The weight of the carton of a cookie box is not decided by chance. Neither the composition of a detergent canister or a tray for fresh food. The characteristics of these containers are thought to optimize the transport, the protection of what they contain or the economic revenue that they leave. Added to these variables is one that is becoming increasingly important: environmental impact, a footprint that is not limited to its manufacture, but extends throughout its life cycle. Its reduction, experts say, goes largely through ecodesign.
"Eco-design is taking into account environmental factors in the conception of a product," says Pedro Zomeño, project manager of AINIA, a technology center that studies solutions to improve commercial packaging. The fundamental ones, according to Zomeño, are two: the expense of raw materials and the management of the final waste. "When we talk about ecodesign, we must bear in mind that the packaging is designed to protect the product and comply with legal requirements," said Jorge Serrano, business manager, "at least a minimum of packaging will be necessary to solve the informative and protective function." and ecodesign in Ecoembes, the organization that manages the recycling of garbage from yellow and blue containers.
So far, the general trend of ecodesign has been to thin containers. According to data from Ecoembes, in the last 20 years companies have taken more than 45,000 measures to subtract 500,000 tons by weight of these objects. "This system has reduced the consumption of raw materials and also the subsequent waste, and the distribution has been optimized," says Serrano. "But it is a procedure that is already close to the limit, the packaging is already the minimum thickness, and other options must be explored."
One of these alternatives is the search for more friendly materials with the environment. In TheCircularLab (Logroño), a laboratory of Ecoembes around the circular economy, a team of engineers works on a plastic bio-bio (biobased and biodegradable) from the remains of vegetables and fruits from the surplus of the restoration sector. A material that, at the end of its useful life, will decompose into CO2, water and biomass. Also, its creators point out, it will be recyclable through composting.
"We can generate, for example, a container of potato starch, but you have to measure very well how many resources we are using," says Zomeño, "so that in the total balance we do not spend more than necessary." Even so, producing any container entails an environmental cost. "There are no miraculous solutions from a technical point of view: the packaging that fulfills its conservation function is not invented and then, poof!, Disappears without a trace." Todor material carries a waste that must be managed ", Serrano understands. For him, the key is to think about specific applications for these new materials: "Compostable containers make sense in the fast food industry, and when they are in contact with food, the management of this waste stream would consist of composting everything as organic matter, you do not need to invest in separation. "
Other studies focus on analyzing what combinations of materials facilitate the recycling of a container. "There are mixtures that help the subsequent waste management: two different metals can be separated in a blast furnace without too many problems," says Serrano. Others, such as multilayer plastics, bags of potatoes from the supermarket, are more complex, "something to take into account to increase their future sustainability," he adds.
Case by case
One of the complications of ecodesign is the measurement of the impact of a container with respect to the function it fulfills. "It is difficult to evaluate a beef fillet that can be on the shelf for up to three weeks thanks to the material that contains it, how do you label that wrapper, why does it cost the environment to produce it? percentage of sales is achieved because the food remains intact and is not thrown away before time? ", says Zomeño, who clarifies that although there is a fine line in each case, there are more obvious situations. "For example, perfumes are a clear example of overpacking – it does not take all that glass to contain 20 milliliters."
To try to weigh that environmental footprint, and as if it were an energy efficiency label, members of TheCircularLab, in collaboration with the Fraunhofer Institute, develop a methodology called ACV, which analyzes four factors of the packaging: the cost in manufacturing, the facility to separate the waste in a selection plant, its convertibility into virgin raw material and its functionality. "Eco-design is not incompatible with the economy, if you optimize the processes, you can save money", Zomeño tertiary, who understands that with the new European guidelines, which require companies to make their products more sustainable, all actors will accelerate the pace. "It is a fixed point in the agenda of any company", Serrano closes.
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