The Ultimate Guide to Plastics of the Future Part 9 – Sustainable Plastics for Packaging
There are countless types of product packaging in use today and unsurprisingly, plastic makes up the majority of packaging materials (up to 90% by some estimates). From the consumer-scale boxes, plastic bottles and containers in branded shapes and colors, to industrial crates and heavy-duty packaging meant to protect large, expensive machinery on its journey to the customer, plastic packaging is virtually everywhere.
Packaging is the most common way companies protect goods on their way to market, and it used to be a slightly overlooked aspect of the process when compared to product design and sales, but not today. Packaging began to move more into the forefront from a branding standpoint since the age of mass consumerism starting in the early 20th century, and protection of goods during transport was the core reason behind packaging to begin with. However, today packaging is getting a lot of attention from a sustainability perspective – as it should be!
Container design is an evolving multidisciplinary field that requires knowledge on branding, marketing, engineering, manufacturing and more. When it comes to designing packaging one must take into account the brand’s image, the function of the product, regulations imposed by governing bodies & more. In 2022 and beyond, there will be even more focus on how damaging (or beneficial in some cases) to our environment that product packaging is.
Product packaging has evolved a great deal to accommodate the needs of consumers, but also the needs of the manufacturers. Packagers have found lighter materials to protect goods – Styrofoam vs. cardboard for example. They have also found that heavier-duty pallets can carry more weight to accommodate larger loads on a truck. The problem being that the materials of the late 20th century were not all that great for the environment, and most are still widely used today including wood, paper, and plastics.
The use of petrochemical-based plastics and the clearing of old growth timber is simply not sustainable. Recently, the need for health consciousness has served as the driving force behind some of the changes and banning some packaging materials that were dangerous, but now there is even more focus on materials that pose an overall danger to the health of our planet, be it consumer or industrial packaging.
Consumer vs. Industrial Packaging
The packaging used for consumer-packaged goods (CPG) is typically inexpensive and lightweight. The packaging for these consumer products is meant to give the customer relevant information on the product they’re looking to buy. Traditionally, the information on this type of packaging illuminates the problem, solution, or how the product is different from the others. Consumer packaging is meant to position against competitors, so in some cases the packaging is clear to show the product inside, or its design is meant to stand out amongst all the other products on the display aisle at your local store.
Industrial packaging is much different. The equipment that is purchased by large manufacturers is typically expensive, voluminous, heavy, and many times even fragile. These large industrial machines may be as big as your garage, but that doesn’t mean they are capable of surviving a drop off a loading dock or being bounced down the highway in the back of a semi-truck. This means there is very little room for failure when packing them up for transport.
Industrial packaging is typically engineered for longer travels across varied mediums. For example, large electronic devices, say a rack of servers for a data center, need to be packaged to not only protect the device against drops but also long shipment voyages overseas (saltwater contamination), by air (extreme low temperatures) and eventually by truck (bumps and vibrations). Industrial packaging must be robust, and sometimes the weight of this packaging can actually exceed the weight of the product that it’s protecting! This is why new, lighter, more sustainable materials are being sought out by packaging engineers to replace the traditional materials like woods, foams and even asbestos.
Wood – The Most Traditional Material
For generations, the crates and pallets that manufacturers relied on for their shipments were made from wood. When our GDP was 1/10 the size it is today, this was a viable solution. But today, there just aren’t enough trees to cut down. Since demand is consistently increasing, and there’s a finite number of trees, manufacturers are forced to look for alternative solutions.
Recently, some manufacturers have realized that using wood as a shipping material comes with some major problems:
- A large percentage of the wooden pallets and crates break every year.
- Fixing these wooden parts is time-consuming and dangerous (sharp edges, rusty nails/screws, etc.).
- Wooden materials can rot when moisture is present.
- Continuously cutting down trees to make packaging products is not sustainable.
- New growth timber is not as robust as old growth, so the wood used today is gradually becoming weaker.
Since the world is beginning to transition toward a more sustainable future, leaders across manufacturing are actively looking for alternative materials to optimize their products and supply chains.
Fortunately, America is building reliable supply chains of bio-based materials, and these supply chains can support manufacturers by providing additives that increase the performance and reduce the carbon footprint of the raw materials already in use.
An Elite Bio-Based Material
There are many bio-based materials (sans traditional wood) that are being engineered and tested as better solutions to our industrial packaging crisis. One of the most promising is, not surprisingly, Industrial Hemp.
Industrial Hemp has a 10,000+ year history of being the strongest natural fiber in the world and it has proven to be useful in thousands of applications across almost every industry, albeit on smaller scales. Today we have biotech firms researching and developing hemp as a viable solution for industrial packaging; and the engineering efforts are finding a multitude of new uses for this robust product.
Previously, one of the major hurdles American manufacturers have faced is that they don’t have access to a reliable industrial hemp supply chain. This has prevented product developers from using high-performance bio-based additives in the next generation of products. Fortunately for manufacturers, investors, and consumers, this is all changing in real-time. Today, companies must ask themselves – Is Industrial Hemp right for us?
Benefits of Hemp Additives in Industrial Packaging
Industrial packaging has many nuances that make it the perfect candidate for a material transition. As companies wake up to the fact that cutting down trees is not sustainable, they are actively testing wood replacements. Naturally, plastic is the material that is the most realistic alternative due to its cost, weight, availability, and durability.
