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Packaging Myths

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The following article is reproduced by kind permission of the Packaging Council of South Africa (PACSA) and was written by its Executive Director, Mr Andrew Martinusen (see website addess details and hotlink at base of article)


MYTH 1 : Packaging is wasteful and a threat to the environment.

Packaging is an essential part of modern life allowing people to consume fresh, uncontaminated food and beverages wherever they want in the quantities they need.

Modern living has driven the desire for convenience foods in ready to prepare and single serve formats; this pre-preparation ultimately reduces the possible amount of solid food waste generated by households.

Clever structural design of packaging can optimise space / load utilisation and can therefore optimise energy efficiency in transport and handling.
Just pause to consider how a modern large retailer would look like without packaging.
Packaging allows the contents to be preserved (eg baby food, long life milk, chips etc) and this ensures that vast quantities of produce do not rot en route to the consumer.
To illustrate this a study conducted in the Soviet Union some thirty years ago, where the packaging and food processing industries were not sophisticated, revealed that some 40% of agricultural produce did not reach the consumer in a state fit for consumption. The preservation function of packaging is particularly relevant in South Africa with our comparatively small population spread over large distances.
Once it has performed its function packaging takes on an entirely different face.

It becomes cumbersome waste

Sub-sectors of the packaging Industry have voluntarily exercised their extended producer  responsibilities forming a variety of organisations dedicated to increasing the collection and  recycling of their products. In every case we have created a value for this waste so it is  now effectively a resource. 

It is important we consider the impact of packaging on the waste stream:
Packaging is less than 0.1% of total waste generated in South Africa, including air/water  waste (calculated from Treasury Report 2006)
Packaging accounts for some 12% of household waste by volume (Pikitup Survey 2004).
As a nation we are undisciplined litterers and this is a major cause of the unwanted and  ugly perception people have of packaging. If we can stop littering we will have made a major move towards cleaning up our country.

MYTH 2 : Packaging is the biggest contributor to the solid waste stream.

Packaging is less than 0.1% of total waste generated in South Africa, including air/water  waste (calculated from Treasury Report 2006)
Packaging accounts for some 12% of household waste by volume (Pikitup Survey 2004).

MYTH 3 : The packaging industry is doing nothing in the area of extended producer responsibility dealing with the waste stream.

Sectors of the packaging industry have done some excellent work in dealing with the  downstream waste. We detail below some of these initiatives.


Beverage Can     Can weight 33g vs 62g in 1966             67%
Paper    Cement sack 240 gsm vs 320 gsm in 1990             57%
Glass    The mass of a specific beverage container reduced by 18% over the last 10 years    Over 80% of beer  in South Africa sold in returnable containers          25        25%
Plastic    PET 2 litre bottle weight 54 g vs 90 g in 1979    * some returnable  Pet bottles
* returnable crates
* re-use of plastic shopping bags
* re-use of some drums         
       33% (including recycled factory waster)

Technology has enabled the packaging industry to reduce mass without compromising the  basic functions.
We have impressive figures in the malt beer industry. Returnable containers work in some  industries but are certainly not the solution across the spectrum – the cost of return, water  and cleaning material wastage and the product itself are all considerations for instance one  would not expect potato chips to be purchased in returnable packaging.

Collect-a-Can is a great South African success story. Apart from having the highest  collection rates and providing indirect employment to some 37 000 people it has collected  750 000 tons of beverage cans since it started, the equivalent of ten times the weight of all  the elephants in South Africa. Collect-a-Can's initiatives are subsidised by its two  shareholders – Nampak & Mittal
In 2006 the paper recycling industry collected 935 000 tons of paper over 55% of paper  consumed in South Africa. The paper industry has invested R230 million directly in  recycling. Mills wholly or partly dependent on recovered paper in South Africa have a capital investment equivalent to R28 billion. The demand for recycled paper will grow by  200 000 tons to 1,155 million by 2009 as more waste based mills are commissioned.
The glass industry, including their customers, have formed the Glass Recycling Company  with the express target of achieving an increase in recycling from 25% to 50% within 3 yrs.
This will be achieved by investments of some R50 million in cullet colour sorting by the  glass manufacturers and a levy on all glass bottles sold to promote both recycling and  infrastructure.
As a matter of interest if all returnable bottles were banned and replaced by one way  packaging, the glass industry would have to be five times bigger than it is.


