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The challenge of sustainable packaging

Climate Change has become the defining issue of our time, especially in light of statistics such as those released by the European Parliament last year which revealed that only 30% of Europe’s plastic is recycled. Consumers are urging for change. Demand for sustainable packaging has therefore taken centre stage and, with an EU directive on single-use plastics set to come into force in 2021, organisations are already looking toward the plastic alternatives which they can begin implementing now.   

Single-use plastic alternatives are under the spotlight and companies are focusing on alternatives. Dr Stefan Stadler, Team Lead at Domino’s Laser Academy, looks at why brands need to work closely with coding before they start looking at greener options, and marking experts to ensure that their new packaging alternatives will meet all of their requirements.

With an EU directive banning single-use plastics – such as cutlery, cups, cotton buds, straws, and balloon sticks – set to come into place in 2021, more environmentally-friendly options are already being evaluated. Petroleum-based material and multi-layer plastic films for food packaging are examples which are already in use. However, bio-based and recyclable alternatives are still being explored for their viability.

Despite the availability of numerous packaging alternatives, these substitutes can also present their own challenges. Respectively, the modifications to material can impact coding and marking operations, making the possibility of roll out even more complex. Due to this, many organisations begin to question whether it is possible to become more sustainable, meet the legislative demands, and keep their current coding and marking set up intact; doubts which can ultimately hold brands back from pursuing these options.

With companies setting ambitious sustainable packaging goals in order to get ahead of the competition and meet regulatory requirements, there has been a surge of new organic materials gaining recognition among manufacturers. To date, few of these materials have been fully adopted industry-wide, and there’s a reason for this. Although plant-based materials – such as starch – present themselves as an operable and sustainable solution, when it comes to an important stage of the packaging process (coding) the issue stands as to whether they can be coded to the same standard as their plastic predecessor. It is this factor which can ultimately stand in the way of commercial adoption.

A coding and marking system fit for use

A change in packaging material can pose some challenges to laser marking technology. Because of this, having the ability to understand how different substrates respond and react to light enables companies – depending on what the process uncovers – to select an appropriate laser setting for testing.

Post-laser, evaluation of the code quality as well as how the material has withstood the process needs to be measured through a range of scientific technologies. Code quality is analysed using barcode systems and camera validation, and powerful 3D microscopes determine how the laser has impacted the substrate. This will ultimately dictate whether it is a material which can be used in production.

Currently, code-ability and printability do not form part of the material’s specification for packaging suppliers and, due to this, there have been instances where the material composition has been slightly changed. From compound unavailability to simply being a cost-saving measure, there can be many reasons for this change; but to omit coding and marking from any material specification change conversation is to put production in jeopardy. This decision will be reflected within the coding, which can ultimately lead to downtime. However, by working with a trusted coding and marking partner, organisations will be able to access the information they need. This way, companies will know which substrates allow for the creation of clearer, higher quality codes and, more importantly, they will have the security of knowing that, if a setback is on the horizon, it can be identified and resolved before it becomes a hindrance to production.

It is clear there is a growing public awareness of single-use plastic waste and its environmental impact. In response to this, many brands are already leading the way for more sustainable ways of working, with large manufacturers attentively exploring alternatives to petroleum-based plastic packaging. However, the replacement of plastic isn’t without its challenges; the commercial viability of any proposed change to substrates is contingent on its ability to pass packaging regulations. Companies need to understand their options and, in partnership with their coding and marking supplier and through thorough testing, determine their optimal coding solution. Doing this will enable companies to remain competitive without sacrificing quality or value. Taking this step will enable packaging to finally become a solution rather than a challenge when it comes to the future of sustainability.

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