The Circular Economy for plastics is moving forward in Europe, but challenges remain.
For the first time in recent memory, the AMI Thin Wall Packaging conference did not contain a single paper on coffee capsules. Perhaps this is because the consultancy has established a stand-alone conference to monitor the ubiquitous and troublesome pods (scheduled next in the US in Atlanta in March). There is still plenty of thermoforming in this sector, however, as the recent expansion of Phoenix Packaging in Virginia suggests. This year's conference in Cologne, Germany featured a heavy focus on the circular economy and what it means for the plastics industry. To be sure, there are both opportunities and threats. But after two days of talks and debate, it became evident that the circular economy is not a natural phenomenon. Even as it gains momentum, it will require sustained, global efforts to truly disrupt the seemingly immovable forces of consumer demand and market capitalism.
In the thermoforming and extrusion sector, Faerch Plast (Denmark) continues to expand across the European continent, acquiring Netherlands-based recycling, 4PET, in July 2018. With this addition to their portfolio, Faerch can now claim to close their own loop, going from tray-to-tray. Jesper Emil Jensen, Regional CEO for Continental Europe, shared that Faerch views their sustainability journey in 3 waves: the first, from 2005 – 2008, saw an attempt to reduce fossil-based material usage via downgauging and the introduction of bio-based materials; the second wave, from 2010 – 2014, resulted in a focus on rPET and black plastics; and the current wave, started in 2016, is focused on the increased use of recycled trays, specifically in the UK market, and actively closing the loop with the 4PET acquisition. Interestingly, Faerch performed an in-depth LCA in 2011 that resulted in the phase-out of bioplastics from their portfolio in favor of rPET. Several other speakers, including Paul Earnshaw of Tesco, a major retailer, arrived at the same conclusion, which would appear to pose a challenge to PLA and other bio-based resin producers, at least in the packaging sector. Faerch creates over 300 new designs per year which helps to swell a large product catalog, illustrating yet again the tension between growth and circularity.
Another major topic for thermoformed packaging interests at the event was the continuing developments in barrier films. With 11.4% growth in the past 5 years, and projected CAGR of 6.5% from 2018 – 2023, this class of materials is not solely defined by multi-layer structures. While EVOH production continues to increase around the world, brand owners are asking more frequently for mono-material solutions, primarily due to pressures for acceptable end-of-life options. Yet mono-materials suffer from inherent shortcomings that put them at odds with market demands for increased shelf life. This paradox will continue to entangle brand owners as they seek a harmonious balance between the massive scale of fossil-based feedstocks and the public's growing anger with plastics pollution.