The question engineers are asking themselves is: How do we make these plastic materials stronger, lighter, cheaper, and more sustainable? According to the large manufacturers working to find more sustainable plastic packaging solutions, industrial hemp plastic additives are the answer.
Cars, boats, planes, equipment, and other heavy machinery all require packaging with a high level of durability. Traditionally, this plastic packaging is filled with fiberglass (or glass fiber).
Many manufacturers are looking to augment and replace the glass fiber additives that are used in today’s industrial plastic packaging with hemp fibers, which are much stronger, less costly, and lighter.
One of the key metrics that are measured for industrial packaging is weight. A large portion of the weight of any shipment is the packaging. If we can reduce the weight of the packaging, we can increase the number of units that are shipped in each load. Reducing the weight of packaging instantly reduces logistics costs and carbon footprint.
For example, as car parts are shipped throughout the automotive supply chain, they rely on really heavy and expensive packaging. In fact, 50%+ of the weight of the shipment from one automotive supplier to another can be packaging. As you can imagine, these car parts are large, so the packaging they rely on is clunky.
Larger automotive OEMs, as well as the tiered suppliers that support them, are using hemp in their plastics packaging to reduce the cost, weight, and their overall carbon footprint. Reducing the weight of the packaging is one of the easiest ways that a manufacturer can make its supply chain more sustainable. Hemp additives are an easy drop-in for manufacturers that use plastic as a raw material.
Manufacturers across the world are all looking to become “more sustainable.” But traditionally, they will hesitate if there’s an increase in cost.
Manufacturers work off of thin margins, so cost increases can quickly flip their business model upside down. This is something that hemp companies have been extremely mindful of as they work with manufacturers that are interested in industrial hemp additives.
At times, competing at this level can be difficult. Many of the mined and synthetic goods used as additives in plastics are dirt cheap because they are abundant. How can an agriculture supply chain compete with minerals like talc and calcium carbonate? Exactly on what we just outlined – weight.
Hemp materials are 80%+ lighter than the materials that they replace. This means, if a traditional plastic application would need 1 pound of talc, it would only need 0.2 to 0.3 pounds of hemp to create the same volume (in cubic feet). This means that the metric we’re competing on is not “price per pound,” it’s “cost in use.”
For example, if talc is 20 cents a pound, and hemp is 60 cents a pound, it’s cheaper to use the hemp because you need so much less of it to get the same result. This is a groundbreaking concept for manufacturers that are used to only looking at raw materials in terms of “cost per pound.”
Reducing Carbon Footprint
Beyond the usual specifications and characteristics, there is one more advantage to using natural materials that is paramount – reducing your carbon footprint! Every large company today has a “sustainability mandate.” This mandate is a way to track a company’s sustainability activities and results, and ultimately report on the actions they’re taking to become more environmentally friendly.
Today, many of the top companies that are leading the sustainability movement are focused on measurably reducing their carbon footprints.
To do that, they only have a few options:
- Use less materials (which means selling fewer goods).
- Use recycled materials.
- Use clean energy.
- Use carbon-negative materials and additives to reduce the footprint of each product.
These initiatives can all help companies reduce their carbon footprint, but only one is well known to all industry leaders – clean energy. Clean energy initiatives and recycling programs have been around for decades. These are not inherently new or innovative.
The top executives at large companies know that the long-term path to carbon footprint reduction is to use carbon-negative materials. Since most companies plan on expanding production, they need to find a way to reduce the carbon footprint of the materials they rely on every day. By using carbon-negative materials, you are essentially boosting the value of your sustainability solutions with every increase in production, instead of amplifying your problems!
Industrial hemp plastic additives are an easy starting point for carbon footprint reduction initiatives and now we are seeing the beginnings of a reliable industrial hemp supply chain emerging.
The Difference Between Hemp Supply Chains
As we mentioned earlier, a reliable industrial hemp supply chain has been difficult to find. However, new supplies of hemp are popping up all over. The downside is that not all industrial hemp supply chains are created equal. Every company in the industrial hemp industry is running its supply chains a bit differently.
Here are a few questions to ask to help differentiate between the different industrial hemp supply chains being built.
- How are they farming?
- What equipment are they using for processing?
- What variables are they focused on to maintain product consistency?
- What markets are they focused on serving?
This last question is one of the most important points for a manufacturer to focus on. Today, most industrial hemp companies will sell their materials to anyone, for any application. Since industrial hemp can be used in 50,000+ applications, why not sell hemp materials to anyone who wants them?
Just like all packaging products are not created equal, all hemp suppliers vary too. Be sure to find the right hemp supplier that understands the entire hemp value chain, from seed genetics to farming/harvesting practices to transporting, storing, and processing raw hemp into the appropriate, most robust additive.
The Next Packaging Revolution
Hemp engineered as an additive for plastic is the most useful bio-based raw material advancement that manufacturers can use today. Since these materials are readily available for commercial application, manufacturers across industries are working with hemp materials to reduce the cost, weight, and carbon footprint of their raw materials used in packaging.
Over time, manufacturers are gradually waking up to the material transition that’s taking place. For some customers, industrial packaging has been an easy starting point. For others, product development is being done right now on products that will hit the market over the next few years. The time is now to explore the material transition that is going to deeply impact every part of the manufacturing sector.
Join us in making a world of out hemp.