Our Words on the Current Sustainability Discussion

Many people are talking about the sustainability of film packaging. Images of rivers and oceans polluted with plastic shake up and call for a rethink - justified. Something must be done for our generations and those to come. In this discussion, however, a lot has recently been spread through the media, which in our opinion - and also in the opinion of various experts - has put plastics in far too negative a light. The issue of sustainability in relation to film packaging calls for a differentiated approach.

As many experts have pointed out, far more than 90% of plastic waste reaches the oceans outside Europe. Take-back and recycling systems would ideally have to be introduced worldwide in order to combat environmental pollution globally. This applies not only to plastics. Waste is not waste but recyclable material.

It is not plastic alone that is to blame for the misery, but the lack of take-back systems in many countries and the unwillingness to invest in them.

Create cycles! The well-functioning dual system in Germany has been one of the pioneers in a worldwide comparison for many years. With the introduction of the Packaging Act on 01.01.2019, we are continuing in the direction of greater sustainability - among other things by increasing the recycling rate for plastics. In addition, it was stipulated that recyclable films should be used as far as possible.

Recycling has a positive effect on the CO2 balance - important in view of climate change. The more often a raw material is recycled again, the less new raw material has to be produced and the less ends up unnecessarily in incineration.

The use of packaging films must be sensible. The bag formats as well as the material thicknesses of the films must be product-optimized. Product-optimized packaging is economical and sustainable!

According to the current state of the art, film packaging can be recycled if it consists of one type of film. Film composites of several film layers made of different types of material cannot be separated from each other to date and therefore migrate after use to thermal recycling for the purpose of generating energy and heat.

The use of films made from naturally redirected raw materials makes sense in view of the increasingly scarce oil resources. The recyclability of these films makes them even more sustainable. This is already the case with Green PE. Green PE can be mixed with LDPE from fossil raw materials due to the strong chemical similarity in recycling. Bio-PLA is also recyclable, but the prerequisites for its recycling in Germany currently still mostly have to be created. However, due to the fact that the proportion of total film waste that has so far been too low, this film migrates to plastics that can only be thermally recycled. In the final thermal recycling of films made from renewable raw materials, approximately the same amount of CO2 is released into the environment as was previously bound by the plant during growth from the atmosphere.

Each packaging material with its individual properties has its right to exist - glass, paper, metal, woven fabrics and, of course, films. Films are inexpensive, light and flexible. They have various advantages over other packaging materials in terms of production and logistics:

  • low use of energy and water in production and recycling, which saves resources
  • very small space requirement and therefore less energy input for transport, less storage space during storage
  • Films that are sorted out during recycling end up in thermal recycling and are still useful for generating heat and energy.

We would also like to point out the following properties of film packaging, some of which also have an influence on sustainability:

  • They protect the contents from soiling - e.g. in the case of paper products (greeting cards, writing and craft papers, etc.). Non-protected products are no longer saleable when soiled or damp and must be disposed of. Apart from the economic loss, this is not sustainable. Without product protection, the POS possibilities in the outdoor area may not be available, depending on the product.
  • They protect products from contamination with viruses and bacteria - especially important for foodstuffs such as bread, fruit and vegetables.
  • They sometimes keep food fresh for longer. Without film, unsold food (= economic loss) must be disposed of.
  • They reduce the risk that food-hazardous substances, such as those contained in textiles, can be transferred to food.

Contrary to some media reports from recent months, we would like to point out that films made of polyethylene as well as polypropylene are free of plasticizers that are hazardous to health! Plasticizers are a component of other films, especially PVC.

The compostability or biodegradability of films is often desired by end users. In a few countries, e.g. Italy, the use of biodegradable film packaging is promoted as there are appropriate facilities for decomposition. A general distinction must be made between biodegradability according to DIN EN 13432 and home compostability. An equivalent according to DIN EN 13432 means that in industrial composting at least 90% of the film must have turned into CO2, water and biomass within 12 weeks. It should be remembered that the normal throughput time for industrial composting is 5-8 weeks - much shorter than the time required for decomposition. Many municipalities in Germany therefore prohibit biodegradable films from ending up in organic waste or in brown bins. Due to the negligible yield of biomass during film decomposition, the method is also not economically attractive. Instead, the collected bioplastics are currently being incinerated. During thermal use, CO2 and water are released, similar to those released during composting.

Composting requires oxygen, controlled heat and a sufficient number of microorganisms. If a film is certified according to DIN EN 13432, it is suitable for industrial composting and not for home composting. In the case of home composting, the heat and the number of microorganisms are usually too low for decomposition. In the wild, the decomposition process takes even longer due to a lack of microorganisms.

Home compostable films, which can be processed into bags such as polypropylene and polyethylene, are still in the development phase. We observe the developments very closely. Certainly the thought is interesting and good when films decompose or dissolve in the wild or in water, thereby reducing the problem of visible plastic waste. However, we would like to point out that the preliminary stage up to the complete decomposition of the film is the shredding into small pieces - better known as "microplastic".