Sticking together for a better world – the adhesive stance on recycling, re-use or disposal

The responsibility of looking after Mother Earth falls on all of us...

Sustainability is now a key issue of concern to governments, businesses and the public all over the world. With each month that goes by, we are introduced to new, innovative ways of being ‘greener’.

On a personal level, that could be through using a reusable water bottle, shopping with bags for life or opting to buy naked products (products without packaging). On the business end, companies are switching from plastic to paper packaging, introducing vegan variations of their products and partnering with other businesses to form closed recycling loops. Companies are recognising the change in consumer needs and behaviour as well as their own accountability when it comes to the environment. The Telegraph reported that almost half of UK companies are planning to increase their environment-related spending between now and summer 2021.

The above changes in customer and business behaviour result in extra demands for the adhesives industry and more in-depth consideration into choice of adhesive as well as its performance.

Packaging today

Packaging is one area that has a significant impact on the environment. And with packaging being a key use for adhesives, it is certainly an area worthy of further consideration and one the adhesives industry must keep on top of.

According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), food and food packaging materials make up almost half of municipal solid waste. When it comes to the damage human activity is causing the planet, packaging waste is a big part of the problem. Thankfully, documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet are helping to highlight this and encourage people to increase their knowledge on the benefits of reusing and recycling packaging.

Most recently, however, new terms such as ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ and ‘bio-based’ have surfaced for both packaging materials and adhesives alike, yet the knowledge behind these terms is rather hazy. It has become clear that consumers need more information about materials and more instructions to help with recycling. Today, people are opting buy biodegradable packaged products over other forms of packaging because they have heard it’s better for the planet though, because they are incorrectly disposing of them, they are potentially doing more harm than good. Let us elaborate...

Biodegradable, compostable and bio-based – what do they actually mean?

•    Biodegradable: An object or substance is deemed biodegradable when it is capable of being decomposed by bacteria or other living organisms and thereby avoiding pollution. Technically, almost everything is biodegradable, however most things take hundreds of thousands of years to biodegrade whereas ‘biodegradable products’ are typically made from sustainable materials and plant by-products and break down much faster.
The issue with biodegradable products is that when they are sent to landfill, they often become buried which means the beneficial bacteria cannot survive due to lack of oxygen. As a result, these products break down anaerobically (without oxygen) which creates the greenhouse gas methane. Some landfills collect the methane to create electricity (biogas plants), but most do not. It is therefore better to dispose of biodegradable products in a commercial compost heap or send them to a recycling plant.

•    Compostable: To be deemed compostable, industrial packaging must meet specific requirements set out by the European Standard EN 13432. Compostable plastics for example must disintegrate after 12 weeks and completely biodegrade after six months. Compostable products are made from natural materials such as starch and decompose fully into compost (usually in an industrial composting facility with controlled conditions) without producing toxic residue. If disposed of correctly, compostable items will break down completely and can then be used to grow more resources.

•    Bio-based: Bio-based products are those derived from plants and other renewable agricultural, marine and forestry materials. The USDA Certified Bio-based Product label that you see on many packaging items specifies the percentage of bio-based content.

Whilst recyclable, compostable, biodegradable, returnable and reusable packaging are all considered valid forms of sustainable packaging, consumers and manufacturers are often still left wondering which is the best for the planet, for each form has its own set of pros and cons.

Plastic packaging and the environment  

Although plastic packaging is often torn apart by the press, it can be sustainable if used and managed in the right way. The process of converting used materials into something new keeps products away from landfill for longer, and it is often forgotten about that plastic production uses about half as much energy as alternative materials. Plastic is also a lightweight packaging medium which means less energy is needed to transport plastic packaged goods. Studies have in fact shown that the overall packaging consumption of packaging mass, energy and greenhouse gas emissions would increase if there were no plastic packaging available and only other materials were used.

The drawback to ‘standard’ plastics (and also paper) is that they can only be recycled a few times before they are deemed unusable whereas materials such as glass, metal and aluminium can be recycled endlessly.

Whilst single-use plastics are now widely known to be hazardous to the environment – especially our oceans – plastic packaging is evolving. You can now find compostable and biodegradable plastics (though these aren’t ‘readily’ recyclable) and plastic packaging that’s 100% recyclable.

Recently, we have seen fast food companies switch their recyclable plastic straws to paper alternatives, however it’s come to light that these paper straws aren’t yet recyclable and have to be thrown away. The debate here is: what material choice is more eco-friendly? This is just one example of the ever-growing list of companies making green changes but, as you can see, changes can be tricky (especially for large companies) and lots of in-depth research is needed to make informed choices.

It’s clearly a challenging time for packaging specialists and brand owners as they must get the right balance between the safety, convenience and sustainability of their products.

The packaging of tomorrow

The consumers and companies of today are moving towards sustainable packaging which is the development and use of packaging which results in improved sustainability. This involves looking at the entire lifecycle of packaging from its supply chain, basic function, and usefulness to consumer to the end of its life. Adhesives will play a vital role in this process.

The debate about which type of packaging is best for the environment is ongoing, but following an increase in the types of plastic packaging being marketed as ‘biodegradable’ or ‘(home) compostable’, FEICA (the Association of the European Adhesive & Sealant Industry) investigated whether these types of packaging are beneficial in the context of the circular economy – the economic system aimed at eliminating waste and the continual use of resources.

Through a report from Eunomia, FEICA concluded that: “At this stage the evidence is weak in favour of any particular agronomic benefit associated with compostable plastic material in compost or digestate. Some carbon from the biodegradable plastics appears to be incorporated into the biomass but at least half is ‘lost’ to CO2 air emissions. This leads to the conclusion that material choices for products and packaging should prioritise recyclability over compostability.”

Consumers and manufacturers alike are evidently becoming more aware of the environmental impact of the products they buy or manufacture. Yet with no clear-cut agreement on what is truly best for the future, experts are starting to side with and identify reusing bio-based or sustainably, ethically sourced products as being more of a permanent solution for a long term, more sustainable product offering. It is worth noting however that the sustainability debate is evolving at rapid speed and that this advice today may be replaced with something else tomorrow.

Achieving your green goals with Beardow Adams

Beardow Adams works independently and in partnership with companies to provide customers with greener packaging solutions.

We have manufactured vegan and high bio-based content adhesives and our adhesives help to create reusable, recyclable products. For example, we manufacture alkali washable adhesives and adhesives for pallet stabilisation. We offer our customers the opportunity to receive their adhesive orders in paper bags or returnable plastic pallets in a closed recycling loop. The list of our more environmentally friendly products and services is always expanding.

If you’d like to discuss improved sustainability for your products and working with Beardow Adams to achieve this, get in touch today:

Keep your eyes peeled for our next article which looks at supporting sustainable packaging with our hot-melt adhesives

Download our latest infographic: Eco-Friendly Adhesives and Services

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