The UK packaging industry could get a £500m a year boost from government innovation funding into the development of sustainable packaging.
The government said it will inject up to £60m worth of funding to help the UK packaging industry – which saw sales total around £11bn last year – to become a world-leader in creating sustainable packaging.
The funding will be delivered by UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) through the Industrial Strategy Challenge Fund to support the government’s modern Industrial Strategy, the UK’s post-Brexit blueprint for the economy that was introduced almost a year ago.
New forms of packaging and plastic made from farming, food and industrial waste – such as sugar beet, wood chippings and food waste – could lead to a move away from oil-based plastics, while other new developments could see food scraps potentially being transformed into environmentally-friendly plastic bags and cups.
“Finding innovative solutions to tackle our use of harmful plastics which blight our land and seas is a major global challenge, and opportunity - one our nation of researchers and innovators is fit to seize,” said Energy and Clean Growth minister Claire Perry.
Mike Ridgway, director of the Consumer Packaging Manufacturers Alliance (CPMA), added: “Obviously some of these initiatives will take time to work through, but certainly as an intermediate step the effort and direction should be to start a plastic substitution policy, particularly on simple vac and thermoforming trays, by moving into cartonboard alternatives.
“‘Why use plastics when there are ready useable alternatives?’ is an obvious question.
“This can be followed up by considering reducing the use of plastic blister packs and other such products using plastics by instead using folding cartons with apertures displaying the product.”
He added: “The challenge is to the designers within the packaging industry to present alternatives to their clients.”
Smithers Pira global director of research and reports Adam Page said the issue is not only the packaging itself, but also the supporting infrastructure.
“In our research on disruptive technologies for sustainable packaging, we predict that the development of near infrared sorting of household plastic packaging will have the biggest impact over the next ten years.
“The big issue is that waste streams for post-consumer recycled packaging are typically mixed. With a few material recovery notable exceptions, it is hard to convince consumers to separate out different packaging materials.
“As a consequence, material recovery facilities typically have to face the challenge of sorting large volumes of mixed packaging waste and doing so at speed. Effective sorting is vital, as buyers of recycled plastics or other waste typically can only tolerate contamination values of 1-2% before the recycled product becomes unsaleable.
“Hand sorting is an option, but this is slow, and so the emphasis in the past decade has been increasingly on automation with near infrared scanning technology and air knives or other tools being used to separate different pack types on a fast-moving conveyor.”
Smart packaging is another trend that could benefit from the government innovation funding. Sustainable packaging with a living sell-by-date, for example, could show consumers when food is going off to reduce food waste.
Additionally, smart labels used on packaging alongside a smart bin could tell consumers the right bin to put recycling into.
“The technology for smart bins already exists, but the question is who pays? Will consumers pay more for a smart bin, or will local authorities pay?” said Page.
Businesses will be able to access the funding through UKRI managed competitions to meet the challenge of developing smart sustainable plastic packaging.
The investment is subject to industry entering into partnership with government and providing significant co-investment to this challenge.