Our challenges

As summarised within the MATERIALS 2030 MANIFESTO, among the most difficult challenges facing humanity today surround achieving climate neutrality, circularity, healthy food systems, and sustainability. This is particularly the case for sectors including agriculture, transportation, construction, packaging, and electronic appliances. These challenges are also all closely associated with completing the overall transition towards renewable energy sources.

Currently in Europe, the amount of packaging used is a sign of our throwaway society. To make matters worse it is predominantly made of plastic, which is contentious in its own right, considering it is a material that is typically only used once. Near to 390 million metric tons of plastic are produced annually worldwide (15% produced in Europe), which unfortunately generates about 400 million tons of CO2, including the CO2 that comes from managing waste. As the primary role of packaging is to safeguard its contents, package optimisation to reduce these alarming quantities is an important European objective. This is further highlighted when considering that 30% of all food produced globally is lost or wasted throughout the supply chain. Furthermore, in Europe packaging accounts for 44% of plastic usage, however, only 40.8% of this plastic packaging is recycled.

Based on the revised packaging and packaging waste directive target of 55% for plastic recycled in Europe by the end of 2030, the challenge has been set for all plastic value chain actors. The World Economic Forum has also assessed that every year, 4.8–12.7 metric tons of plastic waste, such as plastic packaging, ends up in the ocean. If the status quo remains, these amounts are expected to increase by one order of magnitude by 2025, and there could be more plastic than fish in the sea by 2050. Regrettably, the misuse of plastic materials has contributed to the discharge of plastic microparticles that are present in soils and both fresh and saltwater bodies. Humans are exposed to these materials through several pathways, and the research of their effects on the human body has intensified in the last decade. It has been demonstrated that plastic microparticles from packaging applications have a great impact on human health.

Certain additives, like bisphenol A or phthalates for example, are known endocrine disrupters. Therefore, preventing and reducing plastic pollution from food packaging requires increased knowledge on soil, water, and air pollution produced by food production and supply methods. In turn, this will directly affect our ability to reduce food systems’ environmental consequences. Additionally, as part of the sustainable products strategy mentioned in the Circular Economy Action Plan (CEAP), legislation promoting re-use in the food service industry will be introduced in order to replace single-use food packaging and cutlery with reusable items. To improve food safety and public health (particularly by reducing the use of hazardous chemicals), food contact materials legislation must be reviewed in detail. The findings of such a review will support the use of creative and sustainable packaging solutions using environmentally friendly, reusable, and recyclable materials, which also help to reduce food waste. Finally, society, consumers and citizens, are now more ecofriendly than ever. End-users are interested in knowing whether the products they purchase are produced sustainably and with minimal environmental impact. The strategies developed to prevent and reduce plastic packaging pollution from the food system must comply with the following criteria:

A) Innovative renewable and recyclable and/or biodegradable materials.
B) Design for circularity to reduce material consumption and increase reuse and recycle. This might occur at the level of materials and products (physical design) or at the molecular level (chemical design).
C) Substitution of carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic and bio-accumulative substances of very high concern in packaging formulations.
D) Smart solutions (barrier coatings, antimicrobial or antifungal coatings, sensors, intelligent electronic interfaces for communication) should be used to monitor food quality and extend product shelf life.