Brand Owners - PepsiCo, Unilever, Nestlé, Mars, Coca Cola Company - to name a few, are challenging their suppliers to achieve the target of 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable packaging by 2025.
The brand request is causing one of the biggest technological shifts in the industry in recent times. Steve Carey, Managing Director of Bobst Manchester outlines how the company is in a unique position to offer fully new and sustainable solutions.
Centre of Excellence for High Barrier
In Manchester, we have established a Centre of Excellence for High Barrier; this enables research and development on barrier solutions which are key to the food packaging industry. It is essential that food packaging has a good barrier to prevent oxygen and moisture getting inside the packaging and thus spoiling the food; a high barrier extends the shelf life of the product therefore reducing food waste. Research and development work is carried out in the Competence Centre on the most commonly used flexible substrates for food packaging which include Polypropylene (PP), Polyester (PET), Nylon, Cast Polypropylene (CPP) and Polyethylene (PE) on the latest state of the art vacuum metallization equipment and wet coating equipment for the application of top coats. We are able to rapidly optimize and prototype packaging solutions for the industry using novel combinations of vacuum and wet coatings by exploiting the synergies in the Bobst Group between the two different coating methods of vacuum coating and wet coating to give improved barrier and therefore improved shelf life for brand owners’ products.
Innovative Solutions for Recycling
One of the key advantages of vacuum metallization is the ability to achieve an excellent barrier to oxygen and moisture at extremely thin coating weights (10 nanometres thickness). When this is compared to conventional wet coating layers which may be 1 - 2 microns thick, the amount of vacuum deposited material is insignificant in comparison which makes it much easier to recycle which is an important consideration going forward for brand owners.
For good environmental sustainability, the target is to move to mono-material substrates; historically in our industry, food packaging solutions have been designed to optimize appearance, packing line speed and barrier properties with little or no regard to the ease of recyclability. The consequence is that the majority of flexible packages are made up of different materials which are not compatible to be recycled together so for recycling to take place, the materials need to be separated which is a huge obstacle.
The technology shift required to move to mono-material substrates and thus easily recycled material will necessitate significant investment. This means that co-operation along the value chain is necessary to work on end to end solutions. In keeping with this, we have recently forged new partnerships across the industry where we have focused our resources and have been participating in a number of initiatives.
One such example was the search for unified sustainability and recycling solutions for mono-material substrates, co-ordinated by leading packaging experts. We knew that achieving this would require collaboration along the value chain starting with the raw material supplier (resin producer), then the film producer and finally the film packaging manufacture, in this case the manufacturer of a stand-up pouch. Partners working with BOBST on this initiative include Borealis and Borouge (Spain) for resin production, Hosokawa Alpine (Austria) for converting of the raw material into film and GEA (the Netherlands) for the production of the stand-up pouch; this project is a true example of across the board collaboration. Our role in this partnership was the use of our Competence Centres in Manchester and Italy to provide a full solution to prepare the newly created PE film for conversion into the final pouch without damaging the barrier. As a result of this project, we have assisted in the creation of a fully recyclable mon-material suitable for food packaging.
Challenges and the Future
In each section of the packaging value chain there is the need to innovate. For us, the challenge really is to improve shelf life by using coatings on lower quality films to improve the barrier properties to that of a higher quality film. This challenge is not only existent in mature markets such as Europe and North America but is also being driven very strongly in emerging markets in particular India.
The current climate is very challenging for producers of plastic films and as a solutions provider to this industry, we need to continue to innovate in the area of recyclability and sustainability. This means alongside being at the forefront of developing innovative barrier solutions, we are also looking to reduce the amount of material used in the packaging film, a process known as Delayering. Finally going forwards, we additionally wish to consider alternative solutions which are more environmentally friendly and have a massively diminished carbon footprint.