When it comes selecting product packaging, we can choose from a wide range of alternatives to plastic. But can these alternatives really meet the needs of our products? Let’s take a closer look and find out.
Choosing the right kind of material for product packaging is a crucial decision for several reasons. If we take the food industry, for example, the packaging of choice needs to be visually pleasing but it must also protect and preserve the product on the inside. Sustainability is yet another feature that needs to be factored in. In fact, consumer commitment to the environment and the harmful effects of single-use plastic kick-started the debate on alternatives to plastic.
With the food industry as a point of reference, this article addresses existing alternatives to plastic and examines if they really are up to scratch when it comes to functions and requirements in the world of packaging.
WHAT ARE THE EXISTING ALTERNATIVES TO PLASTIC FOR THE FOOD INDUSTRY ?
Many of the existing alternatives to plastic are, in fact, materials that were formerly used. Over time, they have been replaced by plastic because, in addition to matching or improving the quality of packaging, plastic generally enhances product usability and preservation while delivering improved ergonomics, better transportation and consumption characteristics, and a superior overall user experience. The alternatives include options such as resealable or zipped on-the-go solutions.
Let us take a look at the main materials that can be used as an alternative to plastic.
Glass packaging has been around for many years and continues to play a role in the preservation of certain types of foods and liquids. Common domestic uses include refill containers for products such as coffee, pulses and cereals.
When it comes to the main advantages, glass:
- is inert and does not contaminate food;
- can be reused for several years;
- can be cleaned and sterilised when needed.
There are, meanwhile, several disadvantages to glass.
- The glass manufacturing process is more expensive and uses more energy and water than equivalent processes in the plastics manufacturing industry.
- It is not possible to print onto glass. Information has put on labels and this is an added cost for businesses.
- Glass customisation relies mainly on screen printing, which is generally more expensive than customising plastic packaging.
- Glass is more fragile than many other materials. This increases food waste due to breakages during distribution or when shelves are being stocked.
- It is heavier and larger than alternative packaging options, which pushes distribution costs up.
CARDBOARD AND CELLULOSE PACKAGING
Two of the most popular alternatives to plastic include cardboard and cellulose. They are used in lots of packaging solutions, particularly in the take-away food industry.
They have the advantage of being:
- resistant to changes in temperature for transportation of pre-prepared food products;
- easily customisable;
However, they also have certain disadvantages.
- The sustainability of these materials is affected by the fact that production and recycling entail using significant amounts of water. The industry needs 10 litres of water to produce just a single sheet of A4 paper.
- They are less durable.
They are not particularly suitable for food preservation since, unlike other materials, they do not extend shelf life. In fact, they only have improved preservation features when they are used in conjunction with other materials that provide a barrier against external agents. Adding layers to packaging complicates recycling and turns it into a much less sustainable product.
WHY IS PLASTIC THE CHAMPION AMONG EXISTING OPTIONS?
It is currently quite difficult to find alternatives to plastic that have properties of a comparable nature. Expansion and use of plastic has not happened by chance. Plastic has properties that are difficult to emulate in other materials, including being able to adapt to almost any use and any industry and ensuring excellent levels of food safety.
Plastic is also resistant but flexible and has everything businesses are looking for when it comes to preservation and logistics. It is lightweight and adaptable, plus it can extend the shelf life of foods, making it an incredibly versatile material, particularly when it comes to the food industry.
We can easily get a better idea of exactly how well it works by considering what the outcome might be were we to use any of the alternatives to plastic in food packaging. With cellulose packaging, for example, the most likely result would be several breakages and an increase in imperfections, leading to a higher rate of food contamination. The period during which packaged foods could be kept in good condition under these circumstances would decrease and, consequently, food waste would go up.
Over the last few years, contrary to the popular belief that plastic is harmful for the environment, several scientific studies have supported the sustainability of plastic. When we talk about the impact of plastic on the environment, we often forget to mention that we are talking about single-use plastics and not the types of plastic that can be recycled. There are many different types of plastic and many of them, such as rPET, play a decisive role in promoting a circular economy.
WHAT IS THE BEST SOLUTION ON THE MARKET?
The world of plastic is continually evolving and expanding. In many areas of the industry, innovation has been a permanent feature. At SP Group in particular, we have always believed in innovation and have developed a continuous research programme with the aim of producing more efficient and sustainable solutions for the world of packaging. One such example is PP HB ECO, which extends the shelf life of food, and can be sterilised and recycled.
When we take all the properties of plastic into account, it clearly continues to be a key feature of many businesses, including the food packaging industry. Most of the issues that are associated with plastic are the result of irresponsible use and a failure to sort and recycle.
At SP Group, we champion responsible use of plastic and minimising the elements and materials in packaging solutions. We also work hard to optimise our materials and manufacturing processes to produce efficient, recyclable and quality packaging that can accompany us on our journey towards a greener planet.