What sustainable industrial packaging is there?

Nora Menzel, 24 May 2022

Sustainable packaging is of public interest, but mostly it's about point-of-sale solutions. Industrial packaging tends to lead a shadowy existence, away from the world of consumers - which is why this article sheds light on precisely this hitherto dark stage area: sustainable industrial packaging.

Especially companies that are looking for levers to reduce their ecological footprint or to meet other prescribed climate targets are concerned with sustainable industrial packaging. After all, goods must be well packaged for intralogistics or global transport so that they reach their buyer or user in their original condition. Since large quantities of packaging materials are produced here, it is therefore worthwhile for companies to look at this area if they want to reduce their ecological footprint.

Films as an adjusting screw to save resources

Depending on what material packaged components are made of, care must not only be taken to prevent them from breaking, but they must also be protected against corrosion. Films containing corrosion-inhibiting substances are used for this purpose. If, for example, a metal component is wrapped in such a film, the substances form a protective layer that also lies in openings and inhibits the electrochemical processes that lead to corrosion. Depending on the film, this is a material mix that is difficult to recycle; in addition, a large amount of the corrosion-inhibiting substances must be added - depending on the storage time or transport duration.

More sustainable, on the other hand, is intelligent corrosion protection (ICB), which is only released when it is needed, i.e. when the humidity exceeds a certain level. And the release of the protection decreases as soon as the air humidity drops again. This means that the same amount of substance lasts longer because it is released as needed - and that saves resources.

For goods in potentially explosive atmospheres (in short: hazardous areas), large quantities of packaging are usually produced, because plastic packaging in particular poses a safety risk due to static charge and therefore the packaging must be changed before transport to the hazardous area. One and the same product thus generates twice as much packaging effort. Goods can be delivered to the hazardous area more easily and with less material expenditure if they are already suitably packaged for this special area. This can be done, for example, with a PE blown film that is suitable for the potentially explosive area due to a statically dissipative polymer.

There is also electrically conductive primary packaging which, because of this property, can be used in filling processes for powders where there is a risk of explosion due to low humidity. The sustainability aspect of these films lies in their material; they are mono-materials that are easy to recycle (Rhein-Plast).

And even with stretch films that are not used in hazardous areas, a lot of material and therefore investments are often needed. The film is wrapped in many layers around the goods to be packaged, for example pallets with cans on them, so that the goods are safely packed for transport. Accordingly, the film cannot simply be left out, because losing the goods would result in a larger climate footprint than the "non-sustainable" packaging. However, there is something companies can consider when working with stretch film: Pre-stretching means that less material is needed for the same process on balance. In addition, as with many processes, the machine used has an impact on efficiency, as does using recyclable film made from the thinnest possible material.

In general, the recyclability of industrial packaging is a problem, as it often consists of material mixes to achieve the desired properties. However, this makes the recycling process more difficult. Packaging does not necessarily have to be made of mono-materials to be much more sustainable. Alternatively, a lot is already done if the materials it is made of are not only used once, but ideally run through a cycle again and again. Another plus is if the packaging manufacturer has climate-balanced its products, so that users can offset the CO2 footprint of the packaging directly against their carbon footprint.

From sustainable boxes and pallets

No matter which packaging is considered, they all consume resources during their production - be it energy, raw materials or water. What could be more sustainable than packaging that does not have to be produced but grows by itself? Even if it sounds too good to be true, the concept is already present in nature, for example in the banana peel.

But it is now also possible beyond nature, through microorganisms, or more precisely fungi. These need little to grow, only nutrient medium - which for this packaging comes in the form of hemp hurds - and oxygen. The hemp hurds are a waste product and thus find an unexpected second life in the grown packaging. The hurds are pressed into the desired shape by tools and then inoculated with fungal mycelium. The fungus then needs about five days to enclose the hemp hurds. After that, the fungus only has to be killed to prevent it from growing further. In this way, for example, edge protection corners or whole boxes can be made.

When it comes to transporting liquids or powders, companies turn to fibre drums, plastic or steel drums. These are difficult to recycle at the end of their life cycle due to a material mix of plastic and metal. In addition, due to their geometry, drums cannot be packed quite as tightly into trucks as the volume of the cargo space would actually allow. This is where an unusual idea comes into play: cardboard boxes.

The raw material for paper and cardboard packaging virtually grows on its own, even if it requires a few more processing steps than mushroom packaging. Nevertheless, it is a sustainable alternative because the generally rectangular shape of the cartons reduces empty volume in trucks, making a single trip more efficient. Furthermore, when unfolded and empty, the cartons take up less space than an empty drum. They are wet-proof in case liquid does leak from a container inside and do not have any glue joints, which means they can be added to the waste paper stream without any problems.

Not only drums, but also heavy wooden or metal packaging can be replaced by cardboard. Heavy-duty corrugated cardboard in particular can withstand more than most people think. The material is lighter than wood or metal and thus produces fewer CO2 emissions during transport. The advantage of folding also comes into play here; the packaging can be stored in a more space-saving way than non-foldable boxes.

To a large extent, packaging also includes pallets, because packaged goods are transported on them. Since pallets are usually used several times, sustainability can be achieved here through a higher number of life cycles. Commercially available Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) wooden pallets last for about five life cycles before they have to be repaired or disposed of. Plastic pallets, on the other hand, have between 110 and 120 life cycles, depending on the manufacturer. This means that materials and thus raw materials are saved.

Sustainable labelling solution

Once everything has been packaged sustainably, all that is missing is a label on the packaging. The ink for this is usually mineral oil-based and - if printed directly on the packaging board - leads to contamination of the pulp recycling process. In addition, the ink contains a high proportion of volatile organic compounds, some of which are classified as environmentally harmful gases.

It is better to use vegetable oil-based inks and, ideally, to reduce the amount of ink used. Vegetable oil-based inks also contain volatile organic compounds, but in lower proportions. The amount of ink can be reduced by using a more efficient printing process, but also by using a printer that needs to be flushed less often, which means less ink is lost. This also makes the labelling of packaging more sustainable.

Source: Neue Verpackung