Sensing a market opportunity, many packaging converters were already targeting sustainability, developing innovative packaging materials and designs to cut packaging weight and promote reuse and recycling.  

However, new legislation is now forcing the issue for packaging producers and their converting partners, who are increasingly on the hook for green regulatory compliance.   

New regulations 

In the UK, for example, Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) regulations are now succeeding the Producer Responsibility Packaging Regulations 2007 through a phased implementation process that came into force on 1 January 2023.   

EPR obliges packaging producers to collect data on packaging, including materials, processes, purposes and weight and seeks to place the full net cost of packaging at the end of its life onto the producers, as opposed to local authorities, which until now have borne the cost of handing packaging waste.   

A spokesperson for UK-based Kite Packaging said : “For packaging producers, the rules are more complicated [than the previous regulations] and complying with them is likely to cost more.”

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Meanwhile, in the European Union (EU) the single-use plastic directive (directive (EU) 2019/90) has been in force since October 2021, requiring EU member states to meet targets for the collection and recycling of single-use plastic waste of which packaging is a major component. This is reducing the flow of plastics that converters are supplying to packagers.  

The European Commission also announced in 2020 that it was reviewing the Packaging and Packaging Waste Regulation (PPWR), which governs how packaging waste is regulated across the bloc, which will place requirements on converters to ensure the recyclability of their materials.  

Its initial reform proposal was published in November 2022, containing various suggested requirements for the materials and format of packaging, as well as fees for packaging producers, designed to ensure all packaging on the EU market is reusable or recyclable in an economically viable way by 2030. The EU’s proposal has been met with some resistance from some EU Member States, who have asked for more flexibility in applying the rules.   

Packaging converting sector concerns

Meanwhile, the converting and packaging industry has also identified what it believes to be problematic aspects of the changes.   

In April 2023, several leading international packing producers formed a new alliance called ‘Together for Sustainable Packaging’ (TfSP) to challenge the PPWR proposals.  

Announcing its formation, its members, which include Austria-based carton, paper and cardboard converter MM Board & Paper; France-based fibre packaging converter Schisler Packaging Solutions; US-based paper converter Seda International Packaging Group; and Wales-based sustainable plastics packaging materials producer Transcend Packaging, wrote an open letter to the EU Commission outlining concerns.  

This was also supported by fast food giants McDonald’s and Yum! Brands (the parent company of KFC, Pizza Hut and Taco Bell). Both brands had concerns about the impact on food safety and quality and had questions about the practicalities of increased waste packaging collecting and washing for reuse.   

In March, 35 packaging associations signed an open letter calling for a harmonised EU policy framework on the use of recycled content in plastic packaging. The packaging associations that signed the letter included European Plastics Converters – EuPC; EUROPUR, the European Association of Flexible Polyurethane Foam Blocks Manufacturers; and ACE, The Alliance for Beverage Cartons and the Environment.  

“Manufacturers, converters and users of plastic products or plastics packaging in all sectors are keen to significantly increase the supply and use of recycled plastics (…) For this to succeed and be available at scale, EU harmonised rules for calculating chemically recycled content are urgently needed to intensify investments in these technologies,” the letter said.

Converters drive innovation

But while there is consternation within parts of the packaging industry about the impact of legislative changes, there is also a reassuring amount of innovation, particularly among converters, geared towards meeting sustainability challenges.   

According to Gorka Zelaia Agirre, product manager at Oñati, Spain-headquartered Ulma Packaging, which supplies packaging solutions for food and pharmaceuticals, one of the main ways to make packaging more sustainable at the same time as reducing costs is to use fewer materials.  

Zelaia Agirre explained: “For some years, we have been working to offer sustainable solutions to the market (…) first by using sustainable materials such as paper or mono-material film packaging and second, we are focusing on reducing the materials used in the packaging itself.”.   

This shift to mono-materials and films is a sustainability-focused move from multi-material solutions favoured by packaging producers in the past, but as the flexible packaging materials development manager at France-based multinational food company Danone, Jesús Maza Lisa, explained, using fewer materials does not automatically solve the sustainability issue.   

“Mono-materials are technically recyclable (…) but the recycling streams are not yet developed everywhere,” he said. “This is slowing the move from multi-materials to mono-materials (…) so we need to be more intelligent than that and develop new solutions,” he added.   

One of the criticisms highlighted by the TfSP alliance of using fewer and more sustainable materials in packaging is that the products they contain are more easily damaged, as paper packages are less durable than alternatives such as polyethene plastic.   

However, Zelaia Agirre said that new packaging technologies, such as better seals and machines that control the amount of air inside packaging, can help ensure durability, reducing the chance of damage to its contents while allowing companies to optimise case packing (the number of individual packages that can fit inside a case or box for storage or delivery). 

Biodegradable materials in packaging converting

A particularly active area of innovation is the development of biodegradable packaging materials using natural compounds and fibres. AIMPLAS, the Spain-headquartered Plastics Technology Centre, announced in December 2022 that it had manufactured a plastic film from used coffee grounds for use in flexible packaging applications.  

Last year, UK-based sustainable packaging start-up Notpla launched a new range of grease and water-resistant packaging formats with a plastic-free barrier made from seaweed for the takeaway food industry for customers, including online food ordering and delivery service, Just Eat.   

According to Achim Grefenstein, senior vice-president group R&D at Austria-headquartered flexible packaging maker Constantia Flexibles and chairman of the EuPC packaging division, sustainable innovation in packaging materials means undoing and rethinking previous developments in product performance.   

“Over decades, we have optimised the performance of our packaging and made them thinner and thinner by combining different materials to achieve the best functionality with the lowest resource consumption. But we have forgotten [about] the recycling. Now we must learn rapidly what it means [to be recyclable],” he said.   

Rossano Lambertini, technical account manager at San Marino-based flexible packaging company SIT Group, said that one of the challenges for converters in switching to more sustainable packaging materials is convincing packaging producers to adopt new solutions.   

He explained: “You are asking them to replace the same material used for 30 years,” noting that converters must demonstrate sustainable materials can match or exceed incumbent materials in areas such as shelf life, cost and performance. 

He added: “It’s also a matter of habits (…) you have to convince the customer that alternative solutions are better and more reliable.”