Interview - Sustainable Packaging: Trends And Opportunities

Craig Halgreen, VP – Corporate Sustainability at Borouge speaks about the company’s sustainable solutions and initiatives as well as the trends and opportunities in the sector in an interview with Swaliha Shanavas.

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Sustainable Initiatives
August 13 2017
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What are the company’s initiatives and key areas of focus, especially as part of sustainable business practices?

Borouge, as a leading provider of innovative plastics solutions for the packaging, energy, infrastructure and mobility markets in the Middle East and abroad, is fully committed to enhancing sustainability performance throughout the plastics value chain. Our sustainability framework and policy is based on creating a balance between social responsibility and environmental stewardship while delivering economic growth for our stakeholders. In 2016 we launched our sustainability goals for 2021 to increase our focus on specific drivers of performance, and by establishing these long-term goals and committing to clear targets across the organisation we are optimising the social and environmental impact of our operations, and delivering sustainable product solutions to our customers. Some highlights of the targets we have already achieved include the development of a Responsible Sourcing Commitment with an internationally recognised Workers Protection Standard that all our suppliers must commit to. We have also created a Product Sustainability Index whereby we focus on plastic applications that contribute positively to society as a whole. And we also set targets for our supply chain partners such as marine logistics suppliers who commit to specific carbon reduction targets.

Please tell us about the advanced packaging solutions the company offers.

Borouge makes polyethylene and polypropylene polymers using a unique technology called Borstar. This technology allows us to make polyethylene for both flexible and rigid packaging that is so tough and strong that brand owners can reduce the amount of plastics used in their packaging from 5-20% depending on the packaging design. When coupled with Borstar Nucleation Technology (BNT), our polypropylene can be similarly downguaged in rigid packages while increasing the speed and decreasing the energy needed for plastics converters. Our packaging solutions are targeted at providing more sustainable options for brand owners when designing their packages for light weighting, reuse and recycling.

Plastics are considered a problem in general. As a producer, what are the opportunities you see with plastics?

Plastics are hardly a problem. Plastics address global challenges and add value to people’s lives such as food protection and extended life, access to fresh drinking water, reliable energy conservation, safe healthcare products and sustainable waste management practices. I can’t imagine the world without the versatility of plastics. According to the 2016 International Trucost Study, the environmental cost of plastics in consumer goods is 3.8 times less than the alternative materials that would be required to replace plastics. Plastics for packaging require four times less energy to produce than paper, significantly less water with fewer pollutants, no trees, and it requires 91% less energy to recycle plastics than paper. Plastics are significantly much lighter to transport delivering a much lower carbon footprint overall. Secondly, they are extremely versatile like no other material, able to be rigid and strong or flexible and light. The perceived problem with plastics is actually a behavioural problem for society.

Far too much plastic pollution is negatively impacting land and marine eco-systems due to the irresponsible disposal of waste by society and far too little is being recycled. A recent survey in the GCC by the GPCA found that over 44% of the respondents saw littering as a danger to human health and environment, and over 52% proposed recycling as the solution. Due to their recyclability plastics are ideal for the creation of a circular economy with zero-waste. Unfortunately, recycling rates in the Middle East are extremely low in comparison to Europe for example, and much greater focus is needed to develop sustainable recycling waste streams in the region that include the local availability of plastic waste and removing the presence of negatively impacting degrading additives from plastic products. Our goal must be to close the loop and recover plastic scrap for creating new products.

What are the key issues in maintaining the high quality while adopting sustainable alternatives?

Some general plastic applications are suited to be made from recyclates such as plastic bins, hangers and children’s jungle gyms. It is essential to support the recycling industry with high quality scrap, so we are against the adding of additives that fragment plastics into unmanageable matter and impair the quality of second generation products. Sophisticated product applications, especially food packaging, are required to meet very stringent requirements. At Borouge, we focus on meeting these requirements while identifying specific sustainability benefits such as recyclability, downguaging and using less polymers. Our Innovation Centre in Abu Dhabi has over 70 scientists who consider sustainability as a key element in our product development.

What is the significance of waste recycling in terms of environment and sustainability? How do you incorporate these aspects into your business model?

By 2021 we have a Sustainability Goal whereby 50% of our products will be in the top quartile of our Sustainability Product Index. This is a specific commitment to ensuring our products are based on clear sustainability parameters and we are on our way to achieve this. Part of our index is aimed at making sure we focus on products that are fully recyclable and have a low carbon footprint. For example, we recently participated in a GCC-wide eco-profile study which identified our plastics environmental impact against the average impacts of the regional and European producers.

This is a benchmark that helps us to reduce the environmental impact of our production and also to design our future operations in line with these findings. Recently, Borouge won the GPCA ‘Best Sustainability Initiative’ Award in the plastics conversion industry in recognition of our full polyethylene laminate for 100% recyclability: actually a joint achievement between Borouge, Borealis and Unilever. This highlights the importance we put on ensuring sustainability and recyclability and working with our partners to achieve that. Plastics aim to replace multi-material film structures in flexible plastic packaging in order to give it a second life, and the mono-polyethylene material is the ideal solution for that.

What are your attempts towards closing the loop? Are the products you offer for packaging applications recyclable and do you involve stakeholders in the sustainability aspects?

It’s important to design our plastics solutions with the end in mind. This is done in partnership with the value chain so that we optimise our solutions. Borouge plastics are polyethylene and polypropylene and they are, therefore, totally recyclable. Some packaging applications require laminates, however, we work to limit the need for other materials. Such developing plastics can be printed with high quality images thus saving the need for additional materials for the branding. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, only 14% of all packaging waste globally makes its way to recycling. Over 40% is landfilled and some 32% is littered. So there are enormous opportunities for the recycling industry. We should develop a local recycling industry to reduce the carbon footprint of exporting waste and re-importing plastic products. We should focus on making recycled products here in the UAE. We are currently developing a working group with members from across the value chain here in the UAE to see how we can contribute further to the enhancement of managing plastics waste. As we are fully committed to developing a circular economy based on minimising plastics waste, we will focus on increasing the reuse of plastic products, such as reusable plastic bags, reducing consumption where unnecessary and boosting recycling. We will also support the development of plastic waste to energy.

What are the current plastic packaging trends and what are the changes you might have observed in the industry over the past two decades?

Regardless of all other trends, the most important and never changing goals in packaging are maintaining 100% integrity of the goods inside the package and increasing shelf life. The goods represent many times the value of the package in both monetary and carbon footprint terms. When you also consider the social cost of food wastage, which is also the third largest contributor to climate change gases, failure of the package is never acceptable. So bearing this in mind, the trend towards more sustainable packaging must never put either of the main packaging goals at risk.

Many think our packaging needs can be completely managed using bio-based or renewable feedstock plastics. Realistically, these types of products can only substitute a small fraction of the global need for packaging as their plant base production must never be allowed to compete with food for arable land. Others think we don’t need packaging at all. This is also unrealistic as food distribution will always require zero wastage if we are going to be able to feed everyone in the world. True sustainability in packaging is linked to circular economy principles. Packages need to be designed using the minimum plastic required for the job and fully reusable or recyclable.

Which are the types of packaging we are likely to see in the near future?

Some of the packages you will see in the future will look no different from today. However, their structure will be quite different. For instance, flexible packages may well have a foam layer in the middle that will reduce the weight of the package by up to 10%. These packages will also be fully recyclable. Rigid packages already today use the foam method to reduce weight, but in the future they will also be designed to be reusable in one form or another. After all, reuse is the best form of recycling as it requires no conversion energy. Of course, these packages will also be fully recyclable for when their reuse life is over.