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The Carbon Footprint of Packaging

- White Paper - 

 

The Carbon Footprint of Packaging 

 

The world population is estimated to be just under 7.5 billion human beings in 2016 and, according to the United Nations, each individual consumes around U$114 of packaging per year in the world. As would be expected, the most developed economies are the highest users and producers of packaging. These markets, being fairly mature, are however undergoing significant changes in the packaging value chain due to especially environmental and demographic changes brought about by the so-called new economy.

At the same time, new opportunities are being created by emerging economies as they strive to satisfy the expectations of their growing populations.

Globally, the packaging market is divided into 5 main categories of materials: glass, paper, metal, plastics, board and wood (with textiles being marginal). Historically, this market has seen growth in the use of rigid plastic materials and flexible materials.

Globally, there is a concerted effort to work towards a common goal to, reduce, rework, recycle, recover and renew packaging materials in order to achieve measurable reductions in the total Global Packaging Carbon Footprint.

To achieve this, the choice of material, pack design, manufacturing process, choice of print method and supply chain are essential to consider upfront at the point of packaging design. 

Packaging Overview in South Africa

The total packaging sales in a country can be used as an indicator of the strength of a country’s economy since, almost everything sold must first be packaged. Notwithstanding, the total value of a country’s packaging as a percentage of the country’s GDP remains relatively small. In South Africa in 2012, for example, the total value of the country’s packaging industry was estimated at R 43 Billion, contributing about 1.5% to South Africa’s GDP of R 2.86 trillion.

Driven by commercial and environmental pressures, modern packaging design enables reduced packaging energy and material consumption, translates to reduced warehousing costs as well as reduced supply chain costs, reduced masses to landfill, and therefore, ultimately, a reduction in the overall packaging carbon footprint.

The chart above shows the SA consumption of materials in tons (2012) as well as the tons of packaging material avoided as a result of proactive packaging management in SA.

Packaging material reduction decreases in South Africa over the last 50 years?

  • The tinplate beverage can in SA has reduced to a mass of below 30 grams today versus a mass of 62 grams in 1966. While the newest aluminium beverage cans in SA weigh just 13 grams.
  • The 2 litre PET bottle has reduced to a mass of less than 50 grams today versus a mass of 90 grams in 1979.
  • Glass wine bottles today are 32% less than they weighed 10 years ago.
  • Detergent refill packs have reduced packaging material by 70%.
  • The mass of expanded polystyrene containers has seen a reduction in weight by 20%, over the past 20 years.
  • The cement industry uses a standard 50 kg bag now that is 2 ply at 210 g/m2 versus the 4 ply 360 g/m2 material used in 1980’s.

South African Packaging Statistics

In 2012, South Africa’s packaging industry manufactured more than 3 million tons of packaging material of which glass and paper were the largest contributors at 32.4% and 31.2% respectively by market volume.

The rand value in total for the South African packaging industry in 2012 was R 48,92 billion of which glass and paper were the largest contributors by volume with plastic being the largest by value with a share of 47%.

Plastics have shown a steady increase in tonnage and secured itself as the preferred packaging format in South Africa due to both technological advancements in barrier properties, material strength, visibility, lamination and recyclability.

The Importance of Packaging

Packaging is essential for the transportation of goods, to avoid damaging products, to keep food fresh and to protect products against theft and to present the product to the Consumer as intended. Accordingly, packaging is designed with both needs of the product, and the consumer, in mind. Research in the UK has found that the average household buys on average 3 tons of products per year with an estimated 200kg of packaging. Some products have suitable packaging that is fit for purpose, easy to open and simple to recycle. Others are extravagantly packaged, hard to unpick and not easy to separate out for recycling.

The key factor that separates good packaging from bad packaging is design and innovation. Finding the balance between packaging that meets the needs of both producer and consumer is a given. What sets really well-designed packaging apart is its relative cost of production and its recyclability. Both of these can be reduced using the right amount of material in packaging, using recycled content where appropriate, designing for re-use or for easy disassembly to improve recyclability and ensuring that, at the end of their useful life, packaging materials are valued as a resource.

The environmental impact of packaging

There is no doubt that all packaging materials have some sort of impact on the environment. The question is what types have the greatest impact, and whose responsibility is it to limit environmental costs?

 

Consumers can minimise the environmental impact of products and packaging in mind by:

  • Not buying products containing unnecessary packaging, such as bubble packs, plastic seals with cardboard backing or bottles inside boxes.
  • Choosing products packaged simply and with material that can be recycled.,/
  • Not using additional plastic, when purchasing fruit & veg, and also to rather opt for fresh produce that is sold without packaging.
  • Reusing containers, bags, boxes and paper
  • Buying products in bulk or in larger containers.

