Integrating Automation with Sustainability to Reduce Plastics Footprint
January 24, 2022 By George Guidoni
Automation and sustainability may not seem like a natural pairing at first glance. But in a world desperate for more sustainable packaging on a truly global scale, there are many promising synergies of ends and means for both megatrends to foster a happy convergence to benefit the public and the planet, while rewarding the innovative industry leaders seizing the day and the opportunity to integrate the two competencies in endless quest for a more sustainable future.
With single-use plastic packaging coming under increasing regulatory and public pressure to limit and ban their use across the board in CPG (consumer packaged goods), retail, hospitality and other vital industries, there’s never been a greater need, or a better time, to address the issue of what will replace all that plastic—on a global scale.
While most of the efforts in plastic waste diversion to date have focused on recyclability, companies like California-based Zume are making a compelling case for accelerating advances in packaging compostability as a key piece in helping mitigate the global plastic pollution crisis devastating our oceans and waterways.
Using packaging material made from sustainably harvested plant material left over from agricultural production—including bamboo, wheat and straw—the company’s plant-based material is 100-percent biodegradable and simply breaks down after use.
Using significantly less water and energy to make, hence vastly reducing CO₂ emissions when compared to the production and disposal of plastic packaging, Zume recently patented an innovative manufacturing process to make compostable packaging for anything from food and groceries to cosmetics and consumer goods, according to the company.
“By 2050, we estimate that the world’s oceans will have more plastic than fish, so it is critical that we move everyone away from single-use plastics,” says Zume’s chief executive officer, Alex Garden.
Eager to get this packaging out to markets just in time before some of the long-promised single-use plastic bans become law—as is the case in Canada starting next month—Zume enlisted the support of leading global robotics manufacturer ABB to scale up the commercial rollout of its sustainable innovations.
Under the ambitious plan, ABB will integrate and install more than 1,000 molded fiber manufacturing cells (MFC)—including up to 2,000 robots at Zume customer’s sites worldwide—leveraging its program management capabilities and automation experts in its network of Global Solution Centers to enable the scale, modularity, and speed required to launch the solutions, which have the potential to produce millions of pieces of sustainable packaging annually.
“Automating production of Zume’s sustainable packaging with ABB robots makes this a viable and economic alternative to single-use plastics,” says Sami Atiya, president of ABB Robotics & Discrete Automation in Ann Arbor, Mich. “With Zume, we have the potential to remove trillions of pieces of plastic from the global marketplace, preserving scarce resources and supporting a low-carbon world.”
The Zume compostable containers are molded from the plant material by Zume’s molded fiber cells integrated with two ABB IRB 6700 robots, with each cell processing up to two tonnes of agriculture material every day to produce about 80,000 pieces of sustainable packaging. Working with ABB, Zume expects to equip factories with up to 100 robotic cells each.
With the automation, speed and scalability provided by the MFC, each site would have the potential to process 71,000 tonnes of agriculture material annually, potentially producing up to two billion pieces of packaging each year.
“Today, robotic automation is expanding possibilities, making the world more sustainable through more efficient production that reduces energy use, emissions and production waste,” Atiya proclaims. “Our collaboration showcases what is possible when organizations that are committed to pursuing a low-carbon society work together.”
A trend or not, long may it continue!