More innovation needed for sustainable packaging – report

Redistribution fund launched to reduce UK food waste
Credit: wk1003mike

The nature of product packaging is likely to change dramatically by 2020 as single-use plastics are phased out. Regulation is forcing companies to reduce their usage of virgin plastics.

Many companies, including Mondelēz International, PepsiCo, and Nestlé have announced their intention to reduce plastic waste and move towards a circular economy for packaging.

In developed economies, about a third of plastic usage is in packaging. The difficulty to dispose of plastic without damaging the world’s fragile ecosystem is a challenge keenly felt by the packaging industry.

R&D analytics firm PatSnap has launched its ‘Innovation in Sustainable Packaging Report’ uncovering major trends relating to the state of innovation in sustainable packaging and plastics recycling.

It found that there has been little increase in innovative activity for sustainable packaging, and the area of PET recovery and up-working is being led by only a handful of new entrants into the market.

The report found that patenting activity for PET recovery and up-working saw an uptick in 2016, but that for the wider area of sustainable packaging patent applications have been largely flat since 2009.

This is perhaps not so surprising when considering that this is an issue which companies are facing primarily due to regulatory changes. However, this is an area crying out for innovation.

Paul Bremner, data analyst at PatSnap and author of the report, said: “One of the most surprising findings from this research was that none of the top 10 main applicants have been contributing in a meaningful way to the innovation occurring within this field.

“These main applicants include large chemical companies such as Eastman Kodak, DuPont, Arkema, and between them they have only 5 simple patent families between them over the last 20 years in the area of PET recovery and up-working area.”

The patent analysis conducted in the report found that one new entrant had made significant contributions to the PET recovery or working-up area in 2016, accounting for the uptick in patenting activity in this area.

Loop Industries, dubbed the “Intel Inside of circular plastics”, holds a patent referring to Polyethylene terephthalate deploymerization, a chemical recycling process used to break down waste PET and polyester into their monomer building blocks.

The monomers – dimethyl terephthalate (DMT) and monoethylene glycol (MEG) – are purified, removing all colouring, additives and impurities. Finally, they are repolymerised into PET plastic with the same quality as virgin feedstock, and one that meets FDA requirements for use in food-grade packaging.

Mr Bremner said: “The market for chemical recycling is still immature, but the topic has been growing in terms of awareness in the packaging world. The ability to break down plastics to their constituent monomers provides the opportunity to create brand new polymers with the same performance as virgin polymers, but using recycled material.”

He added: “Disposing of plastic is difficult. Burning it tends to produce noxious fumes, and incarceration tends to melt and clog equipment. Mechanical recycling, essentially crushing up and reusing plastic is a method which has been fully explored by this point.

“The future of plastics recycling is chemical recycling leading to the circular economy.”