The time has come for the world to fully embrace plastic alternatives, and robots are making it possible. Humans have relied on plastic for decades to produce countless products, especially commercial packaging. As the years have gone by, more people have realized how much it harms the environment.
As a result, public interest in packaging alternatives has risen. However, companies face multiple challenges that have prevented the easy, scalable production of plastic substitutes. Robots are changing that, bringing environmentally friendly packaging to the masses.
The Power of Automation
By nature, alternatives are generally more difficult to produce than conventional plastic. The complexity of the production process depends on the specific green materials used. Creating molded fiber packaging is completely different from biodegradable plastic, for example. However, alternatives can be produced much faster and more efficiently with the help of robotics.
Increasing the Scale
One of the key challenges to making plastic alternatives mainstream is the scale of production that they will need to meet. More than 380 million tons of plastic are produced annually worldwide. Less than 20% is recycled. Robotic process automation lets alternatives are made on a scale that meets global demand one day. These items will also reduce the amount of pollution added to oceans and landfills each year.
Manufacturers are using robotic automation cells to scale up the complex production process of plastic alternatives. Creating the biodegradable materials needed for environmentally friendly packaging often includes sourcing agricultural biomass, recycled fibers, or plants, all of which require extensive processing to be converted into moldable material. Automation allows the production process to be completed efficiently and with little to no waste, boosting sustainability. That increased efficiency can be directly converted into larger-scale production.
Robotic automation also makes it easier for companies to be flexible with the types of packaging they produce. Replacing single-use plastic with sustainable alternatives requires various bottles, bowls, trays, and other packaging items. Robotics streamline the process so companies can easily create multiple styles at once. Once the initial programming is in place, the robotic cell can be applied to the production of virtually any type of packaging product.
Solving the Price Gap
Overcoming the scale of production needed for single-use plastic alternatives relies on one other challenge: price. Currently, bioplastics are 20%-50% more expensive than their single-use plastic counterparts. This is a direct result of the complex process of converting biomass into packaging materials. Even if production achieves the necessary scale, adoption won’t take off if companies cannot significantly lower the price of alternatives. Luckily, robotics is helping in this department, as well.
Automation and Cost-Reduction
Automation is vital for reducing the cost of producing plastic alternatives. Historically, automation has been key to the success of countless products over the years. Using robotics results in cost savings of 40%-75% for varying implementation styles. Robots provide a few strong advantages in an automated production environment: precision, reliability, and quality.
A robotic cell can repeat the same process as many times as desired without declining returns on work quality. Sensors and AI can further enhance the capabilities and proficiencies of robotics, as well. Additionally, since robots can operate consistently at high accuracy, production-related waste is kept minimum. This ensures packaging companies maximize the value of every product they create. These tools allow for automated plastic packaging alternatives in a rapid, affordable product line.
Why Single-Use Plastic Remains Popular
Single-use plastic has become a global establishment. The production infrastructure is already widespread, efficient, and cost-effective, largely due to massive demand for decades. Despite the known environmental impact of plastic, it remains incredibly popular.
Many consumers mistakenly believe single-use plastic is OK because it can be recycled. However, very little plastic sent to recycling centers gets recycled. In 2017, the U.S. recycled less than 10% of plastic waste. This is due to various factors, from the cost of recycling to the poor compatibility of certain types of plastic.
Once again, cost cycles back around as a key theme in the discussion surrounding single-use plastics. If the cost of sustainable packaging alternatives could be lowered, businesses would utilize them more. This would reduce dependence on inefficient recycling centers and possibly improve them since recycling biomass would be in higher demand.
The Advantages of Plastic Packaging Alternatives
Switching from single-use plastics to sustainable alternatives has several benefits driving innovation in robotic production equipment. These vary from material to another, but all have benefits for the planet and people.
Molded fiber packaging is one of the most environmentally friendly single-use plastic alternatives. This material contains no plastic and is often post-consumer waste, such as recycled cardboard and paper. As a result, it often uses absolutely no raw materials. Unlike plastics, molded fiber packaging is genuinely biodegradable and fully breaks down without adverse side effects. By contrast, some biodegradable plastics create microplastics.