The generic term plastics covers some five main families each of which needs to be looked  at individually in terms of recycling.

•    160 recyclers – 172,000 tons
•    Demand for good quality plastic waste exceeds supply.  A new way of segregating waste called MRF's is likely to help this at lower cost
•    Growth in recycling rates overall since 2000 has been particularly impressive
•    PETCO – a joint initiative across the supply chain started at a cracking pace and recycling rates of plastic CSD bottles has grown from virtually zero five years ago to over 20% this year
•    Those involved in plastic raw material streams where recyling rates are not good enough have started to work together to remedy this.

A German study done some 15 years ago on what the packaging industry in Germany would be like without plastics concluded as follows:
- Double the energy and cost
- 2½ times volume of waste
- Four times weight of eventual waste at disposal


Plastic has a calorific value up to 40% better than coal and the plastics industry has  completed a study on the possibility of using waste for energy. As it is being used  extensively in Europe you can expect to hear more of this initiative in the future which  would be aimed at the paper and plastic waste which has less value than uncontaminated  clean waste. This has to happen under very controlled circumstances at incredibly high  temperatures to ensure that we do not pollute the atmosphere.

There is enormous effort and money being spent in the packaging industry on these initiatives – we are thus already doing a great deal of extended Producer Responsibility.

MYTH 4 : The Solution to packaging waste is simple – apply a deposit or levy on all packaging.

Some people suggest a deposit on all non-returnable packaging would encourage people to  use returnable packaging.
This is based on the flawed argument that all products could use returnable packaging.
Malt beer in South Africa is an excellent example of a product where over 75% of malt beer  sold here is in returnable packaging. This is a very fine example but one must consider the  environmental downsides – additional transport and quantities of water with detergent used  to wash the bottles before reselling as informed.

For the bulk of Fast Moving Consumer products the supply chain, quantities involved and  the product itself do not lend themselves to returnable packaging – think of for example  chocolates and chips. Applying a blanket deposit on this packaging would just be highly inflationary.

MYTH 5 : Product taxes imposed by the Treasury such as supermarket checkout bags is the way to go.

The plastic bag levy was introduced in May 2003 as a result of an agreement between  government and interested parties, with the intention of reducing usage of the plastic bag  which was considered to be a major litter problem.

The agreement centred around three basic principles, viz.:
1.    The bags were required to be thicker so as to make them more attractive to recycle (24 micron) and with reduced print.
 2.    A government levy of 3 cents per bag was charged to bag manufacturers.  This can be changed at the whim of the government.
 3.     Retailers had previously absorbed the costs of the bags as part of their
service to customers. Some retailers undertook to charge for the bags.
The effect of this agreement was dramatic and initially sales dropped to approximately 10%  of the number of bags that had previously been supplied. Sales have now stabilized in the  region of 20% to 30% of the previous numbers. An estimated 500 jobs were lost.
1.      Revenue collection by the government for the year ending February 2006 from this levy is estimated to have been some R90 million (3 cents x 3
 billion bags).
 2.      Of this amount only R20 million (22%) was allocated to DEAT.
          *     DEAT paid Buyisa-e-B, the company set up in terms of the              agreement,   R12 million (13% of revenue collected) from their R20 million
          *    Buyisa-e-Bag is required to pay R5.4 million of this money to SA Bureau  of Standards for the purpose of policing the new thicker bag

           *   This left R6.6 million (7% of revenue collected) for Buyisa-e-Bag to fund  recycling and anti-litter propaganda.

We submit that this level of earmarking is unacceptably low and a substantially higher Proportion  – in excess of 35% - should be allocated to Buyisa-e-Bag for their activities.

3.     The agreement encouraged retailers to charge for the bags. This means that      retailers have enjoyed significant revenue increases for this product which was  a cost item before.
We believe that taxes earmarked for environmental issues from this process are far too low and industry driven schemes as outlined under Myth 3, are significantly more focused and thus more effective.

MYTH 6 : The S A packaging industry alone must bear extended producer responsibility and fix the packaging waste problem.

There are a number of key players who must all play their role if we as a society are to deal  with solid waste.
Municipalities/Provinces - need to ensure the recycling industry can access valuable  packaging waste at lowest cost. Separation facilities known as Material Recycling Facilities  (MRF's) are the way to go.
Raw Material Suppliers - need to continue technical research and development to ensure the  packaging converters can achieve the same protection and preservation functions using less  material.
Brand Owners - need to specify the packaging material to be used. They must include environmental issues such as the recyclability of their packaging when considering the type  of packaging.

