More sustainability in the packaging industry - how can machines and systems help?

Or: “When organic cucumbers are packed in plastic”. Which packaging is unnecessary, which is indispensable? And where does the plastic end up afterwards? Recyclable or not? These are questions that have to be asked of the packaging industry. It is certainly one of the industries that has already triggered countless discussions on sustainability and will continue to do so. And yet, since 2020 at the latest, packaging has once again been cast in a completely different light. Because packaging exists first and foremost to protect the product. The packaging industry will be classified as systemically important at the start of the Covid 19 pandemic in early 2020. In Packaging Valley, production and development of new ancillary products is in full swing. For example, several member companies have developed machinery and equipment for filling vaccines and already have them up and running at customer sites.

That packaging producers contribute to environmental protection is certainly their duty. And yes, they are doing it, and they are not alone in this. Because it's also clear that sustainability must play a role in the value chain from the very beginning. It doesn't start with packaging design, and it doesn't end with the finished packaged product. In the same way, there must be solutions for efficient production, for gentle material production, but also for disposal and recyclability.


What does the topic of sustainability mean in Packaging Valley?

The packaging specialists in Packaging Valley supply machines, systems, and components. Sustainability has several aspects for them. It's about materials, resources, about production, but also about the product itself. If the machine does not make it possible, new and sustainable packaging solutions cannot be implemented economically in the first place. In most cases, machine builders, packaging producers and food, product or even consumer goods manufacturers work closely together. For us in Packaging Valley, sustainability begins with the purchase of materials and components.

For example, Packaging Valley member Komet offers vacuum packaging machines that consist almost entirely of recyclable components. Disposing of these machines at the end of their service life is easy and, above all, done with a clear conscience.


Podcast: "Buying, working and disposing sustainably - how the customer benefits".

Where else if not here: Sustainability in materials and design

Can there be a flexible machine that works reliably with different materials? The customer's question is followed by a resounding yes. But often it is primarily a question of cost and time. After all, the outlay for retooling and new accessories is not inconsiderable. In addition, there is a requirement for consistent quality. This includes the design, i.e. appearance and functionality, but also the protective effect of the packaging. For some, this one highly flexible and powerful all-inclusive machine is simply not economical; several smaller machines offer a better solution. This allows different products and materials to be processed simultaneously without complex changeovers.

Which materials are in high demand? Paper is often mentioned as an ecologically sound packaging material, but it is not always the first choice when it comes to its’ function . In terms of protection and manageability, paper is far behind ordinary plastic packaging. It tears more easily and/or does not provide an air or moisture barrier. Now you might think coated paper is the solution? It's not that simple, because packaging made of multiple materials can rarely be properly recycled without great expense. Truly sustainable solutions are based on monomaterials, i.e. made of a single material.

>> The Optima Packaging Group talks about "honest packaging" and develops 100 percent solutions in close cooperation with suppliers and customers that are fully recyclable. At Optima, however, sustainability also means flexibility. The machine should be capable of processing different materials without long changeover times.

Another podcast. "Waste is the result of poorly designed packaging processes".

For paper to actually be a sustainable and yet recyclable alternative, it must not be coated and must come as close as possible to the positive properties of plastic. This requires very gentle and precise machine modules. A further alternative is bioplastics. It is already possible to process bioplastics on many machines without major conversions.

Excursus on bioplastics: Bioplastics are often presented as a sustainable alternative to conventional plastics. They are no longer obtained from fossil fuels, but from renewable resources such as plant residues. However, only the so-called drop-ins can be recycled without any problems. Drop-in plastics have the same chemical structure as conventional plastics and can therefore be disposed of in exactly the same way. These include Bio-PE (polyethylene), Bio-PP (polypropylene) or Bio-PET (polyethylene terephthalate). But only some of them are fully biodegradable, as additives are often still present. Unfortunately, there is not yet a separate waste collection for bioplastics either. Composters are not particularly enthusiastic about plastics in organic waste.

