Sustainable packaging – examples of innovation in the retail sector

Internationally, 40% of the plastic produced is destined for single-use packaging and then thrown away. In 2019, more than 15 million tonnes of plastic packaging waste was generated in Europe. There is a European will to target the recycling of packaging with the aim of achieving a circular economy. This aim is demonstrated for example in the UK, where packaging is the main focus of the UK Plastics Pact, an initiative of UK charity The Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP).

The desire to reduce the amount of packaging produced, as well as to increase the use of packaging that can be reused and recycled as part of the circular economy, has led to significant innovation in the packaging sector.

The recovery and recycling of black plastic packaging has proven to be particularly difficult. Indeed, traditionally, a pigment known as carbon black has been used in the production of colored plastic materials, for example for black plastic trays used to wrap meat. In recycling facilities, plastic waste is sorted into different polymer streams for reprocessing. Near infrared (NIR) sorting systems are used to automatically sort waste. Unfortunately, packages containing the carbon black pigment cannot be detected by NIR sorting systems. This results in plastic containing carbon black remaining in the unsorted waste stream and either being sent to landfill or incinerated.

Besides the aesthetic value of black plastic packaging, which is appreciated by consumers, retailers and producers, there are also other important reasons for coloring plastic. For example, adding black pigments to recycled plastic material that is not suitable for the production of clear and transparent packaging means that the recycled plastic material can be used as raw material to produce black packaging instead of being diverted to a landfill.

As an indication of the kind of creativity and innovation that occurs to achieve the goal of a circular economy, we have looked at the innovations that have been developed to solve the technical problem of recycling black plastic packaging. Innovations we have identified include the development of color additives and alternative pigments detectable by NIR sorting systems.

An example of a packaging solution that uses another black color additive is the DETECTA® packaging developed by Quinn Packaging (which has since been rebranded as Mannok) in Ireland. DETECTA® packaging includes pigments detectable by existing NIR sorting systems and is made from 100% recycled materials. Mannok has applied for UK and EU patents for its recyclable black plastic food tray which can be detected by NIR systems. Following the launch of DETECTA® packaging, Tesco Ireland and LIDL Ireland have both agreed to switch to DETECTA® packaging. This has diverted over 500 tonnes of black plastic to recycling that would otherwise have gone straight to landfill.

Around the same time, Unilever devised an alternative approach in which packaging is formed from layers of recycled consumer packaging items, such as plastic films, bottles and the like, known as of post-consumer resin (PCR). An outer layer of the packaging is formed from natural plastic waste (N-PCR) and an inner layer of the packaging comprises at least 50% colored plastic waste (J-PCR). At least one of the layers comprises a pigment detectable by NIR sorting systems. This type of packaging is the subject of an international patent application.

Each of these approaches results in packaging that is not only detectable by NIR sorting systems and therefore easier to recycle, but also made from recycled plastics, thus contributing to the circular economy.

In order to obtain patent protection, Mannok and Unilever will need to advance their patent applications filed with the relevant patent offices and establish that their innovations are patentable inventions, i.e. they are new and do not are not obvious developments of existing technologies. If successful, Mannok and Unilever will have a market advantage over their competitors because they can license the technology or prevent competitors from using the technology without their permission.

Alongside these developments in the materials used for packaging, research and development has also been carried out to develop new sorting systems capable of detecting materials containing carbon black. Specim, for example, has developed a hyperspectral camera that collects data in the mid-wavelength infrared (MWIR) region and can detect plastics containing carbon black. Tomra Sorting took an alternative approach and developed a laser object detection (LOD) system.

We used published patent specifications as the source of locating information for this review. This is a good example of how searching the patent literature can help understand the strategic direction that competitors are taking in innovating and pursuing a particular competitive advantage, such as a competitive strategy based on sustainability as a value proposition.

In addition to the environmental benefits of innovation around sustainable packaging, protectable intellectual property can be valuable and help provide a market advantage over competitors.

About Shirley L. Kreger

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