In today’s world, sustainability is not just a buzzword but a necessity. The global movement towards sustainability has significantly influenced industries, especially the packaging sector. The shift from single-use plastics to more sustainable alternatives is evident. However, the question arises: Are all alternatives truly sustainable?
We delve into the complexities of this debate, shedding light on the often-overlooked nuances of sustainability. As we explore the unintended consequences of the shift toward paper packaging, a compelling narrative emerges, emphasizing the continued relevance of smart plastics, particularly expanded polystyrene (EPS), in the protective packaging industry. EPS stands out not just for its protective qualities but also as a testament to what a perfect circular product can look like – 100% recyclable, durable, and efficient. However, the journey towards a sustainable future doesn’t end with choosing the right materials; it also necessitates good product stewardship.
Balancing Sustainability: The Case for Smart Plastics Over Paper Packaging
The prohibition of single-use (takeaway food service) plastics is indeed a commendable step towards a greener future. But like every coin has two sides, this decision also has its implications. It’s not just about eliminating plastics from a littering and Landfill management perspective; it’s about understanding the repercussions of the alternatives we choose. Two enlightening articles recently delved deep into this matter, emphasizing the overarching need for responsible product stewardship processes.
In an article by the Society of Plastics Engineers (SPE), the recent shift towards banning single-use plastics, as highlighted by Canada’s ambitious plan, has been met with both applause and skepticism. While many laud the move as a step towards a more sustainable future, environmentalists like Nicole Rycroft of Canopy warn of the unintended consequences of such decisions. The massive surge in paper packaging as a replacement for plastics is alarming. Rycroft’s concerns are not unfounded; over three billion trees are cut down annually to produce paper-based products, a number that is poised to increase with the global bans on single-use plastics. This shift could inadvertently trade the problem of plastic pollution for the equally pressing issue of deforestation and forest degradation.
Forests are the lungs of the world when it comes to the photosynthesis of CO2 to Oxygen, so a reduction in forests accentuates the global need to eliminate CO2 emissions. Not to mention the energy output required to manufacture paper-based packaging. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), the pulp, paper, and paperboard industry is one of the largest energy users in the manufacturing sector, consuming both electricity and steam in various processes. The production involves pulping (breaking down wood fibers), bleaching, and then forming the paper or board. Each of these stages requires significant energy. Additionally, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has highlighted that the paper industry, including packaging, is the fifth largest consumer of energy worldwide. Reducing energy consumption in paper production, therefore, has both environmental and economic benefits.
The Continued Relevance of Plastics in Protective Packaging
On the other hand, The Freedonia Group’s study underscores the continued relevance of plastics, particularly expanded polystyrene (EPS), in the protective packaging industry. With an expected market share of 71% by 2027, plastics, especially EPS, are here to stay. The e-commerce boom necessitates the use of robust protective materials, and plastics like EPS fit the bill perfectly. They are 100% recyclable, it’s easily identifiable as a material for segregation and recycling, can be recycled repeatedly without degradation, and align well with the principles of a circular economy. While there’s a growing inclination towards alternative packaging materials, the limitations and costs associated with them make plastics an indispensable choice for many applications.
In light of these insights, it becomes evident that the solution is not to replace protective plastic packaging with alternatives that might have broader environmental implications. Instead, the focus should be on exploring smart plastics like EPS and emphasizing good product stewardship practices. The essence is clear: sustainability is a multifaceted issue, and a holistic approach is crucial to ensure that in solving one problem, we don’t give rise to another.
Expanded Polystyrene: Beyond Just a Packaging Material
Clean expanded polystyrene (EPS) is not just recyclable; it’s 100% recyclable at all stages of the lifecycle. Its ability to be recycled repeatedly without any degradation in quality makes it a linchpin for closed-loop production and a circular economy. While the debate on the environmental impact of plastics rages on, it’s pivotal to recognize the unparalleled benefits of EPS.
Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) packaging has emerged as a game-changer in various industries, offering a plethora of benefits tailored to specific needs. In the fresh food industry for fruit, vegetables, fish, & other seafood, EPS stands out for its ability to insulate and retain the cold chain better than any other form of packaging. It resists mould and bacteria, ensuring that produce remains uncontaminated and safe for consumption. Moreover, studies have shown that EPS packaging can enhance the retention of vitamin C in fruits and vegetables, further preserving their nutritional value. EPS packaging remains rigid when stored in high humidity or even wet environments whilst cardboard/paper-related packaging will lose strength, sag, and ultimately collapse – resulting in significant food waste/loss.
The use of EPS significantly reduces the risk of food spoilage, which in turn reduces greenhouse gas emissions from farming, through transport & markets to retailers. For example, if Broccoli is packaged while still warm or goes through a prolonged distribution process, it often arrives at supermarkets with yellowed leaves and softened stalks. This not only necessitates quick consumption once purchased to prevent additional decay but also indicates a loss of vitamins and minerals. The flavour and appearance deteriorate before it even reaches your table.
