Over the last five years, there has been a fundamental shift in public perception towards the use of plastic, which has accelerated during 2019 in response to events such as the Greta Thunberg phenomenon and UK broadcaster David Attenborough’s appeals. One industry where these changes may have a significant impact is in packaging. There is increasing consumer pressure for companies to take responsibility for their plastics use and to find solutions for the problems that it has caused.
Plastics News Europe spoke to Tony Steels, CEO of packaging machinery and automation solution provider Mpac Group, asking him to share his insights into the future of plastics in packaging. Tony has worked in the plastics and packaging industry for over three decades. Now responsible for finding innovative packaging solutions for leading global brands familiar in virtually every household, he has a unique overview and understanding of this issue.
He opened by saying that ‘at the moment, it feels as if consumers have been whipped up into a frenzy about plastics’.
“Programs like Blue Planet really highlight quite how much plastic waste tragically makes it into these fragile ecosystems. But, the result of this hyper awareness to plastic waste has been the widespread demonization of plastic across the board. This isn’t productive.
“When you really start to analyse where the problem lies with plastics, you find that it is the way we use them. Too often we don’t recycle and reuse plastics, we let these materials fall out of the supply chain and that is where the issues begin. So, the solution isn’t for us all to stop using plastic – but for us all to start using plastics properly.”
Steels believes that the first stage of starting reshape the way that we use plastics starts with a change in the perception of the product. If we want to effectively create the space for innovation, we need to de-demonise plastics.
“It might not come as a revelation to some, but investment and innovation in recycling and reuse will be the principal route to managing the plastics problem in packaging. We are already seeing companies such as Coca-Cola make huge progress with its commitment to increasing the recyclability of drinks bottles. The business has consistently reduced the total weight of plastics used in drinks bottles over the last five years and by 2020 the plan is that its bottles will not only be 100% recyclable, but also made from 50% recycled PET.
“It’s a nice idea that we would solve the plastics problem by all taking our canvas bags to the supermarket and only buying loose vegetables, or through some miracle material replacing it. But the reality is that there’s no single solution here. While not as exciting, these incremental innovations in the way that we use and recycle plastics is the future. And this future is only possible as a part of a collaborative effort that starts with the consumer, ends with the producer, and involves stakeholder in the supply chain.
As creators of packaging machinery and automation solutions, Mpac Group plays a key role in driving innovations that boost packaging efficiency in reaction to market trends. These gains help to reduce the amount of plastic and other packaging that is wasted during production. Steels highlighted how the rise in e-commerce and resulting changes in consumer behaviours is a good example.
“The changes in the way that consumers buy products offers an opportunity to innovate and increase efficiency. For example, ecommerce has led brand owners to introduce packaging solutions that cut an entire step from the conventional packaging process by packing primary wrapped products directly into shelf ready packaging.
“Reducing the amount of plastic wasted can also be achieved through automation and robotics innovations, such as our Cartoner 4.0. This solution uses scanning technology and algorithms to identify the optimal packaging size, then robot arms cleverly place items into the correct configuration to fit the packaging. This can drastically reduce waste.”
Steels concluded: “Overall, I think that even though there are those who will be proponents of the idea that we can simply swap plastics for an alternative solution, this isn’t something we should aim for. Alternatives such as cardboard present their own set of environmental issues. Finding a solution to the plastics problem is going be one of compromise and innovation.
Plastics deliver unique benefits and are here to stay in packaging. So, we need to focus on advances that can be made in reuse and the recycling process to keep the product in the stages of the supply chain where it performs the best.”