The strategy for sustainability of multi-material packaging made from paper and bioplastic was at the centre of the third Italian event of the European project Biocompack-CE. The search for a biocompatible packaging, together with the paper and plastic chains, also involves large retailers and the main users of packaging.
In Milan (Italy), in mid-March, the third workshop of Biocompack-CE was held. This is the European interregional project which in Italy is run by two partners Innovhub and Legambiente.
The objective of the project – preceding events about which we have already spoken in Paper Industry World nos. 1 and 3 of 2018– is the search for a sustainable packaging made from paper and bioplastic, which must be pursued at all levels. On this occasion space was given to the role of the large supermarket chains.
Packaging sustainability and EU policies
Starting from the concept of recyclability of products and materials, Biocompack-CE is proposing the implementation of a common strategy aimed at increasing the use of renewable raw materials and, specifically, establishing and sustaining the use of cellulose-based multi-materials with biopolymers.
This strategy is a topic of great interest in the light of recent European acts, such as the new EU Directive on single-use plastic (SUP Directive) and more generally the “European strategy for plastics in a circular economy”.
Multi-material packaging in paper and plastic is used particularly in food applications, as it allows the combination of good functional properties, a barrier against external agents and in some cases allows a reduction in the use of traditional plastic compared with products in just plastic.
Having a short life cycle, they must combine the characteristics of functionality and those of their recovery and recycling at the end of their life, in order to guarantee sustainable use.
The objective of the strategy for sustainability of multi-material packaging consists of promoting the gradual replacement of conventional plastic with biopolymers/bioplastics in multi-materials based on paper, creating conditions for the effective recycling of the new materials in the paper chain or composting, depending on the type of product and infrastructures present in the region.
Recycling or composting
In the new legislative framework, the replacement of packaging made from conventional plastic with paper coupled with bioplastic allows, on the one hand, for an increase in the quantity of materials from renewable sources and, on the other hand, it increase the possibilities for recovery and recycling of material.
Undoubtedly recyclable material must be the priority choice for packaging not in contact with food and for that in contact with dry food. Even multi-material packaging used in contact with liquids can be easily emptied and recycled in the paper chain.
While in the case of packaging in contact with moist and fatty foods, the composting option can be sensible as often the combined product is not easily cleanable and food residues remain. In addition, the option of organic recycling in the form of compost can be particularly convenient in the context of specific situations where often the packaging is associated with food waste.
At the current stage, bioplastics/biopolymers do not always give the same performance as conventional polymers and their cost is on average 2 to 5 times higher, depending on the type of bioplastic. However, in the case of multi-material paper/bioplastic the cost factor of the finished product is partially mitigated by the fact that only a small percentage of the product must be replaced. The cost represents a decisive element for the potential expansion of the market and should initially be supported by an incentive through the development of good practices at local community level, public administration, company choices and with the diversification of the environmental contribution in favour of sustainable packaging.
Not only that, but also the certification of recyclability and compostability must follow rigorous criteria so as to minimise the impact on recycling and composting plants. Currently the certification of compostability in accordance with standard EN 13432 guarantees a good level of control thanks to an assessment system with standard international methods. On the contrary, standard EN 13430 is inadequate because of the absence of a recognised international technical standard for the assessment of recyclability in the paper chain. Recently, in Italy, Aticelca MC 501-17has been developed, a method which enables companies to direct the planning of packaging and check the level of recyclability in the paper chain. The use of this technical standard also enables certification based on objective technical criteria to be obtained.
A shared strategy
Certainly the strategy, up until now developed and shared in the chain – moreover based on planning of the priority actions to pursue in the short term in the countries involved in the Biocompack-CE project – must entail actions carried out on more fronts, as underlined by the co-ordinator of the Milan event Francesco Ferrante (Kyoto Club).2017 and 2018 were years of change in the general awareness regarding the problem of plastics and microplastics which are highly polluting. “Worldwide only 15% of the plastic released for use is recycled – whilst in Italy between 40 and 45% of that used for packaging is sent for recycling – still too low a percentage, not sufficient to resolve the problem”, asserted Enzo Favoino (Zero Waste Europe). About a year ago, Europe began a strategy on plastics with a drastic reduction in their use, aiming for 100% recyclability by 2030, and last December it provided the collaborative text of the aforementioned SUP Directive on single-use plastic articles which called for a mixture of measures and has a dual advantage of “having established an international model” and having enabled “the trialling of a method of work”.
The reduction, where possible, of the use of conventional plastics must, however, be accompanied by a greater use of bioplastics and the need to develop ad hoc collecting and composting systems.
«There is a need to manage an extremely complex area: design new packaging and meet the requirements of the consumer», added Carlo Montalbetti (Comieco).A real challenge which concerns both the world of bioplastic and that of paper. In Italy the development of the story of paper and cardboard has taken a great leap forward and has changed consumers’ behaviour. According to Comieco data in the country «3.4 million tonnes were recycled in 2018, about 80% of packaging, further improving on the 2017 data of 3.3 million tonnes». Furthermore, «the circularity of the packaging sector has improved and, today, more than 92% of the use of paper to be recycled – 4.6 million tonnes – occurs in this sector». We are also working towards the recovery of fibres which, up until a short while ago, could not be recycled in paper mills, like the composites.
The role of the GDO
The challenge, therefore, is global and concerns three spheres of competence: legislative, innovation and research, and lifestyles. And large supermarket chains undoubtedly have a fundamental role for the future of sustainable packaging.
During the Milan event, the GDO representatives described the initiatives undertaken in order to replace the use of traditional plastic within their own situations, aware of the importance of continuing along this road and being of one voice. The packaging must be innovative, safe – particular for contact with food -, environmentally friendly but also economically sustainable.
EcorNaturaSì (Fabio Brescacin) has introduced washable and reusable bags for fruit and vegetables and also sells them loose. It has joined the Italian Ministry of the Environment’s “Plasticfree” project. Finiper (Vanni Corbonese) is encouraging investment for the packaging project dedicated in particular to compostable and biodegradable packaging within its own supermarkets. Carefour Italia (Alfio Fontana) has undertaken, since 2018, a mapping exercise of its own packaging so as to reach 2025 with 100% product packaging marked as reusable, biocompatible and degradable. Whilst Coop Italia (Renata Pascarelli) is pursuing a long-term internal environmental policy, which started in the 1990s, and which now has its objective of within the year using only recyclable, compostable and reusable packaging.
Italian sector associations have also taken part in the round table. With regard to paper, Massimo Ramunni (Assocarta) recalled how bioplastics present a perfect symbiosis with paper «in terms of both biological origin and biodegradability and compostability», however it is important that they are «also compatible with the recycling process. There must be a hierarchy in the use of materials and recycling of fibre must be favoured compared with compostability».
Whilst Marco Versari (Assobioplastiche), who emphasises how out of 50 million tonnes of plastic produced each year in Europe bioplastics are still less than 300 thousand tonnes, reminds of the importance not only of devising new materials, but also of carefully studying the design of products in order to make recycling easier.