 

What are Packaging Carbon Footprints?

A packaging system’s carbon footprint is calculated as the total amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) and other greenhouse gases, emitted over the life-cycle of that product or service, expressed as kilograms of CO2 equivalents.

This calculation includes all greenhouse gases that are generated in the manufacture of raw materials, the production of the packaging system, transport materials and finished systems, the use phase (including refurbishment and reuse) and end-of-life disposal. While this carbon footprint calculation is most often used in the analysis of the larger product system it can also be understood as a distinct environmental performance metric that can be calculated and optimised separately.

 

Optimising Carbon Savings

There are 3 main types of recycling; closed loop application, closed loop material and open loop in carbon terms, each delivering different benefits.

  • Closed Loop Application is where a waste packaging product is recycled back into the same product.
  • Closed Loop Material is where a packaging product is recycled into a different product, but is itself recyclable or replaces the same virgin material.
  • Open Loop is where packaging is recycled into a different product, but does not replace the same virgin material and can also not be recycled after this first use.

 

 

Comparing Plastic and Paper Bags

Studies undertaken by the Environmental Protection Agency in the USA have explored the pros and cons of plastic grocery bags versus those made of paper. The production of both paper and plastic bags requires energy and in both processes waste is generated. While paper is made from timber, which is a renewable resource, plastic is made from natural gas and crude oil that are non-renewable resources. But paper bags generate 50 times more water pollutants and 70 percent more air pollutants during production than plastic bags.

While plastic bags use 40 percent less energy during production and generate 80 percent less solid waste compared to paper bags, they can take between five and ten years to decompose. Paper bags, on the other hand, may decompose in about a month, although research shows that a lack of light, water and oxygen in landfill sites is inadequate and slows the degradation process. Furthermore, 2,000 paper bags weigh 280 lbs (127 kg) versus 2,000 plastic bags that weigh only 30 lbs (less than 14 kg).

Recycling is preferable to landfill, and much more paper and cardboard is recycled than plastic. In 2000 a total of 20 percent of paper bags was reportedly recycled in the US, but only one percent of plastic bags. Additionally, it takes 91 percent less energy (measured in British thermal units) to recycle a pound (or about half a kilo) of plastic than a pound of paper.

It is clear that, whatever bags they choose to use, consumers should reuse them. And rather than using paper or plastic bags, a strong, reusable bag made of a material like canvas will have a much lower environmental impact.

Life Cycle Assessments

Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is recognised as a valid scientific method for making comprehensive, quantified evaluations of the environmental benefits and trade-offs for the entire life cycle of a product system, beginning with raw material extraction and continuing through disposition at the end of its useful life.

When conducting a LCA, the following stages are investigated:

1. Raw Material Extraction
2. Materials Manufacture
3. Converting of the Produce Containers
4. Production of Ancillary Components
5. Distribution and Transport
6. Cleaning & Sanitising (where appropriate)
7. Recycling
8. Postconsumer Disposal

In addition, a list of Environmental Indicators is used to provide results that best capture the range of environmental impacts associated with the product systems in question.

These Environmental Indicators are:

1. Cumulative energy demand (inventory output)
2. Global Warming potential
3. Ozone depletion potential
4. Consumptive water use (inventory output)
5. Acidification potential
6. Eutrophication potential
7. Photochemical smog potential
8. Solid waste production (inventory output)

Returnable Transport Packaging with MPACT

Life Cycle Assessments have proven that Returnable Transit Packaging (RTP) is both a very viable and cost-effective alternative to single-trip disposable packaging, offering a fresh and modern approach to plastic packaging. Mpact Plastic Containers has developed a wide range of multi-trip, re-usable containers that constitute the broadest offering of Returnable Transit Packaging (RTP) systems in South Africa. With the obvious cost advantages of moving away from raw materials, not to mention the degradation matic reductions in packaging waste, improved product protection and superior logistical efficiency, it is no wonder that the RTP market has been experiencing such consistent growth, which Mpact Plastic Containers is now perfectly poised to build on.

Combining these benefits with the added advantages of improved safety in transport storage, less maintenance and traceability through RFID tags, companies can no longer afford to overlook the long-term benefits of RTP containers over disposable packaging, with applications in almost every commodity industry, including, but not limited to agriculture, automotive, baking, food processing, manufacturing, logistics, pharmaceutical, poultry, retail, waste collection and containment, as well as the wine industries.

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