Best practices to design and produce sustainable commercial plastic bags
ECOFLEXOBAG (LIFE11 ENV/ES/646) is a European project funded by LIFE+ 2011 programme, aimed at developing and demonstrating the best practices for designing and producing sustainable commercial plastic bags. This project, which will finish this spring, has been developed by a European consortium (AIDO and AIMPLAS from Spain, Dienstencentrum from the Netherlands, Enviros from Czech Republic and VTT from Finland).
The project couldn’t have been this successful without the help of several enterprises related to the commercial bags manufacturing sector. Specifically, the following key companies of the consortium countries have participated in the project: Plasbel Plásticos, Plásticos Romero, Oerlemans Plastics, Amerplast, Van Gillern, Tasky, and V-Plast.
One of the most important participating companies was Windmöller & Hölscher (W&H), who - as a multinational machine manufacturer – delivered very important reference materials for the production process of commercial plastic bags. Their demonstration laboratories in Lengerich, Germany, had all the necessary facilities - Extrusion, Printing and Converting - to produce plastic bags under fully controlled production conditions (i.e. ISO 12647). And this company proved for the first time in the world that the production of eco-bags can be easily achieved with almost the same quality aspects as conventional solvent based printing techniques.
The reason Windmöller & Hölscher was chosen stems from the fact that this company has a lot of experience within the sector and is active in more than 140 countries and at more than 5000 customer plants, clearly signalling they are a worldwide market leader. For this reason the consortium concluded early on that this company would have an important added value for the ECOFLEXOBAG project.
Based on the research of the consortium combined with the test results in the different companies, the ECOFLEXOBAG project has developed a methodology for the design and production of more sustainable commercial bags and has provided recommendations about best practices and tools in three aspects:
- Design of sustainable commercial bags (EcoDesign).
- Application of Best Available Techniques (BAT) for printing with sustainable substrates.
- Control of sustainable production of commercial bags.
The recommendations and developed tools have been included in an online tool that makes it easier for entrepreneurs of SMEs to implement this new concept into their own businesses. This online tool will become available - free of costs - at the project website www.ecoflexobag.com.
Moreover, the development of the project has allowed the consortium to arrive at some conclusions that will help manufacturers and consumers reduce the environmental impact of commercial plastic bags. The results of this project proves that the efficient incorporation of environmental criteria into the design and production phase allows them to obtain more sustainable commercial bags. Not only from the environmental point of view, but also from the economic one.
The most important conclusions deriving from the project are the following:
- The companies of commercial bags’ sector (manufacturers and printers) have different technical options to increase the sustainability of their products. These options have to be evaluated and adapted in each case from management level to work floor.
- The EcoDesign of bags, as a methodological approach, represents an important starting point. It allows companies to define at an earliest stage the improvements that can be applied in a technically feasible way and will result in an environmental benefit while developing truly profitable sustainable products and creating competitive advantages.
- Through an appropriate selection of alternatives, plastic bags can be produced and used in a more sustainable way. The use of recycled plastic and compostable plastic allows increased sustainability of bags.
- Reusable bags are a good choice from the environmental point of view if we use them the number of times for which they were designed. As an example, Spanish reusable certified bags are designed to be used for at least 15 times.
- The use of water based inks is a good alternative to solvent based inks if the company doesn’t have a proper solvent emission treatment system. It´s possible to produce any commercial plastic bags with water based inks, keeping an acceptable quality and productivity level.
- The needed measures to print with water based inks can be accessible even for small enterprises, without having high investments. Only small adjustments have to be done in the printing process, depending on the specific requirements of the product.
- The quality of the bag must match its use. Design must not exaggerate the specifications of the bag, such as size, thickness or print quality. This will unnecessarily affect the environmental performance and economic costs.
- Consumers have the last word about the selection of the bag and its quality and also about proper use of it. Plastic bags can be and must be recycled, but it´s necessary that consumers place them in the appropriate container for light packaging (yellow container in Spain). In case of compostable bags, they must be placed in containers for organic waste, because specific waste treatment is necessary (never put compostable bags together with plastic waste, for the recycling chain will not be effective).
Based on the whole research period of 30 months, the European consortium of ECOFLEXOBAG can look back on a very successful project, in which the research teams VTT and AIMPLAS combined their strengths and knowhow with the commercial technical consulting companies AIDO, Dienstencentrum and Enviros. This lead to one of the premier best practices concepts for increasing the sustainability of commercial plastic bags.
The information is now spreading and it is up to the industry to take advantage of it. In this way we are now moving to a better world and a more sustainable Europe.