We would like to introduce our Program Manager Circular Packaging, Harold Gankema. He tells us more about the challenges that we have to deal with, and his motivation to move to a circular plastic society.
“The future for plastics is bright.”
What motivates you to move toward a circular plastics society?
As I believe we are responsible (stewardship) to our planet to leave a positive legacy behind for our children and their children, I have to take ownership of this. With my expertise in plastics and packaging, ambitions, and motivation I believe I can make a difference (big or small) in making our world a better place for generations to come.
What are the challenges?
Within the plastic packaging industry there are a number of challenges.
1. Public opinion against the use of plastic packaging
Even though it has been investigated and reported many times, when looking at the environmental footprint plastic packaging is the best solution in the majority of cases, plastic has a bad name. But if you look at other types of packaging materials like paper, glass, or metal, it should not replace plastic packaging when you notice the negative impact – e.g. because food has a limited shelf life, and CO2 increases through transport carrying heavier weights, etc.
2. The limited recyclability of certain food plastic packaging currently used
Food packaging’s major duty is to guarantee the shelf life of food for a certain period of time and to reduce food waste. However, much of this packaging consists of plastic material combinations which are not particularly recyclable. Within the Circular Packaging program we want to redesign these kinds of packaging materials in a way that they can and will be recycled either as packaging or for other applications.
3. Materials need to be sorted in a better way
As well as the redesign of packaging, the sorting of plastics waste also needs to be improved in a way that materials will be sorted in a better way and also more materials streams will be possible, especially solutions regarding the reuse of recycled material in food contact packaging.
What projects will you be working on, or do you want to work on? Short term and/or long term? How can you make the difference with these projects?
Within the program we will work on plastic packaging which is currently not being recycled and therefore has no recycling value other that they will be incinerated (energy recovery).
A clear representative of this are the PET plastic food trays. In Europe, about 900K tonnes of PET trays are manufactured yearly (this equals about 75 billion trays). Currently the vast majority of these trays (over 90%) is not being recycled. The main reason for this is the complexity of the tray. The tray (including lidding, sealing layer, inlay, label and printing) consists of multiple materials which are inseparable and therefore not recyclable.
Our projects will focus on simplifying plastic packaging by making them consist of only one type of material (the so-called monomaterial solution). This is called “design for recycling.”
Also, we will focus on improving the quality and value of recycled packaging material and setting new standards in order to increase the uptake of PCR (post-consumer recyclate) in—preferably—new packaging or other applications. This is called “design from recycling.”
In order to make the right choices when multiple potential packaging solutions exist, impact assessment plays a very important role within our program. These impact assessments can be directed to the effect on the wellbeing or health of the consumer, the environment, or the economy (people, planet, and profit).
How can you help organizations that are looking for innovation, product development and durable packaging?
Within the Circular Packaging team we have knowledge and expertise along the complete value chain of packaging (from raw material up to end-of-life solutions). Organizations with research questions in the field of flexible or rigid packaging can contact us with their questions. Within the Circular Packaging team and network (inside or outside BMC/TNO) we will certainly find a solution to help and support these organizations.
Does this only benefit the environment or are commercial benefits involved as well?
I strongly believe that environmental solutions in the end will also have a beneficial effect on the profitability of commercial organizations. A clear example is the introduction of “plastics taxes” which are currently being—or will be—introduced soon by various European countries (e.g., Italy, UK). These taxes can be avoided when plastic products (including packaging) contain a certain amount of recycled material. In these cases, there is a direct relationship between sustainable solutions and commercial benefit.
What do you stand for?
I stand for simplifying plastic packaging as this, in my opinion, is the only way to increase the recycling rates at relatively short notice up to values demanded by the EU, national governments, and large brand owners.
How do you see the future of plastics in 2050?
When I look back over the last 30 years, many changes have taken place within plastics development and applications. Most were very positive; however, some environmental side effects were negative. Now it appears that these negative effects are over-exaggerated in public opinion. This will change again as soon as solutions are found for the waste and recycling issues we currently face.
I believe that 30 years from now, many different technologies will have been developed, which we probably cannot even think about at this moment. These technologies will offer solutions for not being dependent anymore on fossil feedstock for plastics; raw materials for new products from bio-based, CO2, and waste resources.