Not So Fantastic Plastic

The weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

Part of Coca-cola’s recent announcement to be more environmentally friendly includes a campaign “to encourage people to recycle and dissuade littering”, said Nick Brown, head of sustainability at Coca-Cola European Partners. The company produces over 100 billion plastic bottles per year and is making a massive contribution to the plastic littering plaguing the planet, so this campaign is good news. But much more needs to be done: over 70% of soft drinks, including water and fruit juices, are supplied in PET bottles by the big drinks brands.

Doing more is up to all of us, especially in graphics supply chains. According to the UK’s Guardian newspaper, “annual consumption of plastic bottles will be more than half a trillion by 2021”. This is probably very good for label printers, but it’s not necessarily good for the environment. Way too many of these bottles, currently produced at a rate of 20,000 per second, still end up as litter or in landfill.

Apart from the pollution and landfill problems there is the added concern that new and finite resources are required to make new PET containers. This is both expensive and of limited commercial and environmental sustainability. A better option is to use recycled plastic instead of making virgin plastic bottles, because those made from recycled materials require 75% less energy to produce than those made from scratch. Less energy means less cost to produce PET bottles, so the reluctance to use 100% recycled plastic to make them has to have other causes. There is likely a resistance to adopting new processes which have unquantifiable returns, and recycled plastic is not as cosmetically attractive as virgin plastic. There is also the problem that supply chains for recycled PET (rPET) are not consistent across geographies or even regions, so there is no clear global model.

An option that may help improve matters for packaging designers to design PET containers to make them more suitable for recycling. Components and materials that will compromise processes should obviously be avoided. This can be difficult to do because packaging design is part of the product and important to making it attractive to buyers. But it is possible to take into account other design limitations. It should for instance be easy to remove labels and closures so that these components can be separated from the PET. Designers can also consider the appearance of rPET when creating new product designs, for instance using the cloudiness of the material within the design. It’s not discolouration, it’s a design feature!

It will take some time before we see the big brands taking this as seriously as they should, not just for plastic bottles but for all types of packaging. In the meantime, we all have a choice: reduce, reuse and recycle wherever possible.

– Laurel Brunner

This article was produced by the Verdigris project, an industry initiative intended to raise awareness of print’s positive environmental impact. This weekly commentary helps printing companies keep up to date with environmental standards, and how environmentally friendly business management can help improve their bottom lines. Verdigris is supported by the following companies: Agfa GraphicsEFIFespaHPKodakKornitRicohSpindrift, Splash PRUnity Publishing and Xeikon.

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