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Green packaging: how to achieve sustainable manufacturing

Home Engineering Automation & Control Green packaging: how to achieve sustainable manufacturing

Sustainability in the packaging industry requires flexible and powerful automation technology, according to Omron South Africa.

IN times of increasing sustainability efforts, it is essential to find ways to develop more environmentally friendly packaging, conserve resources, and rely on smart and more efficient production lines.

Holistic concepts are needed. Take coffee capsules. on the one hand, consumers want a quick and easy way to prepare a fresh cup of coffee in the morning and on the other hand, the popular disposable capsules represent a huge environmental burden. A more environmentally conscious consumer demands the coffee beans to be grown more sustainably and the capsules to be produced in a more environmentally friendly way.

People are more environmentally focused these days, and their recycling must become greener. That is why more sustainable manufacturing approaches are the key.

There is no question that too much plastic is produced and disposed of worldwide. Plastic production has increased exponentially in recent years – from 2.3 million tons in 1950 to 448 million tons in 2015, and this figure is expected to double again by 2050.

Another problem: plastics often contain additives that make them stronger, more flexible, and durable. However, many of these additives extend the life of products when they become waste, with some estimates of at least 400 years until decomposition.

In this context, the packaging industry is one of the main contributors to this plastic glut, which urgently needs to be minimized. The industry faces the mammoth task of developing sustainable alternatives, minimizing waste while saving energy and using alternative energy sources.

Pillars of sustainable packaging

The first thing to address is, reducing packaging material – not only in terms of virgin plastics content in primary packaging, but also in the amount of protective secondary and final packaging.

Another point to work on, is to eliminate the need for single-use packaging. Some strategies to tackle this issue start with increasing the use and scaling of reusable and refillable systems, redesigning the package with alternative packaging materials that facilitate recycling, are biodegradable, compostable or have lower impact in the environment if they end up in the landfill.

Packaging made from mono-materials is another strategy attracting increasing interest in the packaging industry. They have better recyclability but migrating to them could be a challenging process that requires strict process control as many times, packaging equipment need to be adapted or customized to achieve an advanced form, fill and seal process that ensures the same package quality and performance.

All these efforts to realize a more sustainable packaging, need to be accompanied with a collecting infrastructure that enables a waste-free or low-waste future along with an urgent behavior change from consumers, industry, retailers, and the entire circular system.

Looking at one of the strategies for more sustainability in the packaging industry is reducing the amount of plastic, especially if its virgin. A key tactic is shifting from rigid to flexible packaging. Thinner walls, smaller sizes, narrower seams, and lighter weights are a good way to reduce the amount of virgin plastic used in the primary container.

Added to this are the use of mono materials already mentioned, paper based and biopolymers, as well as an increase in the proportion of recycled material in main packaging, protective and transport packaging (primary, secondary and final packaging).

This has implications for processes and technologies on the factory floor that need to be revisited: for example, companies need to check the compatibility of their equipment and adjust settings if necessary. Lines need to be flexible to change over to new materials. Linking and managing new machine-to-machine information is required. It is also necessary to control the performance of the machines under the new conditions and to avoid waste as much as possible.

New materials

If more sustainable materials are used in packaging, it is still of the highest importance to ensure the quality of the product. At the manufacturing line changing to more sustainable materials means avoiding typical problems in the primary package like material jams or tears, poor quality seal, or incorrect labelling.

Passed materials have a different tear and puncture resistance, which implies a more precise control in package forming, shrink film made from recycled plastic has very different shrink properties compared to film made from virgin materials, demanding versatile but accurate shrinking temperature control.

There are other aspects to consider in secondary packaging that are getting more traction lately. Reducing the melting points of adhesives when erecting and sealing cartons, implementing material reduction strategies, including lightweight corrugated materials, or unpacking and repacking the contents of a pallet with cartons made from more sustainable cardboard and alternative materials are some of them.

All these strategies to make the packaging more sustainable, require careful analysis to identify the point along the line that would need to be updated to ensure the quality and safety of the product.

What is needed is future-proof manufacturing with automation and robotics technology that can work flexibly with different materials.

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