Over 16 million tonnes of flexible packaging are used each year across Europe. The vast majority of this packaging does not degrade when put into rubbish dumps, and waste treatments, such as incineration. In addition, because many of these materials are plastics derived from fossil fuels, they also increase the impact on climate change.
© Fotolia, 2012
With the above in mind, a European research project has developed new environmentally friendly materials that can replace oil-based plastic films used in packaging for food and other goods. The Flexpakrenew research team developed a number of new techniques that use renewable materials reinforced with nano-particles and innovative coatings. These materials can compete with plastic films and other flexible packaging in terms of performance and cost, but have a much lower environmental impact.
Flexpakrenew began in September 2008 and received €3.28 million in funding under the EU's Seventh Research Framework Programme (FP7). The project was coordinated by Dr David Guerin from the Centre Technique de l'Industrie des Papiers, Cartons et Celluloses (CTP) in Grenoble, France. The CTP worked with partners from various research institutes and the food and packaging industries across six European countries.
The global demand for flexible packaging is growing by 5% annually and in 2010 had an approximate value of some €41 billion. Europe is the largest market and exceeds that of both Canada and the United States combined. Despite the lucrative market, assessing the environmental benefits of the new materials in Flexpakrenew has been crucial for Dr Guerin.
"We used life-cycle assessment techniques to look at the impacts on the environment throughout the production, use and disposal of the new materials. This enabled us to select the most sustainable materials and compare them with current materials used commercially," he says.
In addition, the project paid special attention to product life cycle and thorough sustainability assessment to prove environmental economic and social performance and potential for up-scaling from laboratory to pilot scale.
Due to the high amount of materials the flexible packaging industry uses, the progress made in this project has the potential to make a significant improvement to overall sustainability. The development of the new packaging products for a global market will make an important contribution towards the reduction of the dependency of the packaging sector on petroleum resources and the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. And the project will strengthen the position of Europe as leader in the area of packaging.
Flexpakrenew has demonstrated at pilot scale that a set of technologies can be combined to produce performing paper-based packaging materials with a demonstrated environmental gain. Thus, the environmental targets of Flexpakrenew have been fulfilled. According to Guerin, some steps have however still to be taken regarding cost and the project has not yet reached industrial production level. "The next step is to show that there is a high level of interest for industry to invest in such technologies," he concludes.