Package design innovations may displace 5% of global resin demand

Design changes in packaging to eliminate, replace or reuse plastic may take away demand for the equivalent of 20 trillion plastic bottles and other containers by 2040, according to a study by consultancy Wood Mackenzie.

Image courtesy of Sambeetd/Pixabay

If technological, economic and regulatory trends align, anywhere from 5% of global plastic packaging demand, and up to 12% of plastic demand in high-income areas, could become displaced within two decades through product engineering design.

"Many of the single-use bottles and the take-away food containers can be made reusable. That change can’t happen overnight. In high-income countries the change is likely to start earlier,” said in an interview Timur Zilbershteyn, Wood Mackenzie principal analyst, as he discussed the findings.

Impact in resin demand

“The packaging itself, like multi-use containers, are not very much costlier than single-use items. They are certainly cheaper per use after several reuse cycles,” Zilbershteyn said.   

There may be an incentive for resin producers “in that demand for reusable items can create demand for more advanced plastic, specialty products that enable easy cleaning,” Zilbershteyn said.

Yet “the change is not going to come from resin producers because they are answering to the demand from the downstream so it should be a pull from the downstream that requires not the plastic for single-use items but for the multi-use items,” he added.

Plastics to be impacted

The quality needed will be more demanding compared to single-use products, he said. 

“Given the higher-exposure of rigid applications, our scenario reveals that polyethylene terephthalate (PET), polypropylene (PP) and polystyrene (PS) are the polymers that will be most impacted by a rise in reuse,” according to Wood Mackenzie’s report.

“The pandemic has increased the demand for single-use items in medicine because with Covid safety concerns are overwhelming and you just can’t take the risk of cleaning. This brings the cost too high to safely clean them,” Zilbershteyn added.

The reuse and refill models

Reuse models are common in industrial settings but still immature in most markets, according to Wood Mackenzie. Current programs in Europe and other locations are still on a relatively small scale.

For example, Unilever says in its website that it offers in a location in Chile refills of laundry detergent bottles through a downloadable application with over 8,500 households signed up as part of a program.

Chile is Latin America’s country with the highest per-capita income. The country’s 20 million population is a small part of Latin America’s 650 million.

 “To increase durability, this packaging will generally have thicker walls and therefore require more polymer per unit. However, the net impact is negative for polymer demand,” according to the study of Wood Mackenzie.

Product engineering 

Unilever said on March 15 that as part of ongoing efforts to remove 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging entirely by 2025, a goal announced two years ago, it explores “novel reusable/refillable formats, with pilot projects now running all over the world.”

Unilever has focused on products containing more than one type of plastic that have been difficult to recycle as they are pasted together.

For example most drink pouches are made up of thin layers of several plastics, which perform different functions like to prevent moisture, or to print labels. “But these layers are difficult to separate, and each one usually requires a different type of process,” Unilever said.

So “in Latin America, we worked with film supplier Inapel to develop a new type of pouch for Knorr which is made using three layers of the same polypropylene (PP) material,” the company said.

Another design change had to do with adding pigments to black plastic so that it can be read by sorting machines.

“Black plastic is also hard to recycle because automatic optical sorting machines are unable to ‘see’ it,” the company said. Unilever moved to new, readable black pigments.

Other product packaging design initiatives include selling packaged toothpaste in the form of tablets or selling shampoo in solid bars.

Unilever has estimated its plastic packaging footprint at around 700,000 tonnes annually. It plans to cut virgin plastic packaging by 50% by 2025, with a third, or more than 100,000 tonnes, coming from "an absolute plastic reduction.”

“Reuse is typically shortest cycle and more effective if applied on a large scale.  At some point you need the recycle also,” Zilbershteyn said.

By Renzo Pipoli