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Packaging is mother of lifecycle analysis

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AT THE August meeting of the Australian Institute of Packaging in Victoria, RMIT Centre for Design assistant director Tim Grant and Plastral manager (degradable films) Warwick Hall Manager presented on bioplastics and life cycle analysis in connection with the packaging industry.

Packaging industry consultant Michael Halley was there.

Hall was representing the Australian Bioplastics Association , founded last year to assist in the orderly introduction of bioplastics into the Australian marketplace.

We are mostly familiar with the saying that necessity is the mother of invention but Grant put a slightly varied version to the audience when he related that “Packaging is the mother of life cycle analysis”.

In 1969 the Coca Cola Company conducted an analysis of energy use across the packaging being undertaken and this became the benchmark for organisations to follow the leader and conduct what became known as life cycle analysis (LCA).

By 1992 more than half of the studies of LCA were related to packaging and today most studies involve packaging.

This would follow when it is considered how much packaging impacts on almost anything that we manufacture, or use, for there is a truism that anything you touch today will have been touched by packaging before you.

LCA is a procedure where studies are conducted to measure the interaction between the economy and the environment and what human activity takes from and gives back to the environment.

Programs look at the interaction between human health, ecosystem health and social welfare, and the effect of activity.

For instance in respect of human health is smog contributing to respiratory problems, is excessive land clearing contributing to the loss of species and ecosystems and is the continued use of fossil fuels leading to the increasing costs and future demise of petroleum products.

As if keen to debunk tried and true statements Grant said we can compare apples and oranges if they serve the same function.

For instance, both are fruit, that are sources of fruit juice and can be a portable snack but they are dissimilar if we consider both to be citrus fruit or a filling for apple pie.

LCA is always based around the comparisons of different ways of delivering a common service or ‘functional unit’ and packaging has many functions such as protection and delivery of product from point of manufacture to the time of use; measurement and dispensing of product; marketing and identification of product; instructions and product information; materials for future life cycles.

Therefore, any LCA would need to consider data for the manufacture of packaging; energy consumed for food processing; energy consumed for transport, distribution (in stores) and storage (by consumer); energy wasted through food waste and food refuse.

Grant went onto show examples of analysis conducted culminating with the result of a study that showed how a laundry product was subjected to several scenarios to decrease the total energy consumption.

Initially the cost benefit of using recycle material to manufacture the bottle was conducted with a small saving in energy.

Next a soft pouch was tested with savings in the order of 32% demonstrated.

The greatest saving came not from the packaging but from triple concentrating the product.

This gave energy savings of 67% without even changing the bottle and a massive 77% when using a soft pouch.

There are three important points regarding environmental impacts and the packaging supply chain; impacts occur at different stages across the life cycle and are related to the function of the packaging, you need to consider impacts across the entire life cycle, you need to think of the product and packaging as a ‘system’.

Grant then covered a range of issues needing to be considered when considering or conducting a Life cycle Analysis and warned about being influenced by folklore. For it is proven that environmental folklore based on experience is limited by our experience, and few of use have experiences right along the life cycle.

The Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) is dedicated to promoting plastics that are biodegradable, compostable and based on renewable resources and was formed to represent the industry and provide a streamlined view on issues relating to the benefits of Bioplastics in Australia and New Zealand.

ABA will seek to work closely with all levels of government, industry, and consumer groups and other stakeholders to establish standards and labelling for Bioplastics consistent with internationally recognised testing practices and methods.

One of the objectives of the association is to increase public awareness of Bbioplastics as a vital long-term waste management technology and as a valuable alternative to traditional plastics that can take hundreds of years to decompose.

Hall had previously said: “Bioplastics are seen as a remarkable advance in technology with many benefits, including the promotion of a sustainable future.

“These modern materials increasingly utilise renewable resources such as starch and cellulose from crop plants, unlike traditional plastics that are predominantly petro-chemical based.

“Bioplastics are compostable and present an efficient alternative for waste disposal.”

He expanded upon the mission of ABA and the attributes of bioplastics globally and the developing markets in the antipodes.

Bioplastics are from nature’s closed loop and are promoted as renewable raw materials or RRM.

By blending with non renewable based biodegradable and compostable plastics, users can get the benefit of both worlds.

Since bioplastics were launched in Europe back in 1990 the usage and technical properties have grown exponentially and they have become a ‘must have’ for governments that have climbed onto the sustainable development and green image bandwagons.

Whilst ABA welcomes the involvement of third parties there is concern about performance claims made on behalf of products that are promoted as biodegradable, compostable or to have other environmental advantages when sometimes they do not.

Hall noted nine or 10 descriptors of labelling that is inaccurate, incorrect and too encompassing.

Some products that are claimed to be biodegradable will not meet the requirements of standards such as the Australian Standard in draft form [DR05402] or the European Union’s EN 13432.

Nonetheless over 90% of biodegradable plastics packaging is being recovered through composting or microbiological degradation and the life cycle of RRM continues.

There are greenhouse gas emissions advantages with bioplastics.

PLA was compared with PET as was the demonstrated degradability of bioplastics.

By the magic of video the audience saw time lapse photography clearly show that a bioplastics drinking cup in a composting environment is gone in 47 days.

The same applies to a beverage bottle but the time for degrading of the bio-bottle was 100 days.

Natureworks in Nebraska commenced the manufacture of PLA in 2002.

It is thought that demand may exceed the current plant capacity to supply as soon as next year.

Bioplastics are being manufactured from a variety of agricultural products in North America, Europe, Asia and Australia.

A significant use of bioplastics in Europe is in agriculture and horticulture where it is used as a mulch film which at the end of the growing season is simply ploughed into the soil.

Australia’s home grown Plantic Technology has been exported and is a major force in rigid packaging of confectionery.

In marketing the words introduction, growth and maturity are common and to take a line through that discipline would suggest that bioplastics is very much in the growth stage whilst traditional plastics are in some cases heading to maturity.

The European equivalent of ABA project that in four years time the production there will exceed half a million tonnes.

This is small beer compared with the approximate 40 million tonnes of petroplastic being produced today but only growing at 5% per annum.

The womb to tomb part of the life cycle of bioplastics is a natural event whereas petrochemical based materials need human intervention but it behoves all packaging technologists and users to recycle and reuse all materials no matter the origin.

One measure of pollution attributed to packaging is litter so out in the future the anti-packaging brigades will not see as much material beside the roadways and in parks unless the come within a short time of the uncaring consumer disposing of the article.

There is no doubt that bioplastics have arrived and will continue to play a major part in the life cycle analysis of packaging for years to come.

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