Similarly, agricultural or plant fibers materials are also great plastic packaging alternatives. These materials take plastic out of the equation altogether. Molded fiber packaging is lightweight and affordable to produce. However, consumers don’t need to worry that these materials will break down too quickly. In-depth research studies have shown that molded fiber and pulp products are good for the environment and highly functional for various applications, including water and shampoo bottles.
Businesses that adopt materials like these in place of single-use plastic packaging get the peace of mind that they are not contributing to the world’s rapidly growing landfills. They will also likely see an enthusiastic response from customers. The World Wildlife Fund has found that consumer interest in sustainable goods has risen 71% since 2016, indicating high public interest in green businesses. Eco-friendly packaging will go a long way toward creating brand loyalty, especially as support for sustainability initiatives only continues to grow worldwide.
The Importance of Single-Use Plastic Alternatives
Adopting sustainable alternatives to single-use plastic packaging is beneficial and critical for maintaining the planet’s health. Robotic production is about more than enhancing business operations. It is enabling companies to quite literally save the environment. Plastic is one of the top sources of ocean pollution globally. It harms wildlife as well as communities all over the world, and the damage has a ripple effect that reaches everyone.
Solving these critical issues relies on developing effective, green mass production systems for plastic packaging alternatives, a challenge that relies on robotics.
Plastic Pollution in the Oceans
An estimated 8 million metric tons of plastic are dumped into the world’s oceans each year. The vast majority of this waste is packaging items such as food containers, bottles, bags, and straws. These items don’t harmlessly float around. They are frequently ingested by wildlife that mistakes them for food. If this does not kill the creature, it will negatively impact its health and even harm humans.
As plastic breaks down over decades or even centuries, it dissolves into progressively smaller pieces but never truly disappears. These bits of plastic are known as microplastics. They have become such a significant problem that experts are concerned humans are now consuming them when they eat seafood or drink water.
How Plastic Impacts the Atmosphere
Even the plastic that does not make it into oceans and waterways can be detrimental to the environment. For example, 5.6 million tons of plastic waste were combusted in the U.S. in 2018. This process generates intense quantities of carbon dioxide, which is a key contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. Every year, landfills generate over 800 million metric tons of this pollution, particularly methane, which is even worse for the environment than carbon dioxide since it holds in heat more effectively.
Reducing plastic waste will also reduce greenhouse gas emissions on a potentially monumental scale. This would be groundbreaking for the health of the atmosphere and global air quality.
Improving Single-Use Plastic Alternatives
Biodegradable plastics are a popular alternative to single-use plastics. These are a step in the right direction, but experts have pointed out that they retain some detrimental drawbacks. Solving these problems will be key to making biodegradable plastic a truly sustainable option.
For example, when biodegradable plastic breaks down, it creates microplastics just like single-use plastic does. Bioplastics simply break down faster. Additionally, unlike molded fiber and pulp products, biodegradable plastics contain no beneficial nutrients for the environment. This makes them poor contributors to composting since they don’t help the process in any way.
Even when biodegradable plastics are sent to specific facilities to be disposed of, waste companies face issues with compatibility and the emissions the degradation process emits. Until these issues can be resolved, sustainable packaging companies and businesses should focus on fiber and plant-based alternatives.
Using Robots to End Plastic Pollution
Turning around climate change relies on a global effort to build a more sustainable world. Solving the problem of single-use plastic packaging is a major component. Luckily, robots are becoming key contributors to the rise of plastic packaging alternatives. Robotic cells streamlining the production process allow companies to create options that are far better for the environment in both the short and long term. Robots are ending plastic pollution through the affordable, scalable production of packaging items that truly leave no trace.
About the author:
Emily Newton is the Editor-in-Chief of Revolutionized Magazine. She regularly covers topics on robotics and automation and trends in the industrial sector.