Designing out the problem of single-use plastic

The single-use plastic problem

There is an ever-growing public reaction against the crisis caused by the pollution of hydrophobic plastics, which are sitting in our landfills, floating in our oceans, and showing up in our air and even our food.

At Aquapak in Birmingham, UK, we have been developing a broad range of solutions based around one single highly functional environmental polymer. Using a blend of Polyvinylalcohol (PVOH) which its has trademarked under the name Hydropol™, Aquapak has created a range of formulations in the form of standard processable pellets. These can be manufactured into a range of functional, non-toxic and marine safe packaging solutions which could compete with, and eventually even replace, the hard-to-recycle, non-degradable commodity plastic packaging that has overwhelmed our environment for decades.

Since 2009, it has been the goal for Aquapak to find possible routes to recycling for all packaging materials, whether made of traditional plastic, paper or paperboard or other biopolymers, and either as a single material, as part of a multi-layer structure or a coating onto another substrate.

In the summary below, Aquapak sets out its view on the key drivers behind finding a real solution to the multi-dimensional problem of how best to design a way out of the single use plastic problem and build a circular economy solution, where possible, and environmentally safe ‘end-of-life’, where none or very few are available.

Complexity of packaging

The complexity of much modern packaging, created by the need for functionality, such as strength, barrier properties to water, oxygen and sealability, has been predominantly achieved at the expense of its recyclability at end of life. Waste management systems have just not kept pace with the proliferation of many forms of plastic, caused by its usefulness in the modern world, and currently less than 10% of flexible plastic packaging is being recycled. Many parts of the developing world (estimates have it over 3 billion people) have no means of processing waste packaging at all. As a result, a high proportion of packaging waste goes into landfill, is incinerated or, worse of all, escapes uncontrolledly into the environment. The devastation caused on land and in the sea has provoked a public outcry and a strong sentiment against plastic as a class of materials, leading to many high-profile demands for it to be banned and replaced with other materials. The real question is as to what it should be replaced with.

Evidence based solution

For a ‘real solution’ to be brought to the issue of how to reduce the plastic waste going into the environment, the solution has to be backed up by scientific evidence, have a genuinely beneficial effect on carbon footprint and not lead to any even more adverse consequences on the planet further down the road. Taken from a ‘net carbon’ perspective. it does not make sense to replace traditional plastic by using a packaging material that shortens shelf-life, is much heavier to transport, or consumes more energy to make or clean, than a current PE or PP solution, especially if that traditional plastic can be recycled many times in a circular economy using efficient processes.

In the race to find alternatives to plastics, some supermarkets and food giants have made decisions on alternatives which are scientifically proven (as evidenced in a Green Alliance report – January 2020) as leading directly to an increase rather than decrease in the production of greenhouse gases. Under pressure from customer complaints about the ‘evil’ of plastics, regardless of any positives it might have in addressing food waste and, light-weighting for transport, for example, plastic packaging has been ditched in place of even more environmentally damaging materials. Items such as cardboard containers coated with non-recyclable materials, certain types of compostable bag compostable or wooden cutlery, may have potentially greater environmental consequences, including higher carbon emissions, than plastic. There has also been a recent trend with some supermarkets, to replace single-use plastic bags for loose produce and bakery items with single-use paper bags, which are often just as unnecessary as their plastic counterparts, and can have much higher carbon impacts, though this can depend on material sources and product specification. Decisions to ditch plastic have often been made without considering the environmental impact of substitute materials, or whether there was adequate collection and treatment infrastructure in place, creating all sorts of unintended consequences.

Aquapak believes that climate change has to be at the heart of decisions to change packaging, and a coherent waste and resources strategy is one that prioritises reducing the environmental impact of the things we buy, not simply reducing plastic use.

Difficulties of managing waste with modern consumerism

Trying to separate the waste streams can be effective in ‘closed loop’ systems where the brand / retailer or event organiser can control the handling of the materials, but it is less effective when the packaging has gone to the consumer. The rise of internet consumerism has increased consumer waste packaging, and is making the job of the waste management companies very challenging, as they receive a real mixture of different materials, combinations of paper coated or sealed with plastic tape, wraps and labels. Now that this cannot effectively be sent abroad for processing (and claimed by some companies as being recycled) a high proportion is incinerated or sent to landfill. This is not a sustainable position for any of us. We are consuming far more of the earth’s resources than are being replaced, so the real focus has to be on reducing all unnecessary packaging, and designing packaging in a way that there is no loss of functionality but where all the materials used can be easily separated and recycled in end of life.

