In recent years you cannot escape the growing push towards reducing plastics in all aspects of life. Awareness of the issue has put pressure on authorities and governments to tackle the issue. If this pressure leads to the development of alternative materials, for example for packaging of consumer goods, what effect will this have on the producing industries, and their machine builders?
Made from petroleum, plastic is an incredibly versatile material that forms a key component of many products we use today. Used in packaging it is safe, secure, hygienic and cheap plus it is tough and long lasting. Yet, exactly those benefits make it a disaster for the environment once discarded.
Future of Plastic waste
Since the 1950s it is estimated that 8.3 billion tonnes of plastic material have been produced, if demand is not cut this is likely to be 24 billion tonnes by 2050. Currently less than 9 percent of plastics are recycled in the United States, versus about 30 percent in Europe.
In 2017 European countries shipped a sixth of their plastic waste for disposal abroad, mostly to China. However, China recently announced a ban on the import of such waste as part of a wider clampdown on pollution, taking exporters by surprise. In the short-term some waste can be shipped to Malaysia or India, but these countries have only a fraction of the capacity of China, so a long-term solution must be found.
Various approaches are being evaluated and introduced by different countries and world areas, for example:
- Reduce use of plastics that contribute to pollution
- Banning microbeads
- Charging consumers for plastic bags (e.g. 5 Pennies charge in UK has decreased their usage by 85%)
- Swapping plastic straws for paper and plastic stirrers for wooden
- Make it easier to recycle
- Developing new plastics that are easier to recycle
- Introducing segregated recycling bins with separate sections
- Encourage re-using and more thoughtful use of resources
- Research into “compatibilizers” - substances that can facilitate the recycling of different types of plastics that would normally need separating before processing
- Development of more energy-efficient catalysts to break down plastics
- Research into expanding recycling technologies to other plastics beyond PET (used in most plastic water bottles) and polyethylene
- Reduce reliance on fossil fuels in the production of virgin plastics
Changes and Opportunities
If governments force these changes, then industries will have to react, especially producers of consumer goods and their machine builders. They will need to fundamentally change product and packaging designs, which will drive innovation in these areas. While this will require effort and investment, it will also present companies with new opportunities.
These changes will be evident at each stage of the product lifecycle:
- Production – encourage producers to take more responsibility for the environmental impact of their products, while rationalising the number of different types of plastics in use
- Consumption – reduce the demand for single use plastics
- End of Use/Life – make it easier for products to be recycled to improve the rate of recycling
For consumer goods producers, these changes will create opportunities to innovate using new packaging materials and be the first to wear the new mantle of environmental friendliness. For machine builders, there are two distinct opportunities, firstly a whole new market will emerge for machines that handle new product and packaging designs, and secondly existing machines will continue to be used, but producers will order “form parts”. Form parts are the guides and fixtures designed for specific product designs that are mounted on machines and swapped out whenever the machine is reconfigured to accommodate a new or different product. The most likely outcome is that both opportunities will emerge.