The speech by the Vice President of the Plastic Rubber Group of Confindustria Bergamo, Mauro La Ciacera, Managing Director of Istituto Italiano dei Plastici and Cesap, underlined the crucial role that plastics can play in determining a more sustainable future in various and widely used applications, including MOCAs. Following are the salient steps.
“Plastics, thanks to their versatility and vocation to innovation, represent the best solution in the field of sustainable innovative technologies in sectors such as mobility and agriculture, energy efficiency in construction, food preservation or in the health and medical sector.
Think for example about the car sector, and their more intensive use in metal replacement, construction, where they generate energy savings thanks to increasingly high performance insulators, or packaging, where the adoption of plastic packaging allows prolonging food life, reducing waste. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 2017, 39.7% of the total demand (51.2 million tonnes) of plastics processed in Europe had packaging as their target sector.
The reasoning on the environmental impact of plastics cannot therefore be conducted, as unfortunately is happening today, on the basis of an emotional drive that depicts chemistry, and consequently plastic, as the mother of all problems. The very emotional aspect is what puts the continuity of the system at risk. Before blaming these materials it is necessary to intervene to change the consumer’s behaviour, thus preventing the plastic from being dispersed badly, to the point of causing the well-known problem of the marine litter. We need a cultural change that can be summarized in a sentence: “plastic is too precious to be thrown” and cannot be replaced in the medium term, especially if the focus is always on disposal and recycling and never on the origin of the supply chain.
It is also important to understand that sustainability, as well as environmental, must also be economic: every process must be thought of in a wider perspective, also reflecting on the occupation created and the consequent well-being for the staff employed and the population. It is really sustainable if you work to generate profits and invest a part of these in innovation, to improve the quality of life and the environment, through an effective exploitation of the potential of these materials in an efficient model of circular economy.
Coming to the food packaging sector, authoritative scientific sources attest that “the importance of the production and of the post-consumption phase of the packaging on the environmental impact is low and represents from 1% to 10% of the total impact generated by food chains.” Silvenius et al. (2014), Packaging Technology and Science, 27, 277-292.
In assessing the environmental impact of the production of plastic food containers it’s good to consider, in parallel, also the role played by food waste on environmental performance, especially in light of the fact that food production requires large amounts of resources and energy.
Food wastage, which in the EU amounts to 280 kg/person each year, with a 45% generated at a domestic level, in fact leads to an avoidable environmental impact. From this point of view, investments aimed at reducing food waste can be positive, even with a% increase in the impact on packaging.
If we compare, for example, the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the production of 1 kg of meat – about 13 kg – with those due to the production of the polypropylene tray that contains it – about 0.04 kg – we discover that the reality is quite different from the message conveyed, which tends to blame the packaging. Optimizing the packaging, reducing its thickness and weight, allows a containment of the spaces, which brings further benefits also in the distribution chain.
Among the strategies for improvement that can be adopted, we can focus on lightweight packaging, on the choice of alternative materials and/or technologies (see bioplastics, biodegradable and compostable materials), on extending shelf life, on redesigning packaging in the perspective of end-of-life, beyond than on waste reduction and process optimization.
The strategy on which the EU and trade associations agree, requires the adoption of harmonized standards to ensure that by 2030 all plastic packagings placed on the European market can be reused, recycled and not dispersed, making the plastics truly circular, also through a significant increase in the quantity of material reused or regenerated in new plastic products.
The resilience of plastic must increase and in this sense it’s essential to use diversified and complex technologies due to the strong differentiation of these materials.
To conclude, it must be remembered that the Italian industrial fabric is mainly composed of SMEs, for which technology transfer is a subject of enormous criticality, which can only be solved through a systemic approach, whose timing cannot be immediate because alternative technologies and materials are still far away from guaranteeing the same functional and process performance, in addition to the volumes required by the market“.