Did you know? Grapes are exported in EPS (expanded polystyrene) packaging, but when sold domestically at supermarkets, they’re often found in cardboard. Why the difference? According to our member manufacturers, the major local retailers made a move away from EPS, thinking it wasn’t recyclable. However, the reality is quite straightforward: EPS boxes just need a simple rinse and removal of any organic residue to be ready for reuse or recycling.
By not utilizing the superior protective qualities of EPS, which offers unique thermal benefits, cushioning, and moisture retention, the quality of grapes, tomatoes, stone fruit, and other veggies has suffered for consumers. This shift to less optimal packaging is particularly evident when you compare it with smaller independent markets that still use EPS boxes locally. Moreover, in countries receiving our grapes in EPS packaging, there’s tangible evidence of healthier stems and bunches with a longer shelf life. In our opinion, it’s a packaging solution that makes sense.
Transitioning to the electrical and appliance sector, the protective properties of EPS are unparalleled. It is highly protective and acts as a cushion, safeguarding delicate electronic components and appliances from potential damages during transit, thereby drastically reducing breakages and product loss on items that are imported from Asia, USA and Europe.
Beyond these industry-specific advantages, a universal benefit of EPS is its lightweight nature. This not only translates to reduced transportation costs but also minimizes the carbon footprint, making it an environmentally and economically sound choice for packaging across diverse sectors.
The Circular Economy and Expanded Polystyrene (EPS)
EPS is not just another packaging material; it’s a testament to the principles of a circular economy. Here’s a deeper dive into its circularity principles:
# 1 Recyclability: The ability of EPS to be 100% recycled sets it apart. Both post-consumer and post-industrial EPS can be seamlessly reprocessed, giving birth to new EPS products of the same quality.
# 2 Resource Efficiency: EPS packaging is a masterclass in efficiency. Being 98% air and only 2% plastic it is the most efficient of all plastic and paper-based packaging materials. It demands minimal raw materials and energy to produce a package that offers superior packaging properties than alternative materials that masquerade as competitive alternatives. Being only 2% plastic, its carbon footprint in manufacture and distribution is extremely efficient and is impossible to surpass when including the supply chain losses that can be attributed to alternate materials. Plus, its lightweight nature slashes transportation costs and the associated carbon footprint
# 3 Closed-loop Production: The concept of taking an end-of-life EPS product and reintroducing it at the beginning of the production cycle is revolutionary. This closed-loop system ensures minimal waste and maximum utility.
# 4 Waste Minimization: EPS recycling and Product Stewardship initiatives are catching on. New initiatives such as StyroCycle is a game-changer, as it allows local communities to dispose of their expanded polystyrene packaging waste, for free. Commercial recycling agreements are also possible through the recycling partners, which are already diverting significant amounts of waste from landfills and reducing the demand for new raw materials, championing sustainable resource use.
# 5 Versatility: The applications of recycled EPS are manifold. From packaging to construction, its utility is diverse, ensuring its continuous repurposing.
The inherent circularity of Expanded Polystyrene (EPS) packaging offers a blueprint for sustainable product management. However, the full potential of this circularity can only be realized through robust product stewardship.
Image Source: Bewi
What does product stewardship entail?
Product stewardship involves overseeing products throughout their lifespan to safeguard the environment. It recognizes the responsibility of those who design, produce, market, import and dispose of products.
Effective product stewardship can decrease waste and contamination. It can also conserve water and energy during production and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. This encompasses practices such as designing for durability and adaptability, eco-friendly manufacturing, and promoting reuse and recycling.
Impacts of Good Product Stewardship
Good product stewardship ensures that every phase of the product’s lifecycle, from design and production to use and end-of-life management, is approached with sustainability in mind. By integrating the recyclable nature of EPS with responsible stewardship practices, businesses can create a holistic approach that not only minimizes environmental impact but also promotes the values of a circular economy. This synergy between EPS’s circular attributes and diligent product stewardship paves the way for a future where materials are not just consumed and discarded but are continually repurposed, with economic, social, and environmental gains.
Economical Impact: Good product stewardship can lead to cost savings for businesses in the long run. By reducing waste and efficiently managing resources, companies can decrease disposal costs and potentially generate revenue from recycled materials.
Social Impact: Companies that adopt responsible product stewardship practices can enhance their brand image and reputation. This can lead to increased customer loyalty and attract environmentally-conscious consumers.
Environmental Impact: Effective product stewardship reduces the environmental footprint of products throughout their lifecycle. This includes minimizing the use of raw materials, reducing waste, and promoting recycling, which collectively contribute to a more sustainable environment.
Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. It demands a nuanced approach, balancing the need to reduce waste with the understanding that not all alternatives are created equal. Expanded polystyrene packaging, when managed judiciously, emerges as a beacon of sustainability. It aligns seamlessly with the tenets of a circular economy. By championing responsible product stewardship processes, we can ensure that EPS doesn’t just remain a viable packaging choice but becomes the gold standard for environmentally friendly packaging.
- S. Energy Information Administration (EIA), 2021.
- World Wildlife Fund (WWF), “The Impact of Paper Production on Forests,” 2020.