Sustainable Packaging: What Can Be Used to Replace Plastic when Plastic is Phased Out?

Globally, plastic pollution has become a very urgent environmental issue, and more and more beverage manufacturers and consumers have begun to adopt sustainable packaging solutions to jointly contribute to the effective improvement of environmental problems.

A report published by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL) set out a vision for all bottled water and beverage packaging to be made from 100% recyclable or reusable materials, allowing non-recyclable and difficult-to-recycle plastics gradually be phased out. At the same time, the best and least impactful way of beverage packaging is to consider the life cycle of plastic products – beverage packaging that is placed on the market in a sustainable manner, the packaging is recyclable and has the lowest overall environmental impact.

Let's decipher the report and phase out non-recyclable and hard-to-recycle plastics, not all plastics.

So, the point is, after stubborn plastics are eliminated, what materials should we use to replace the current plastics?

Producers have reduced the use of hard-to-recycle plastic materials in innovative beverage packaging, ensuring 100% recyclable or reusable plastic alternatives, including PET materials, biomaterials, and non-plastics (paper, glass, metal, etc.), the report said).

So what are the alternatives to plastics, and what are the difficulties of substitution? Let's take a look together!

1. Choose recyclable plastic RPET

In the UK, around 72% of beverage packaging and up to 92% of bottled water use PET material; for sports and energy drinks, the proportion is 67%. Most UK bottled water and soft drink companies have set targets to ensure that all packaging is 100% recyclable by 2025, in line with the UK Plastics Agreement targets; in addition, many companies aim to increase the recyclable percentage, from 25% in 2020 to 50% in 2025.

Is it easy to implement?
To increase the use of RPET, investment and ambition must be increased. For beverage packaging, even with 70% recycled content, there are challenges to overcome, such as increasing the availability and quality of renewable materials and making RPET commercially viable. Based on current technology, it can only be expected that 70% to 90% recycling is possible by 2030, however, only setting higher targets may drive the innovation needed to achieve 100% recycled content.

2. Bio-based plastics

Beverage companies are exploring opportunities to produce bottles and plant based cutlery from plant-based ingredients, some of which are already on the market. Existing innovations include preserving drinking water in edible films, and bottles made from paper that can fully decompose within three weeks. Biodegradable materials that decompose in the environment or in composting facilities offer another potential opportunity.

However, plastic pollution still exists.

Despite being made from natural materials, bio-PET bottles perform just like petroleum-derived PET bottles and pose the same challenges of plastic pollution if they enter the environment. There are still some unknowns in biodegradable food packaging materials that need to be fully explored to determine whether they can provide a scalable solution for beverage packaging. Most degradable materials require specific controlled environments to decompose, such as in industrial-scale composting facilities, so implementation at scale requires national infrastructure that is currently unavailable.

3. Change materials

Another option in the process of eliminating plastic packaging waste is to change materials. Replacing plastic packaging with cardboard; replacing pla straw with metal, bamboo and paper; serving drinks in glass or aluminium... More and more "zero waste" stores are emerging.

(1) Can sugar cane also be made into plastic?
In 2014, Tetra Pak launched the world's first packaging made entirely of recycled raw materials - Tetra Pak Biomass Packaging, which is made from biomass plastic extracted from sugar cane and cardboard from sustainably managed forests. As of early 2018, more than 500 million products have used Tetra Rex Biomass packaging.

(2) Get rid of plastic: less and less
In fact, not all technological innovations come from the reform of material sources. Sometimes a small inspiration in design can bring about big changes.
Beer brand Corona, in collaboration with Leo Burnett, Mexico, launched new cans last year, adding a new layer of spiral rings on the can lid and the bottom of the can. Consumers only need to screw the cans vertically to each other, and they can take them away directly, and the plastic packaging that wraps the beer is finally useless.