‘Sustainability’ can be complex but manageable

By Paul Gander

- Last updated on GMT

Sustainability in plastic packaging has called into question role of new ways to recycle. Img Recycle by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Sustainability in plastic packaging has called into question role of new ways to recycle. Img Recycle by Nick Youngson CC BY-SA 3.0 Alpha Stock Images
Paul Gander breaks down sustainability in packaging and the role of chemical and mechanical recycling.

Sometimes, the world of sustainable materials seems to break down into a series of fractals on an ever-diminishing scale, particularly around the question of end-of-life, and especially in the case of plastics.

Take the example of chemical recycling – an area that has undergone a massive resurgence in interest and investment, fuelled by genuine technical innovation. The emergence of industry body Chemical Recycling Europe highlights this trend, as well as the sector’s drive to have its type of feedstock recycling officially recognised and, potentially, funded in the same way as mechanical recycling.

Chemical recycling

Of course, the term ‘chemical recycling’ itself brings together a multiplicity of technologies, variants and target waste streams. There is already a jostling for position between mechanical and chemical recycling in general, alongside some real opportunities for co-operation and complementarity.

Similarly, we are likely to see these different feedstock systems forging links with brand-owners, manoeuvring for advantage and working to make that all-important step-up in scale.

Looking at the bigger picture, mechanical and chemical recycling can be bracketed together as just one interpretation of the ‘circular economy’ model. Alongside ‘bottle-to-bottle’, ‘plant-to-plant’ is another perfectly valid take on ‘circularity’.

Organic recycling

If you consider compostable packaging, or even biopolymers in general, as a proportion of the total industry, it remains tiny. Alternatively, you can view it as just one small, but growing element in the ‘organic recycling’ stream, said to account for up to 40% of our waste.

How this mix of approaches at so many levels will resolve itself is anyone’s guess. However, interactions between packaging and smart technology (see OPRL story opposite) could begin to allow consumers to inhabit a more complex landscape of sustainable materials than currently imagined possible.

Related topics: Packaging, Packaging materials

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