higher cost.
To be a leader in sustainability, a packaging manufacturer needs to make sustainable solutions available to a greater number of brands, and needs to take a leadership role in educating brand owners about the right options for their brand. One of those responsibilities is to eliminate misconceptions about materials and processes that sound sustainable but are not. Another responsibility is to help brand owners understand the claims they can make based on the sustainable solution they have chosen.
“Ocean plastics” are a good example, because the recycled materials used to make new bottles have probably never been on the ocean floor. That’s because plastic that has already made its way to the ocean floor is not a good candidate for being responsibly recycled and turned back into food-safe bottles and jars. The concept of “ocean plastic” has evolved substantially: we now talk about “ocean-bound plastic”, plastic that is diverted from winding up in the ocean, and documented as coming from underprivileged communities that previously did not recycle any forms of plastics. A number of organisations have put certification processes in place to make sure these bottles are getting recycled and turned into viable PCR.
Like the industry’s understanding of ocean-bound plastics, every aspect of sustainability is constantly evolving to meet changing regulations and new technologies. Companies are improving the performance of rigid packaging at the same time they are reducing the amount of resin required for each bottle. And new materials are helping blow-moulders play an important role in protecting our environment. The future for sustainable packaging is bright, and it’s easy to participate if you ask the right questions.
by Marny Bielefeldt, Vice President of Marketing, Alpha Packaging
For a white paper on the environmental benefits of post-consumer plastics and a plastic comparison chart, please visit sustainability.alphap.com