4 things you don't want to hear about packaging
With less than a week to go to our first product launch, I've been thinking a lot about the journey so far. It's been full of ups and downs, and I've learned so much through the process. To think it's only just beginning!
As someone who cares deeply about all aspects of our product, one of the things which gave me the most grief was packaging. I was NOT expecting to find it so hard to source an environmentally friendly packaging solution for our powdered vegan m*lk.
I also learned some pretty shocking facts about packaging along the way which you might find interesting. Here are 4 of them:
1. Only 25% of Tetra Paks are recycled globally each year
Tetra Paks are made of paper (74%), polyethylene (22%), and aluminium (4%). The packs are made of 6 layers; as can be seen in the picture below, they are composed of 2 layers of polyethylene, a very thin layer of aluminium (narrower than a strand of hair), another layer of polyethylene, the paperboard, and a final layer of polyethylene.
During recycling, these layers need to be made separate. However, because of the way they are manufactured, the polyethylene layers and aluminium layer cannot be taken apart, and remain combined as a 'polymer'. This polymer is then used in the cement industry or as a low cost housing material.
The paperboard is recycled and turned into office paper.
Regardless, the fact that only 25% of Tetra Paks are recycled globally each year is absolutely shocking.
This means that the rest of them end up in land fills, are incinerated, releasing harmful toxins into the air, or lie around polluting the natural environment.
2. Kraft paper pouches are not recyclable
This one came as a big surprise to me.
With their brown paper, brands that use kraft paper pouches give off the impression of using natural ingredients and being environmentally friendly.
These bags have become a popular choice for many food and drinks companies lately because of their natural appearance, which appeal to conscious consumers such as myself (who didn't know any better!).
These bags are made of different layers; a kraft paper outer layer, and a series polyethylene and aluminium laminates, as is the case with Tetra Paks.
While these bags are technically recyclable, a report from WRAP (The Waste and Resources Action Programme) found that the net revenue from recycling laminated packaging is less than the cost of separating these laminated materials. Hence, they are not recycled in the UK due to the lack of financial viability.
3. Not all biodegradable bags are created equal
This also required quite a bit of education on my part.
Biodegradable, oxo-degradable, compostable - what do all these terms mean, can they be used interchangeably, and are they equally environmentally friendly?
Biodegradability is an inherent property of a material resulting from the action of naturally occurring microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi, and algae. This process produces water, carbon dioxide, and biomass. No additives are required to start this process, and no fragments will remain in the environment.
Oxo-degradability is a term that has been used to describe certain types of plastics, called oxo-plastics. Until recently, some companies were making false green claims on oxo-plastics and describing them as a type of bioplastic.
However, unlike bioplastics, which are truly biodegradable, oxo-plastics are regular plastic which have artificial additives that encourage them to rapidly break into smaller pieces when exposed to UV radiation or heat.
These smaller pieces then break down into micro plastics that are released in the marine environment, and end up being consumed by fishes and become part of the food chain.
Another problem with oxo-plastics is that they cannot be identified and sorted from regular plastic using current technologies, and risk affecting the quality of recycled plastic products.
Compostability is enhanced biodegradation under managed conditions, such as temperature, humidity, and the precedes of microorganisms. The resulting output of this process produces compost, which contains valuable nutrients and can be used as a soil improver.
Compostable pouches are made with polylactic acid (PLA), which is derived from renewable resources such as corn starch, sugarcane and in some cases, wood pulp.
Certified compostable products can be separated into two different categories; those which are industrially compostable, and those that are home compostable.
In the case of industrial composting, the requirements are clearly defined in internationally agreed standards such as the European Union's EN13432, adherence to which lets a company use the seedling logo as can be seen below.
The main issue with industrially compostable packaging is that industrial composting facilities are not available across the UK, and they cannot be collected for recycling.
In the absence of these composting facilities, they could end up in landfills or be incinerated.
Another factor that has to be taken into consideration is that unlike packaging made with a polyethylene and aluminium laminate, PLA pouches often have a shorter life span due to the nature of the materials used. This could affect the shelf life of the products being stored in the packaging, and is something that has to be taken into consideration.
4. The UK dumps millions of tons of plastic waste abroad
Now for the biggest shocker of them all.
The UK does not have the technical capability to recycle all of its plastic packaging (including the polyethylene and aluminium laminates mentioned previously), and so exports most of its recyclable waste to countries such as China, Malaysia, and Turkey.
Since 2012, British companies have shipped more than 2.7m tons of plastic waste to China.
This is insane.
The problem with this is that there is no guarantee that companies in these countries are actually recycling the waste material; they often end up in land fills polluting the natural environment abroad.
This over reliance also puts the UK in a dangerous situation as countries can one day choose not to import anymore waste. For instance, China which has historically been the biggest importer of the UK's waste, announced that they would no longer be importing 24 kinds of solid waste by the end of 2018 in a campaign against yang laji, which directly translated means western garbage.