>> For packaging without plastics, Harro Höfliger relies, among other things, on side-loading technology. This involves the use of so-called inlays. These inserts made of mono cardboard are first filled with the products to be packaged and then inserted into the folding box. Blisters or trays made of plastic are then no longer required. Another advantage of this packaging variant is its comparatively low energy consumption.

Monomaterials therefore play an important role in the circular economy (circular packaging). Often, however, "foreign materials" are still present. One example is the ink used for printing on the package. So, we have to ask ourselves what percentage of foreign materials is acceptable for recycling? In Germany, there is a five percent limit that essentially regulates disposal. We are all familiar with the Green Dot. If the packaging consists of 95 percent paper, you pay the fee for paper. If the percentage is lower, you pay the fee for composites.

>> The ZAP technology from Packaging Valley member Syntegon offers a solution to this problem. It enables dust-tight sealing of paper. This is a partial coating with a sealing medium that is typically less than five percent. It remains a recyclable mono-material and yet product safety is guaranteed.

Saving resources


Material is one thing, but sustainability has many other aspects. Reducing operating costs definitely belongs in the debate about more sustainable packaging concepts. After all, it's about the entire footprint. How can energy consumption during production be reduced? How can the machine be made more efficient? Or how can material consumption be reduced; does thinner packaging guarantee the same protection? Robotics and automation solutions in combination with digital capabilities are necessary to achieve higher efficiency. For example, there are digital concepts and tools that enable predictive maintenance. There are countless products and solutions available in Packaging Valley. These range from energy-efficient production, flexible processing of different materials, long-lasting quality of machines to digital and virtual applications that make operation easier.

>> The fact that digital methods can contribute to sustainable work processes can be seen in the example of the "Maintenance Manager". A digital tool developed by Harro Höfliger, it carries out, documents, and continuously optimizes maintenance step by step. Better planning and increased machine availability are the results. And that in turn reduces energy costs.

Turning old into new

Old machines or machines that no longer meet the new standards are overhauled and upgraded. Turning old into new still works and is more popular than ever. In Packaging Valley, a number of suppliers refurbish customers' old machines with modern components to breathe new life into them.

Long live the product

Not to be forgotten is the protection of the product and its shelf life. This is a necessary requirement, especially in the pharmaceutical and food sectors. When it comes to waste prevention, the shelf life of products is also an important issue. In the fight against food waste, packaging has definitely taken one of the key roles. One example: by vacuum packaging food in suitable packaging, the shelf life can be increased many times over the original shelf life without packaging. For a long time, only bags made of plastic were suitable for vacuuming food. In the meantime, these are also available in recyclable material. With intelligent vacuuming, the same bag can be used a second time for this purpose. Durability of the product and equally the reusability of packaging material are important criteria in our considerations.  

So where do we stand?

The fact is, the packaging industry is on the lookout for the best options and is constantly presenting its customers with new technologies that make sustainable packaging solutions possible. Solutions are being developed for fully recyclable monomaterials that are particularly suitable for flexible packaging. Loss of line effectiveness is minimized as much as possible. However, the protective properties of packaging must not be lost. Where higher protection requirements are necessary, the individual criteria must be examined in detail. Compromises may then have to be made in terms of recyclability, shelf life, material costs and line output. Nonetheless, where overpackaging is practiced, savings solutions can most certainly be found. A tip for  users of packaging materials is to test early and work closely with machine manufacturers. Close cooperation between machine builders and product manufacturers produces the best results.

>> Summarized for our readers:

  1. packaging machinery plays a crucial role in making packaging sustainable.
  2. the 100 percent solution is the goal. Only mono-materials can be recycled very well.
  3. sustainability has other important aspects: Efficient production, careful use of resources, longevity of machines and packaged products, reduction of operating costs.
  4. digitalization and automation are the keys to greater efficiency and the careful use of resources and materials

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