What the sustainability movement means for the processing equipment industry

The sustainability movement has gained traction in recent years with more renewable materials being introduced to the market more often. State Governments are also implementing regulations around plastic packaging and single-use plastics, which begs the question: how will these changes impact the current packaging and processing industry?

Of course, many of these changes are years and sometimes even decades in the making, but now they are coming to fruition, what does the future hold?

The Plastics & Packaging Problem, a recent survey conducted by WWF-Australia (along with waste experts from Planet Ark, City of Sydney, Monash Sustainable Development Institute, Adaptation Environmental Support and the Australian Packaging Covenant Organisation), set out to determine the sustainability of current Australian product packaging.

Of the many popular Australian food products surveyed, it was found that a whopping 80 per cent of products used packaging that cannot be recycled or disposed of in kerbside recycling bins. This makes recycling difficult for the average consumer; where in some instances the packaging had to be trimmed or cut in order to be recyclable.

This is a massive part of Australia’s sustainability issue; with Clean Up Australia’s annual Rubbish Report finding food packaging accounted for 10 per cent of rubbish collected in 2020.

Big Changes Taking Shape

So how can we do better? As the sustainability movement continues to grow, the expectations of the everyday consumer are also changing. This has resulted in more global companies taking up the call for sustainable packaging solutions and enacting real change within their businesses.

In January 2021, food giant Nestlé announced its Smarties brand had switched from plastic packaging to recyclable paper packaging; the first global confectionary brand to do so. This move will see a reduction of 250 million plastic packages from stores worldwide.

Other international brands are beginning to follow suit. Packaging producer TIPA and shelf-life extension specialist PerfoTec have created a compostable film that not only reduces single-use plastic waste, but also doubles shelf-life. It’s these innovations that will make a true impact on the fight against single-use plastics.

And this wave of progressive sustainability is now reaching Australian shores, with CKF, Inc. expanding its international accreditations and meeting the Australian Home Compostability standard, AS 5810 (2010) for the Earthcycle™ line of produce packaging. On top of this, Coles has launched their new round of grants via Coles Nurture Fund to support Australian businesses and drive innovation in sustainability.

What Does This Mean for Processing & Packaging Machinery?

It’s no secret that CPGs (Consumer Packaged Goods) will face upcoming challenges as more changes and restrictions on plastic packaging are introduced.

“As things change, the need for testing current processes to use new materials is unavoidable. OEMs will need to work with material suppliers. They will need to be present to provide input in advanced machine construction, modification and alteration that suits these new materials within the packaging process,” said Steve Krebs, founder of machinery marketplace, Machines4U.

As less sustainable materials are phased out, new, cleaner materials need to be introduced. This means a necessary disruption and re-forming of the packaging system and the process of creating this packaging as outlined below.

Thermoforming Operations

With the introduction of new materials to create sustainable packaging current facilities will need to reconsider their thermoforming operations.

Substrates have different melting points and don’t flow the same as common plastics, which could cause blockages and performance issues when forming previously plastic products with new materials.

In order to transition to sustainable materials, facilities will need to modify and test their packaging machinery. Modification and testing will help ensure the correct conditions and configuration is set to allow for the new sustainable materials.

Capping, Sealing & Line Speed

The sustainability movement has increased the popularity of mono materials which can cause issues when sealing at high speeds. So, to ensure current machinery can keep up the current pace, they will need to be calibrated to enable mono materials to be sealed at high speeds. Line speed may also be an issue where recycled materials are used, as these PC recycled materials can impact machine speeds and reliability.

Case Packing

As industries move away from virgin materials, case packers will need to evolve to be more robust and flexible to effectively handle more recycled materials.

For Australia to move forward to a more sustainable and progressive future in packaging and processing, it’s important to note that more changes to systems and processes will need to be made in order to provide these sustainable solutions en masse.

There are many different materials to consider, as well as how to properly handle those materials. Are their melting points different? How well do they seal? How will this impact the current machinery and does it mean alterations are necessary?

OEMs will need to keep their finger on the pulse to continue innovating and adapting to the ever-changing needs for sustainability within the packaging and processing industry.

With new regulations coming into effect all over Australia, it’s important for those within the industry to maintain progressive momentum and provide ongoing solutions to help Australia minimise its wastage on a national and potentially global scale.

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