The challenge of plastic hides many possibilities 

Plastic is now the topic both in Finland and the world at large. The Plastics Roadmap for Finland, published by the Finnish Ministry of Environment in October, took a stand and suggested measures on this topical matter. At the Pyroll’s plastic packaging factory in Joensuu, the plastics hysteria feels distant. Plastic packages are moving along the production lines as before, especially foodstuff packaging. Plastic is in the limelight of the media, but limelight has not influenced the demand for plastic packaging.

Still, the media storm around our main material did not go unnoticed in the packaging factory. Many of the main headlines of the public discussion are also actively on the table of the professionals of plastic packaging. The published Plastics Roadmap stated that plastics has its place among materials and an entirely plastic free world is not the aim. The function and good properties of plastic have not been lost in the wave of discussion. The main objective of packaging is still to protect the product and thus minimize losses. For this purpose, plastic is the ideal packaging material because it keeps products fresh and has logistical advantages which directly influence carbon footprint. It is more a question of which materials plastic will be made of in the future. The plastic packaging factory has a clear line about the basics of the plastics debate:“Plastic is never a part of nature. The plastic in our environment begins with humans,” marks Reijo Kauppi, our unit manager.

Deposit packaging warmly welcome

The movement and activities of humans could positively affect the plastic challenge by focusing on recycling, for instance. Recycling plastic is one of the things that the Plastics Roadmap of Finland suggested as a measure. Kauppi sees this as an important area that is definitely worth developing.

One of the aims of the EU’s plastic strategy is to make sure that by the year 2030 all the plastic packaging entering the EU market is recyclable.  In public debate, deposit packaging has been dangled as the carrot of recycling. Kauppi views deposit packaging as an interesting possibility, because by now you hardly ever see deposit soft drink bottles in the woods or ditches – the deposit system has changed this. “The deposit doesn’t have to be more than one cent, even that would have an effect,” Kauppi ponders the possibilities of recycling plastic packaging.

With deposit we could teach people to sort plastics and later, when the technology enables it, we could truly recycle plastic and consumers will already know how. Most of the products coming from Pyroll’s lines are ready to be recycled as it is, but for now the recycling technology does not support recycling in large quantities. When returning bottles, the machine recognizes and sorts different materials to separate places right there. A similar technology would revolutionize the recycling of plastics, when polyethylene and polypropylene would be sorted to separate recycling containers, waiting for further processing.

The main thing is to learn to sort and recycle plastics more than we have up to know. Plastic is interesting as a material because it can be recycled several times without losing its properties. However, the purpose of plastic changes with recycling, as so far recycled plastics cannot be used in products that are in contact with food. Yet recycled plastic already has several uses, from shopping bags to plastic tubes and the car industry. Pyroll also uses recycled materials, for example in the manufacture of Seapack plastic bags.

One of the solutions proposed in the Plastics Roadmap publication was focusing on new materials which would replace traditional plastic. Materials like paper band film (link here) are being constantly developed, the possibilities of materials made of renewable raw materials which can replace plastic are growing rapidly.

Even the traditional plastic packaging still has room for innovation. One of the most fascinating possibilities for a more ecological plastic packaging is to re-innovate the packages, paying special attention to the overpacking of products. Preparing one dinner at home can easily mean quite a heap of used packaging in the consumer’s home. Keeping food fresh can be achieved with less packaging material. “Overpacking could be reduced. So far only the surface has been scratched in this,” Kauppi admits.

With the help of package developing, plastic packaging could become more ecological and require less raw material. By fearlessly observing the size, thickness and method of packaging and noticing needless pile-packaging we could lessen the amount of plastic packaging waste.

Product development steps towards using less materials have already been taken. For instance, thinner packaging has made a noticeable difference in the amount of plastic used for packaging, although the effect is hardly noticeable in the consumer’s shopping basket. This possibility has already been used in several applications, but as development continues, there are hopes of further possibilities in package thinning.  By thinning the material it is possible to lessen the use of plastic without influencing the basic functions of packaging or changing the appearance the customer is already familiar with. Packaging innovations like these would make the most of the advantages of plastic material, while steering plastic packaging into a more ecological direction.