Packaging industry must focus on improving plastic recycling over the next decade, Smithers disruptive technologies study says

Packaging industry must focus on improving plastic recycling over the next decade, Smithers disruptive technologies study says

Over the last decade concerns about packaging use, packaging waste and plastic packaging recycling have rapidly increased. Industry, consumers, and governments are taking an in-depth look at packaging’s effect on pollution, greenhouse gas production and global warming. To complicate matters, packaging innovation has significantly outpaced recycling capabilities, technologies and infrastructure, setting up conditions for industry disruption, according to a new report from Smithers, Ten-Year Forecast of Disruptive Technologies for Recycled Plastic Packaging to 2030.

Improved recycling technologies will be essential to the future success of the rigid and flexible plastic packaging industry to 2030, along with better methods for recovery and conversion into post-consumer resin (PCR). In its new report, Smithers takes a look at the top 25 disruptive technologies and trends at the centre this market shift. The report delves into technical developments and new, emerging technologies that are impacting the plastic packaging recycling and recovery and waste management industries. Analysis covers technological and economic factors as well as consumer preferences and public opinion, environmental group pressures, e-commerce, government regulations and legislation, political and sociological trends, supply chains and the circular economy.

Pressure from consumers and others

Because packaging materials are extremely visible to the consumer, there are intense and growing pressures from consumers, retailers, packaged product suppliers, governments, regulators, non-government organizations and environmental groups for the development of environmentally-friendly “green” materials, packaging designs and recycling and recovery end-of-life processes to improve packaging sustainability. Packaging, especially plastic packaging, is receiving scrutiny worldwide along the entire supply chain, from raw materials to end-of-life processes, particularly with regard to recycling, recovery and waste management, and environmental considerations must be incorporated in the design, manufacture, use and end-of-life disposal of packaging and packaged products. 

Leading technology challenges

Opinions from technical experts in the plastics packaging industry were gathered by report author Terrence Cooper to identify the leading technical challenges that must be overcome to respond to this pressure for change. Some of those include:
  • Development of non-mechanical recycling and recovery processes for plastic packaging as economic and sustainable systems.
  • Chemical recycling processes with improved economics and energy and mass balance for converting packaging polymers back to monomers
  • Development and institution of more efficient and ubiquitous collection, identification, marking and sorting methods, processes and equipment, for mechanical recycling of both post-industrial and postconsumer plastic packaging.
  • Increasing government roles in plastics use and recycling worldwide, expanded government policies enforcing circular economy and putting burden on producers rather than consumers
  • Development of improved and widely accepted cradle-to-cradle LCA, GHG (carbon footprint) and water footprint analysis methodologies capturing all relevant factors.
Sustainable plastic packaging developments

Important drivers for the gradual adoption of circular economy principles for plastic packaging will include new formats and designs that allow savings in materials, manufacturing and transportation costs, including light-weighting and growth of flexible and pouch packaging. These changes will help to minimize environmental impact and carbon footprint, and improved end-of-life recycling and recovery processes, allowing packaging waste to be repurposed in the circular economy. Pressures from legislation and government regulations, environmental groups and consumers and the development of common standards in packaging to 2030 will speed up these transitions.

Recycling and recovery technologies

Recycling and recovery technologies and waste management infrastructure will continue to be a major and growing area of effort over the period to 2030. These technologies provide a critical component for adoption of circular economy principles. There will be continual development of new and more economic and effective recycling and recovery technologies in response to new legislation and regulations and increasing demands from governments, NGOs, consumers, and the packaging and brand companies.
The mechanical recycling industry and the nascent chemical recycling industry will be severely pressured by low oil, shale gas and virgin polymer prices, making it extremely difficult for recyclates to compete on a strictly economic basis until these prices increase again. Consequently, recyclates will continue to sell at a premium based on their “green credentials.”
Supported by government regulations, demand will increase for recycling and use of recyclates by NGOs and consumers. Greater commitments to increase use of recyclates and recyclable packaging by packaging producers, brand companies and retailers will also occur. This applies not just to bottles and other rigid plastics but also to recycling of films and flexible packaging, which is expected to increase dramatically over the next ten years.

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Download Ten-Year Forecast of Disruptive Technologies for Recycled Plastic Packaging brochure

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