A Sustainable View of Packaging in 2022 and Beyond

By Dieter Niederstadt, Technical Marketing Manager, Asahi Photoproducts

There are many aspects of what we used to think of as normal life that have been irreversibly changed by two factors: the pandemic and the climate crisis. And the packaging industry is not immune to these changing dynamics.

That being said, the industry – across the entire supply chain from raw materials suppliers to manufacturers, brands and consumers – is shifting the way we think about packaging. In 2018, the EU passed Directive (EU) 2018/852 for packaging waste, which states that by end of 2025, a total of 65% of all packaging waste should be recycled.

Consumers are beginning to demand less product packaging that is more sustainable yet can still adequately protect products. Brands are responding to these demands – and to their own sustainability goals – by turning to packaging converters for greener packaging options. And converters, in turn, are looking for ways to incorporate more sustainable materials and practices into their product development, manufacturing and distribution processes.

The ultimate goal is to achieve sustainability across the supply chain. But achievement of this goal is not necessarily in line with corporate cost savings goals. In order to improve sustainability, investments must be made. And consumers need to be educated about the value of more sustainable product packaging and be willing to pay a premium for it.

Sustainability: A Goal Worth Pursuing

Due to both consumer demand and climate crisis pressures, we see that sustainable efforts are becoming increasingly important to brands. To achieve a low carbon impact, brands must engage the entire supply chain for a life cycle assessment of the carbon footprint for each of their products. To the extent that other stakeholders across the supply chain have measured their carbon footprint in accordance with PAS 2050, the brands can actually apply those CO2 emission calculations to their own footprint. Thus, brands should be looking for suppliers who are pursuing a carbon measured strategy or whose products/materials have already been measured.

Asahi Photoproducts is on the path to studying carbon neutrality. Having met PAS 2050 standards for measuring our current state, we continue to evaluate the possibility to reduce our product carbon impact for our next generation AWP™-DEW CleanPrint water-washable flexographic plates.

A Heritage of Sustainability

Our move to bring more sustainable products to market did not start during the pandemic. Rather, we have been working toward this goal for half a century, even though the terminology for the various aspects of sustainability has changed many times over those years. Asahi Kasei was in fact the first manufacturer of a water washable liquid photopolymer plate resin (APRTM) in 1971.

For many years, our parent company Asahi Kasei has recognised that climate change is a serious global issue, impacting both the natural environment and society as a whole. Its group mission has been, and continues to be, to contribute to life and living for people around the world. Even when much of the world’s economic and social activity was suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic, greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions did not decrease greatly, and emissions began increasing again when economic and social activity resumed. This is one indication of the difficulty of resolving the issue of climate change, and the need to accelerate relevant efforts. It is a key driver in Asahi Kasei’s increased drive toward attaining carbon neutrality status in all of its operations by 2050.

For Asahi Photoproducts, an early and key aspect of our drive toward delivering products in harmony with the environment includes moving from a hydrocarbon-based solvent wash platemaking process to a non-VOC based alternative such as water wash. But, of course, we are not stopping there as we continue our journey to a carbon neutral status. We will also continue to study our raw material and manufacturing processes to determine how that might fit into our future development efforts.

It is also important to note that with the improved quality and productivity flexographic printing technology has achieved over the years with innovations such as Asahi’s CleanPrint family of water wash plates, flexo is well positioned to compete with both offset and rotogravure printing. It should be noted that rotogravure accounts for about 20% of packaging printing worldwide, but has a key disadvantage: It requires the use of a highly toxic chemical, Chromium trioxide, for manufacturing rotogravure cylinders. While the European Union has extended its approval for the use of this chemical through September 2024, that does not diminish its impact on rotogravure’s carbon footprint. It’s just one of the components of the rotogravure process that makes it significantly less sustainable than flexography, especially using solvent-less production of the plates.

Packaged versus Fresh

There is another trend that is important to mention, and that is the growth of what is known as “Zero Waste Shops” selling unpacked food stuffs. While this approach is admirable in reducing packaging waste at a local level, it may not be able to solve the food waste problem on a larger scale. Food waste is a significant problem globally, and in many areas of the world, food security is a growing issue. Packaged food, on the other hand, especially if packaging material can be reused as a new raw material in a closed loop circular economy, can actually be more sustainable. Using lightweight functional barrier films in packaging to prevent moisture, oxygen and contaminants from food contact can vastly improve food shelf life and reduce food waste. In the end, non-packaged food on a large scale likely results in more spoiled food, actually wasting this valuable resource. Not everything needs to be packaged, of course. But there is value in a smart hybrid model for retail food that can minimise waste and maximise sustainability.

A Final Note

For flexographic operations, in addition to careful supply chain management, efforts toward carbon neutrality, and other sustainability initiatives, we see three growing trends that can help these operations be not only more sustainable, but also more profitable in 2022 and beyond. These include:

1) More automated platemaking which reduces time, cost and carbon footprint in the value chain. An example is CrystalCleanConnect, a fully automated platemaking line jointly developed by Asahi and ESKO and Kongsberg. The first two units have been installed in Asia and are delivering terrific results. This fully automated platemaking system has a direct and positive impact on the sustainability of flexo platemaking and encourages converters to make the shift from rotogravure to flexo.

2) In-house platemaking at the converter site. As more automation is introduced into the platemaking process, it becomes easier, more efficient and more sustainable to bring platemaking in-house. A side benefit is that plate production times can be reduced from days to hours.

3) Transitioning away from a hydrocarbon-based solvent wash platemaking process to non-VOC based alternatives such as water-wash.

If the pandemic has taught us anything, it is that life is not as predictable as we may have thought. And it is absolutely clear that the world has truly changed, even beyond the threats posed by the coronavirus. We must come together to address these challenges in a meaningful way, and Asahi Photoproducts is determined to be a leader in these efforts, especially as it relates to sustainability.

In the past one to two years, there has been a marked increase in awareness regarding problems of greenhouse gases, plastic waste, food waste and other issues related to achieving harmony between the development of human society and the global environment.

No one individual, company or government can single-handedly cure the climate crisis. It takes universal, global collaboration and cooperation to get the world to a point where climate deterioration is eased. Asahi Photoproducts is proud to be a contributor to this worldwide effort.