Sustainability: New materials, new challenges
With the topic of climate change on the rise, and statistics revealing that only 30% of Europe's plastic is recycled, the demand among consumers for products and packaging made with sustainable packaging continues to grow. And, with an EU directive on single-use plastics set to come into force in 2021, many organisations are already seeking to innovate beyond plastic packaging and embrace the alternatives. Team Lead at Domino’s Laser Academy, Dr. Stefan Stadler, looks at why brands will need to work closely with coding and marking experts to ensure that new packaging alternatives remain sufficient for use.
In March 2019, MEPs voted in favour of a new EU directive banning single-use plastic including cutlery, cups and plates, cotton buds, straws, drink-stirrers and balloon sticks from 2021. Companies are already re-evaluating the acceptability of petroleum-based material and multi-layer plastic films for food packaging, while tentatively exploring the potential of bio-based and recyclable alternatives. However, although there are many alternative packaging solutions already available, they come with modifications that will impact coding and marking operations. As a result, more and more organisations are asking the question: How can we boost our sustainability and meet legislative demands, yet keep our current coding set-up?
Many organic materials are reaching the market in a bid to replace plastics, but there are few which are yet to be used as a full replacement industry-wide. Starch, as well as many other plant-based materials, may well present a viable and more environmentally-friendly solution. However, the inherent issue is whether these products can be coded to the same standard as their plastic counterpart. Not knowing whether these alternatives can be coded, or how that code will react to the variables around it, poses a significant barrier to commercial adoption.
Future proofing the coding and marking system
New 100% recyclable plastic materials, such as flexible packaging film, generally have thinner walls, which, when it comes to inkjet coding, means that companies need to ensure packaging remains EuPIA compliant through the use of food safe inks. Furthermore, the change in material poses some challenges to laser marking technology. In order to explore the viability of the process, we need to assess how the substrate interacts with light; depending on what this first process uncovers, an appropriate laser setting can be selected and tested.
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.
As code-ability and printability currently do not form part of the material’s specification for packaging suppliers, instances where the material composition has been changed slightly can occur. This substrate content difference can be due to compound unavailability, or simply a cost-saving measure. Essentially, the knock-on effect will reflect in the coding, and it might even lead to production downtime. However, by working with a trusted coding and marking partner, organisations are able to access real material information about why specific substrates allow for clearer, higher quality codes, and more importantly, have the security of knowing that any causality will be identified quickly.
Global attitudes towards sustainability are changing, and brands are beginning to take the lead, with large manufacturers already starting to show their green credentials by exploring alternative packaging types to petroleum-based plastics. However, as much as we may want it, sustainable design isn’t always commercially viable; it is important to understand the available options, and through extensive testing, determine the optimal coding solution. Doing so will enable companies to remain competitive without sacrificing quality or value. This way, packaging can become part of the solution, rather than a challenge to sustainability.