Advantages Of Plastics In Packaging Applications

Plastics of various types offer a number of attributes that contribute to the packaging industry's growing reliance on this material. While the details vary from one application to another, the most significant driving force in increasing plastics use is the corporate bottom line — use of plastics packaging very often increases corporate profitability by lowering costs, increasing sales, or sometimes both. While it is not possible, in the scope of this work, to illustrate all the ways in which use of plastics in packaging can be advantageous, some illustrative examples follow.

When a consumer purchases products from a retailer, very often these products will be packed in a plastic merchandise bag. While paper merchandise bags have not been wiped out of the market, plastic has taken a large portion of the market, and many retailers, especially in the nongrocery segments, no longer offer consumers a choice between paper and plastic bags. The primary reason is that plastic bags are less expensive for the retailer to purchase. This is not their only advantage. Plastic bags take less room in the warehouse and in the distribution vehicle. In many cases the built-in handle offers improved functionality for the consumer. The bags are not susceptible to loss of strength when they get wet, so may provide improved product protection. When they are no longer useful, they take up less space in a landfill than their paper equivalent, where they are stable and do not contribute to land subsidence or production of methane gas. If they are incinerated, they provide a valuable source of energy for conversion into electricity. Of course, on the other hand, unlike paper bags they do not biodegrade in a landfill and do not contribute to production of methane for conversion to heat or electricity. Also, they are manufactured from a nonrenewable resource.

In distribution of automobile parts, reusable plastic totes have, to a considerable extent, displaced corrugated boxes. The plastic containers have a higher initial purchase price but a much longer lifetime. Of course, they must be managed appropriately so that they are not lost or damaged, and so they are at the appropriate location when they are needed. The amount of packaging waste generated by the assembly plant is greatly decreased. The assembly line stays cleaner. Protection of parts from damage may be enhanced. Again, the bottom line is decreased cost.

In packaging of fresh meat, old-fashioned white paper butcher wrap has all but disappeared. Even if the retailer maintains a butcher shop with fresh meat displayed in glass cases, the meat probably arrives at the store in plastic high-barrier vacuum packages that are able to exclude oxygen and microorganisms and prevent loss of water vapor, thereby providing an extended shelf life. For appeal to American consumers, the meat must be oxygenated on display, to change the purple color it has in low-oxygen environments to the bright red color preferred by consumers. Film [usually polyvinyl chloride (PVC)] with high oxygen permeability as an overwrap on a plastic tray [often expanded polystyrene (PS)] makes this possible and allows the consumer to see the meat while providing needed protection from contamination and moisture loss. In contrast, meat packaged in butcher wrap begins to dry out almost immediately. New packaging systems for retail meat use a high-barrier film sealed to a deep-draw tray to maintain a high oxygen atmosphere that extends shelf life while maintaining product visibility and desirable appearance. Instead of the roughly 3 days the meat will stay fresh in the consumer's refrigerator with the PVC film system, this new system allows consumers to keep the meat unfrozen in their refrigerator for about a week — and eliminates the problem of leaky packages, as well.

The market segment of fresh prepared foods depends on the use of plastics to provide the tailored barrier properties and/or modified atmosphere needed to maintain acceptable quality in the product for the required time. Many of these products were not available at all only a few years ago. Now you can purchase salad ready to eat, fresh pasta ready to be cooked that can be kept in your refrigerator for several weeks, cheese already grated, carrots already peeled, and a variety of other products—all dependent on plastics both to maintain quality and to allow the consumers to see the product and be convinced to purchase it.

Shampoo, bath oil, liquid soap, and many other products used primarily in bathrooms are nearly always packaged in plastic containers. Plastics not only are resistant to moisture, they are able to withstand dropping out of slippery hands onto hard surfaces without breaking — and, not inconsequentially, without producing sharp fragments that could impart serious injury and open the way for lawsuits. Plastics can provide transparency if it is desired, or they can be formulated in a variety of colors and shapes to produce the desired image for a product. The plastic closures used on the containers usually include a dispensing feature of some type to facilitate product use and also to decrease spills. Dispensing is also aided by the flexibility of plastic, which allows the container to be squeezed. Further, the plastic containers are considerably lighter in weight and somewhat smaller than the glass or metal packages they replace, which directly translates into savings in both distribution and storage. In addition to savings in fuel use and warehouse space, less distribution packaging (corrugated boxes, pallets, etc.) is needed to deliver the same amount of product.

Computer chips for various types of electronic appliances are very susceptible to damage from static electricity. Special plastic wraps or bags provide a conductive path to dissipate the static charges, thus protecting the chips from damage during parts distribution.

Sterility of medical instruments and other medical devices is a life-and-death issue. Many such devices are intended for only a single use and are sterilized in the package before they are distributed. Very often, the package used to permit in-package sterilization and then maintain this sterility is plastic. Spun-bonded polyethylene (DuPont's Tyvek), for example, permits ethylene oxide sterilization because it is porous to the gas, but the pore sizes are too small to permit microorganisms to enter. Plastics can also be used to permit radiation sterilization or even steam sterilization. For operating room use, plastics can provide ease of opening without production of the airborne fibers that paper may generate.

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