M.O.C.A. Seminar at Confindustria Bergamo with the participation of ATS Bergamo and the Istituto Superiore di Sanità
The speech by the Vice President of the Plastic Rubber Group of Confindustria Bergamo, Mauro La Ciacera, General Manager of IIP and CEO of Cesap, highlighted the crucial role that plastics can play in determining a more sustainable future in various widespread applications, including MOCA. Here are the most important steps.
“Plastics, thanks to their versatility and vocation for innovation, represent the best solution in the field of innovative sustainable technologies in areas such as mobility and agriculture, energy efficiency in construction, food preservation or in the health and medical sector.
Think, for example, of the car sector, and their increasingly intensive use in metal replacement, the building sector, where they lead to energy savings thanks to increasingly high-performance insulation, or packaging, where the adoption of plastic packaging allows the extension of the life of food, reducing waste. This is demonstrated by the fact that in 2017 39.7% of total demand (51.2 million tonnes) for processed plastics in Europe had packaging as its target sector.
The reasoning on the environmental impact of plastics can therefore not be conducted, as unfortunately is happening today, on the basis of an emotional thrust that paints the chemistry, and consequently the plastic, as the mother of all problems. It is precisely the emotional aspect that puts the continuity of the system at risk. Before blaming these materials it is necessary to intervene to change consumer behaviour, thus preventing the plastic from being dispersed in a bad way, to the point of causing the known problem of the marine litter. We need a cultural change that can be summarized in one sentence: “plastic is too precious to be thrown away” and is not replaceable in the medium term, especially if the focus is always on disposal and recycling and never on the origin of the chain.
It is also important to understand that sustainability, as well as environmental, must also be economic: each process must be thought of from a broader perspective, also reflecting on the employment created and the resulting well-being for the employees and the population. You are truly sustainable if you work to generate profits and invest some of them in innovation, to improve the quality of life and the environment, through an effective exploitation of the potential of these materials in an efficient model of circular economy.
Coming to the food packaging sector, authoritative scientific sources attest that “the importance of the production and post-consumption phase of packaging on the environmental impact is low and represents from 1% to 10% of the total impact generated by food chains“. Silvenius et al. (2014), Packaging Technology and Science, 27, 277-292.
In assessing the environmental impact of the production of plastic food containers, it is worth considering, at the same time, the role played by food waste on environmental performance, especially in view of the fact that food production requires large amounts of resources and energy.
Food waste, which in the EU amounts to 280 kg/person per year, with 45% generated at home, has a preventable environmental impact. In this context, investments to reduce food waste can be positive, even with an increase in the impact of packaging.
If we compare, for example, the carbon dioxide emissions generated by the production of 1 kg of meat – about 13 kg – with those due to the production of the polypropylene tray that contains it – about 0.04 kg – we discover that the reality is very different from the message conveyed, which tends to blame the packaging.
Optimizing the packages, reducing their thickness and weight, allows a containment of space, which brings additional benefits also in the distribution chain.
Among the improvement strategies that can be adopted are packaging lightweighting, the choice of alternative materials and/or technologies (see bioplastics, biodegradable and compostable materials), the extension of shelf life, the redesign of packaging with a view to end-of-life, as well as the reduction of waste and the optimization of processes.
The strategy on which the EU and the trade associations agree requires the adoption of harmonised standards to ensure that by 2030 all plastic packaging placed on the European market can be reused, recycled and not dispersed, making plastics really circulate, including through a significant increase in the amount of material reused or reclaimed in new plastic products.
The recovery capacity of plastics must be increased and in this respect the use of diversified and complex technologies is essential due to the strong differentiation of these materials.
In conclusion, it should be remembered that the Italian industrial fabric is mainly composed of SMEs, for which technology transfer is an extremely critical issue, solvable only through a systemic approach, whose timing cannot be immediate because alternative technologies and materials are still far from ensuring the same functional and process performance, in addition to the volumes required by the market.