Circular economy shapes the future skills needed in plastic packaging industry
Companies can mirror their future skills needs with higher education institutions in the PackAlliance project. The project promotes cooperation between academia and the plastic packaging industry in order to achieve circular economy goals through skilled workforce.
In Finland, the PackAlliance workshop in April considered what are the most important skills and knowledge, as well as the training needed over the coming ten years. What are the new materials and biomaterials? How can the ecological design and manufacturing processes of plastic packaging be promoted? How can environmental load and resource usage be reduced? How can we activate the public for recycling and ecological thinking? How do we turn the side streams of plastic packaging waste into valuable substances and products?
“There is a need for discussion and working together on these themes, since the circular economy of plastic packaging is not yet at the level of fiber packaging”, said workshop leader and Lecturer Nina Kukkasniemi from Tampere University of Applied Sciences.
Working life views
The workshop summed up valuable insights and skills shortfalls in working life. Twenty participants from seventeen different companies and packing stakeholders participated. In addition to manufacturers, companies using packages were involved. In aggregate, the companies represented by participants produce, pack and use millions of packages.
Finland has significant recycled plastic operators. The overall climate for recycling, recycled plastic use and innovation is positive. There are plenty of possibilities.
The industry's value chain is wide, and cooperation occurs in many directions; with packaging industries, central chain stores, legislators, raw material suppliers, education sector and consumers. The challenges are also diverse.
In Finland four key themes have been identified in the project: new materials and biomaterials; ecological design and new manufacturing processes; citizen interaction and eco-marketing; and plastic packaging waste management and recycling.
Workshop participants identified skills needs for these four themes through SWOT analysis. The groups were facilitated by the project coordinators of Tampere University of Applied Sciences.
Sustainable future and recyclability
The business aspect was opened by Reijo Kauppi from Pyroll.
“The many labels and markings of plastic are not easy even for us professionals. We need to take into account littering potential, recyclability, carbon footprint, reuse and renewable raw materials.”
He reminded that legislation and regulation are tightening around plastics. The recyclability rate of packaging waste must be 70% by 2030. EU is considering a plastic tax, and the green economy program adds ambitions to promote the circular economy.
“Disposable items will be restricted. Through the waste hierarchy, waste should be reduced by the 4R rule, i.e. reduce, reuse, recycle and recovery.” Kauppi would add two more, rethink and renew. "The type of future educational needs will strongly be based on these six factors".
Plastic is a valuable raw material also after the end of its’ actual use
Antro Säilä, CEO of the Finnish Packaging Association, underlined the need to increase the recycling of materials throughout society.
“Waste is the new raw material”, he reminded. For packaging the circular economy means that packaging can reduce waste. Packages can also be used for energy production.
Säilä noted that plastic durability becomes a problem if plastics get into wrong places after use.
“Recycling plastics even into new food contact materials is possible if chemical recycling is exploited. In that we will need functioning waste management and co-regulation.
Säilä highlighted the change in the attitude to plastics caused by coronavirus. “Now that it has been discovered that packaged products are a viable way to avoid the virus, also the good aspects of plastic are brought into daylight.”
Strong substance competence
Participants feel that there is a strong substance competence within the industry, as well as a desire to understand the differences of plastic, their use and recyclability and willingness to know what is happening in the field.
“Knowledge is shared across international networks. Though there is even more potential for collaboration and increasing understanding on a global level”, summed up Special Designer Eija Syrjämäki.
The group discussed also the threats, namely forgetting legislation from decision-making and the reduction in plastics education. The amount of plastic education has drastically declined over the past few decades, it should be increased.
“Now we need basic plastics skills and training in different materials, their characteristics and technologies. It is particularly needed in the development of recycling and the takeover of bioplastics”, said Sauli Eerola from Muovipoli Oy.
The most important expectation for future talents is a holistic understanding of the value chain. Life cycle thinking, collaborative competence and knowledge sharing skills should be in the core of future workforce learnings. The material development alone is not sufficient but also the technology must be suitable for product development. Students should be used to innovate new practices.
Future technologies should also be borne in mind in education. Innovations for the re-use of plastic are needed. Even new materials must be recyclable and compostable.
Finland has a good level of raw material skills in the field.
“Our weakness is the lack of pragmatism in education legislation, which is reflected in the theses work, among others. The teaching methods need to be reformed, so that teaching is not simply theoretical study of the law, but a concrete implementation of regulations in companies,” said PackAlliance Project Manager, Lecturer Marita Hiipakka.
Consumer and common language at the center
As a big challenge, workshop participants see the lack of common terminology among professionals in the field. Common instructions are needed on how to recycle packaging and how to communicate it to consumers. The project group hopes that the manufacturers and vendors would distribute unified information. The guidelines for consumers should be clear enough. Instead of traditional recycling markings, new ways can be innovated to influence on consumer activity.
Citizen interaction and eco-marketing matters. The consumer needs to be brought to the center.
“Now we are forgetting consumers; they don't understand the recycling labelling. Brands have added clearer guidance, but service design and EU legislation are clearly needed. Now the entries are more agreed from an industry point of view”, underlined Skills Manager Leena Mäkelä. “There is also a need for a platform where this unified information can be shared. Media plays a big role in sharing truthful information."
The lack of consistent guidance is evident in stores. “Companies have varied eco-marketing. The marketing claims should be equal, said Vesa Taitto from the Finnish Plastics Association.
Obstacles on the circular economy road
Kauppi challenged to consider the whole. “What are we prepared for in terms of cost, now when consumption of plastics is increasing and their use is often justified, but public pressure to reduce plastic is hard?”
The workshop noted that investments and production lines already implemented may limit enthusiasm for moving to policies consistent with sustainability. Political decision-making must be involved in order not to make decisions that are harmful to the environment. Exceptions like coronavirus demonstrated that mechanical recycling can be challenging under exceptional circumstances.
Pricing affects too. “If the price difference between recycled plastic and virgin plastic is small, or if the recycled plastic is more expensive, then the virgin plastic will often be used”, said Hiipakka.
The workshop was lively discussing on how to reduce environmental load and the use of materials and resources. The transformation of side streams into valuable substances and products also raised opinions.
Simplification and cooperation
The workshop was found to be useful. “We had a good group of professionals online”, commented Jarmo Aspelin, Managing Director of the Aspelin Group. “I encourage the whole sector to make plastics’ recycling matters as simple as possible both on national and European level. In that way we could improve the image of plastics overall.”
The PackAlliance project will create a European hub network where cooperation can be further enhanced. “Our students will also collaborate with businesses and help solve authentic problems for companies”, told Hiipakka. “Later on, we will have business workshops in which all plastic packaging operators are welcome to join in”.
Lecturer, Pack Alliance Project Manager
Tampere University of Applied Sciences
+358 40 634 2808, marita.hiipakka [at] tuni.fi ()
Text: Hanna Ylli