Designing new packaging solutions without the old problems…

Smart packaging needs to attain its own recyclability credentials if it is to show the way in recycling.

Originally, plastic was the solution, not the problem. Alexander Parkes saved the lives of many generations of hawksbill turtles by inventing the world’s first plastic in 1866. Thanks to his man-made substitute for tortoiseshell, buttons, buckles and picture frames didn’t need to come at the cost of animal lives any more.

Fast forward to 2019, and you will see the shocking images of the same turtle species grazing on plastic that blocks the turtle’s digestive system and eventually kill it. But would we need these eye-opening images if we had done our maths properly along the way, or kept track of the 20 million plastic bags that had been produced by 1960 in the UK alone and the 350,000 tonnes of plastic packaging that we created annually by the 1970s?

Although a high number of today’s solutions such as deposit return schemes (DRSs) and packaging-free fast-moving consumer goods (FMCG) shops feel like blasts from the pre-single-use-plastic past, cutting-edge technology will also have a role to play in managing the crisis.

Connective packaging has already proven its worth in a number of business contexts before. Its so-called “active strain” has been extensively used by the pharmaceutical industry to monitor and adjust temperature and moisture inside the packaging, with a view to avoiding any compromise to quality. RFID technology, a more sophisticated version of QR codes, originally developed for tracking and stock management, has improved inventory accuracy from 60 to almost 90 per cent. Advanced QR codes and RFID tags have helped squeeze fake items out of the market in the case of widely counterfeited products such as Maotai, China’s national drink, and olive oil.

But according to experts, the connective or smart packaging revolution is yet to come. The industry is estimated to be worth £37 billion by 2024. New use-cases in the area of customer engagement abound. Complemented with AR applications, connective packaging can enable drink bottles to interact with the customer both before and after being opened. More importantly, it can provide customers with product-related provenance, manufacturing and sustainability information, which they increasingly demand as they become more aware of social and environmental issues.

Environmental impact introduced into the cost/benefit equation

Last year Carrefour Spain launched a smart recycling programme in partnership with data management platform EVRYTHING, Recycl3R, a digital PR service promoting green branding, as well as major CPG brands. By scanning the barcode on their receipts, their customers can import the products they bought into the Recycl3R app, which, in turn, assigns them to the appropriate virtual recycling bins. The app will also tell the customer where to recycle different parts of each packaging based on local waste selection schemes.

Today EVRYTHING has created and manages more than 500 million digital product identities, and its aim is to manage all product identities worldwide. Its solution enables both QR codes and NFC tags. As QR codes are printed on packaging, they don’t impact recyclability, whereas NFC tags consist of a chip and an antenna. Unlike QR codes, however, they support information exchange, and they are faster and more flexible as they can be overwritten with new information. Overall, NFC tags would be a much more appealing proposition than QR codes, especially for marketers, were it not for their environmental impact.

Sustainability and producer responsibility have recently been pushed so forcefully to the forefront of public consciousness that no manufacturer can be oblivious any more to the end-of-life waste their products create. And indeed, companies such as Thinfilm and GoToTags are trying to replace the most problematic components of the NFC tag with materials that lend themselves more readily to recycling. The PET currently used for the antenna and the NFC chip is being replaced with a paper-based substrate. Thinfilm avoids using silicone in its tags and has instead invested in a new method of printing on recyclable strips of thin steel, which are the thickness of human hair. However, if you consider that only one of the major CPG brands produces as many as 108 billion bottles a year, that is still a lot of metal.

Aware of the scale of the problem, Coca-Cola, one of the big brands participating in Carrefour’s programme, has recently proposed a challenge to take the idea of smart-packaging-assisted recycling to the next level and “irresistibly engage all consumers”. Suggested solutions should be commercially viable, sustainable, recyclable and integrate seamlessly into existing DRS systems. They should also draw in recyclers weary of apps and round-the-clock smartphone use, which can mean that both QR-codes (on account of reader apps on smart phones) and NFC (on account of smart phone readers and recyclability issues) are non-eligible.

Are we witnessing a technological breakthrough? Pitches are to be made at the AIPA (Active & Intelligent Packaging Industry Association) Congress in Amsterdam on 18-19 November with the winner – hopefully – coming up with a solution that doesn’t generate future sustainability problems. Watch this space.

© Business Reporter 2021

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