Traditional plastics are good if they can actually be recycled

Traditional plastics such as polyethylene (PE) and polypropylene (PP) are recyclable, and have a strong role to play if they can actually be recycled, as there is unlikely to be a single material that can replace these in all of the broad variety of packaging applications where they are used. Innovation and increased scrutiny by NGOs in the labelling of packaging has helped to reduce the ‘greenwashing’ of packaging being claimed as being recyclable, where there are no cost-efficient routes for recycling of post-consumer waste to occur.

Finding sustainable alternatives

The move back to more sustainable materials such a paper and cardboard, and bio-sourced plastics ( PLA, cellulose) is clearly important with the end of life benefits such as recyclability, non-toxicity in the environment, and the reduction of reliance on petro-chemically derived plastics. It does not, however, always solve the issues it is intended to address. Paper is energy intensive to create, uses chemicals in its manufacturing process, and its functionality in packaging has often to be enhanced by the use of plastic coatings, laminations, labels and adhesive tapes. This combination with plastics makes economic separation very challenging and recovery rates in the waste paper stream can therefore be low. Multiple cycling of the paper back into fibre in an efficient repulping process clearly improves the carbon footprint, and this can be made possible by paper companies working closely with packaging manufacturers to design out the contamination of the waste paper stream through materials that can not be cost efficiently separated and recycled for value.

PVOH was chosen by Aquapak as a potential solution as:
• it is already used by the paper industry to enhance the quality of paper so would enhance rather than reduce the quality of paper fibre recovered, but also
• is water soluble, and can therefore be separated by being dissolved and removed in the effluent stream.

The case for compostables

Compostable plastic products such as polylactic acid (PLA) and cellulose, have increased in popularity during the last few years, as a reaction to the what can happen to plastics at end of life. There is some public confusion about the use on labelling of terms such as ‘biodgradability’ and ‘compostability’, and questions as to how far they allow the public to screen out environmentally safe products from spurious ones. However, these products are generally better for the environment than conventional plastics, when accumulating on land and in the sea. Compostables are therefore not as harmful for the environment where waste management systems are less sophisticated in the Developing World, for example.

The ability to recover energy and value from organic waste, and to reduce the greenhouse gases in landfill caused by it in the standard waste stream, is a priority in the West. The widest market ‘compostable’ solutions are based on starch and sugar, which, although not generally suitable for home composting,  can be processed by industrial composters, where these are available. If there is no process to get the compostable material into a traditional industrial composter, and the plastic cannot be easily separated in standard waste streams, unfortunately these compostable materials would also end up in landfill or being incinerated. More modern and efficient industrial waste processes are based around anaerobic digestion (AD) ‘waste to energy’ systems. With government initiatives to prohibit organic waste going to landfill, there is therefore an urgent need to improve the efficiency of collecting this waste and reducing contamination of feedstock into AD by the ‘de-bagging’ of traditional plastic carriers.

How Aquapak addresses these issues

Aquapak’s Hydropol has been designed to be used on its own as a single film, or in combination with other conventional materials where the properties of the polymer can simplify complex packaging structures to fewer, economically separable layers which can all be recycled in standard waste processes. This applies to Aquapak’s polymer, the conventional plastic that it is combined with in a two- layer structure, or perhaps most significantly, paper. Using Hydropol to increase the recycling rates for PE, PP, PET, paper and paperboard without the need for significant investment in infrastructure, is our primary goal. The additional benefit of it being able to become an efficient new carrier to enable maximum recovery and processing of organic materials.

Where waste systems are not in place or littering occurs, the benefit of Hydropol being non-toxic in the marine and on land, and breaking down into biomass, carbon-dioxide and water may be very significant for certain application and in certain regions, as this is a considerably better outcome for the planet, than for the plastic packaging to break down into toxic micro-plastics which are being absorbed into the food chain.

Making Hydropol available at large scale for the circular economy

Aquapak has developed a process and set up a formulation plant to make its Hydropol at large scale and in a form that can be used by standard plastics manufacturers and packaging converters. This is a new technology, as this polymer has not previously been available to the packaging industry in a thermally processable form and at a controllable level of water solubility, which open it up as a circular economy solution. The characteristics of the base polymer, which are preserved within all of Aquapak’s formulations, are well established, and lend themselves well for multiple cycling and for being harmless in the environment.

Aquapak is developing a strong and supportive data on its product and manufacturing processes as the first products become established in the initial markets.

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