Public at large - need to stop littering and help municipalities by separating the household waste

Recycling industry - continue to support all initiatives to extract more waste and develop new markets for waste – not import waste.

Central Government - need to support our industry initiatives including a controlled programme of energy from waste.

MYTH 7 : The family is an innocent bystander – a victim of mass
marketing methods – on environmental issues

Hazardous waste originates primarily from two sources, industry and households.

The reality is that the average family has a throw-away mindset, and although 'Home is  where the Heart is' it is also where the poison is! The average household contains an  arsenal of 'dangerous' chemicals in the pantry ranging from oven cleaners to drain  cleaners, paint thinners to dry cell batteries, hairsprays to insecticides, granular chlorine to  ammonia. All these items are essential to our modern lifestyle and hygiene standards, and
yet these contain substances which are corrosive, flammable, explosive or toxic – when their containers and contents are depleted they get thrown into the garbage bag and  occasionally down the drain.
'The Householder' will plead innocence until there is an infrastructure in place to promote  separation of domestic refuse at point of consumption, that is, the household, and a  corresponding municipal collection and waste disposal plan, a so-called integrated waste  management system. I see the family unit as a key player in environmental hygiene of the  future.
It is also critical that municipalities play their constitutional role in effective waste  management by insisting on separation of waste by households.

MYTH 8 : There is widespread understanding of the term  'Environmentally Friendly Packaging'

Research conducted by Michael Peters and Partners, a UK based market research company,  showed that comprehension of the well-used term was poor and varied from manufacturers  to converters, and from consumer to packaging designers. The organisation set about  defining what they felt was meant by 'environmentally friendly packaging'. They  maintained that to qualify three criteria must apply:
1. The packaging minimises energy and raw material use in its  
construction and manufacture.
 2. It minimises impact on the waste stream.
 3. It does not cause environmental damage.
Our ideal packaging is that which achieves the above whilst at the same time preserving and protecting the contents.

MYTH 9 : Re-use of (PET) plastic water and soft drink bottles will poison  You.

We have received a number of queries regarding the safety of washing and reusing PET  mineral water bottles. These result from e-mails circulating on the internet claiming that  washing of PET bottles results in the formation of carcinogenic compounds. Specific  mention is made to the formation of the chemical, DEHA.

Refusing any food or drinks container without washing can result in the spread of germs.
However we can assure you that it is quite safe to reuse PET bottles without any risk of degradation or contamination, providing that normal good hygiene practices are observed.
The plastic material PET (polyethylene terephthalate), used for mineral water and other  beverage bottles, has been thoroughly tested and approved as safe for food contact use by  international health authorities. Although most water and beverage bottles are lightweight  and designed for single use, refillable, reusable PET bottles are also quite widely used, with  appropriate hygienic washing procedures. This also has full approval of the health  
The Internet scare story originated from the University of Idaho. A student doing an  investigation into the reuse of PET bottles detected traces of DEHA in bottles "exposed to  realistic but extreme reuse parameters." The suggestion was made that this could result in an increased risk of carcinogenicity. Unfortunately this was picked up by the media and
reported on without verification. The original study correctly identifies to DEHA as  diethylhexyl adipate. The versions circulating on the Internet incorrectly refer to it as  diethylhydroxyamine.
The fact is that DEHA is NOT inherent in PET as raw material or as a decomposition product of PET. DEHA is approved for food contact applications and would not pose a health risk  even if it were present. It is commonly used as a plasticiser in many other plastic items,  used on a daily basis. It is presumed that the DEHA detected in PET bottles by the student
probably originated from other plastic components in the laboratory environment
A study conducted by the Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Testing and Research  (EMPA) on the reuse of PET bottles also detected trace amounts of DEHA in PET bottles, but  this was in the same range as detected in pure water in glass laboratory flasks.
Furthermore, these levels were distinctly below the WHO guidelines for drinking water  quality (80 g/L for DEHA)

MYTH 10 : The triangular mark on plastic packaging grades the toxicity of  plastics.

This is another story that has circulated widely in the past and is nonsense. There are six broad families of plastics and each of these has a number which is printed or embossed in the triangle to allow recyclers easily to identify the grade of plastics for recycling.


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