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A time to burn?

There was a time not so long ago when lightweighting of food and beverage packages was driven primarily by an interest in cost savings.

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Today we think more about environmental sustainability than cost when talking about lightweighting.

Corporate America has really been bitten by the sustainability bug. Boardroom discussions of life cycle analysis are now as commonplace as talk about expansion plans or new product launches.

Biologically derived polymers are commercially available, and now recycled polymers, such as rPET, are cleared for food contact. Things are changing so rapidly, maybe this is a good time to make sure that promising environmental opportunities aren’t being overlooked along the way. For example, what about Waste-to-Energy?

The great state of Florida is a leader in WTE production. WTE technologies continue to advance in concert with expanded use of biomaterials and recycling techniques. Additionally, environmentally sensitive packaging practices are reducing uses of halogenated polymers, which are fire-retardant and resist incineration. This means our trash is becoming cleaner to burn, and if this is true, isn’t it time to revisit WTE?

Without realizing it, we have arrived at a fork in the road, and both roads lead to a certain flavor of environmental redemption. One leads to increased use of biologically derived and recycled polymers. The other leads to conversion of post-consumer waste into energy. The good news is that these choices are not mutually exclusive. We can actually travel both paths at the same time.

While there is no doubt that rPET offers environmental benefits when compared to virgin PET (as well as a compelling marketing story), we need to ask ourselves this question: Is mother earth better off if we consider that post-consumer waste to be a renewable resource in and of itself? Packaged goods aren’t going to disappear anytime soon. As packaging becomes increasingly environmentally friendly, WTE continues to become an increasingly attractive option. Perhaps the ultimate vision of environmental nirvana for packaging is when all packaging materials are derived from renewable resources and all post-consumer packaging materials are used to power our communities.

Plasma gasification is an exciting new WTE technology that is becoming increasingly availble. Plasma gasification plants are already running in Canada, UK, Japan, and Taiwan. Plans for at least two facilities in Florida have been circulated. Cleaner post-consumer packaging materials, existing WTE, pyrolytic gasification and new plasma gasification technologies should be commanding a much larger portion of the national and global packaging sustainability discussion. 

Bruce Welt is associate professor and coordinator of the Packaging Science Program at the University of Florida. He can be reached at [email protected].

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