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21 November 2022

When is packaging sustainable?

Packaging and the environment: everything you need to know about sustainable packaging

The problem of the environmental pollution and waste disposal is increasingly discussed. The use of sustainable packaging is an important step towards improving the quality of the environment and reducing the impact of waste, which, if disposed of incorrectly and dispersed in the environment, can have negative consequences on terrestrial and marine ecosystems.

Product packaging, whether in the food sector or any other industry, can be made of different materials, such as plastic, paper, glass and aluminium, which can have a more or less important impact on the environment. But when it comes to sustainability, there are some basic considerations to bear in mind: the entire life cycle of packaging products - from extraction of raw materials to transport, storage and disposal - must be considered in order to decide whether they are sustainable.  

But what exactly are we talking about when we refer to sustainable packaging? And which factors have the greates impact on the environment? Let's find out together!

Understanding when packaging is sustainable is key to protecting the environment and promoting the ecological transition. In 2020, European Union adopted a new Circular Economy Action Plan, setting a series of targets to be completed in the coming years for more sustainable packaging: by 2030, 100% of packaging must be sustainable and 70% of packaging waste must be recycled and recyclable, with different quotas for each material (55% in the specific case of plastic).

Packaging is defined as sustainable if it is designed and manufactured to reduce its environmental impact and ecological footprint while still fulfilling its functions of protection, product preservation and consumer information. To determine the sustainability of a package, it is important to assess the Product Carbon Footprint (CFP), i.e. the value (expressed in tonnes of CO2 equivalent) that indicates the emissions produced during the entire life cycle of a product: from the procurement of raw materials to the production and processing, use and disposal phases.

Sustainable packaging that meets the criteria of the circular economy must also be recyclable, i.e. easily separable from the undifferentiated waste stream (according to the ISO 14021 standard). In this way, once its primary function of protection, preservation and transport has been completed, it can be reused and reintroduced into the production cycle as a secondary raw material for new packaging or other commonly used products.

Is packaging made of plastic or other materials more sustainable?

Contrary to what one might think, the use of plastic packaging is more sustainable than any other new material. In fact, according to McKinsey & Company's 2020 research on the climate impact of plastics in the United States, the greenhouse gas emissions caused by plastics over their entire life cycle would be lower than other alternative materials such as glass, aluminium and paper. The research looked at five of the most plastic-intensive sectors globally (packaging, building and construction, automotive, textiles and consumer durables) and then considered the 14 most representative applications for which there are viable, large-scale alternatives.

The research showed that, in 13 of the 14 applications examined, plastics produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions (10 to 90% less) than alternative materials. Even when comparing only direct product life cycle emissions (from production to transport and disposal at end-of-life), plastics still have a lower impact in 9 of the 14 applications. This is mainly due to the fact that plastics requiure less energy to produce and are also more efficient in terms of weight. Consequently, it is a much more sustainable solution and closer to the principles of the circular economy than is generally believed.

Positive effects on the environment in 2021: Corepla's data

Recycling plastic packaging waste provides several advantages and can have positive effects on the health of environment. First of all, it saves on the virgin raw materials needed to produce new plastic: according to data reported by COREPLA (National Consortium for the Collection, Recycling and Recovery of Plastic Packaging), thanks to recycling in 2021, 520,000 tonnes of virgin raw materials were saved (equal to about 11 billion 1-litre PET bottles for detergents). Also in 2021, the recycling and recovery of plastic packaging also enabled:

  • a volume saving, in terms of avoided landfill, of 34,572,733 m3 (about 29 medium-size landfills);
  • considerable benefits in terms of emissions and energy recovery, with 42 GWh of electricity produced and 86 GWh of thermal energy produced (equal to the annual electricity consumption of about 15,555 Italian households)
  • energy savings during the recycling process (which involves less energy expenditure than the production of virgin plastic) of about 10,867 GWh (about 2.5% of the annual production of primary energy in Italy);
  • benefits in terms of lower gas emissions compared to virgin raw material: in 2021 the CO2 avoided thanks to COREPLA recycling was 879,000 tonnes.

During 2021, COREPLA sent 722,218 tonnes of plastic packaging waste for recycling, an increase of 10% compared to the previous years. The majority was recovered from urban separate collection (684,615 t), while a smaller share came from streams from Trade & Industry, collected through dedicated platforms (36,603 t). In addition, through energy recovery, 314,964 tonnes of packaging was revalorised in the form of energy and heat. The data collected show that the overall recovery, understood as material and energy recovery, of packaging managed directly by COREPLA, reached 1,037,182 tonnes in 2021, an increase compared to 2020 (+0.4%) thanks to the boost given by recycling.

Innovative and sustainable packaging: the solutions proposed by Plastisac

Sustainability is an integral part of Plastisac's mission, which has always been committed to the development and production of sustainable polyethylene packaging with reduced environmental impact, also promoting a correct end-of-life management of packaging and its subsequent recycling and recovery for the production of secondary raw materials. Aware that the realisation of a fully sustainable develpment model, aimed at ecological transition, requires an integrated vision, Plastisac has placed sustainability at the centre of its corporate vision, also with regard to the management of production processes. For example:

  • installing a photovoltaic system for self-generation of green energy;
  • constantly investing in researh and development and always guaranteeing full traceability of polyethylene products;
  • carrying out thorough checks and reducing the environmental impact at every stage of the production process, from the selection of raw materials to transport to the end consumer. In fact, the recent introduction of a new freight truck, larger and of a better pollution class than its predecessor, has also optimised transport operations, reducing intermediate journeys and the impact on the enviroment in terms of emissions;
  • offering plastic products and packaging that are increasingly sustainable within a circular economy process, 100% recyclable and, for some sectors, derived from recycled raw materials form pre or post consumption;
  • obtaining various certifications, such as the Carbon Footprint Systematic Approach certification (UNI EN ISO 14067), which has allowed the validation of the management system for the product Carbon Footprint, i.e. the analysis of the carbon footprint of the life cycle of each product manufactured by the company. The determination of the impact of each package allows the study, in collaboration with the customer, of solutions with less and less impact on the environment;
  • promoting the development of virtuos waste management chains for the collection of reusable secondary raw materials for the production of new packaging.
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