Plastic Packaging | Can We Live Without It?
The Plastic Problem
There’s no denying that plastic is an incredible material. It can be malleable, hard, thin, waterproof, transparent, opaque. It can be resistant to corrosion and heat, and it is lightweight, non-toxic, and often highly recyclable.
Unfortunately, it is a major polluter. The world produces over 360 million tonnes of plastic every year, 40% of which is for packaging, with only 9% successfully recycled so far. As a result, much of this plastic is spilling into our environment; one study found that around 88% of the open ocean surface is contaminated with plastic debris.
The issue here isn’t plastic itself; it’s that we’re misusing it. The very reason plastic is so useful – its robustness – is why we need to use it with caution. Currently, a lot of plastic packaging is designed solely for its primary use, with no real considerations for its end of life. This means that materials are engineered to be durable (no one wants damaged products, after all) which means that they will not degrade. As a result, they often break up, not down, which causes microplastic hazards for marine organisms and our food chain.
To make matters worse, some packaging – like films and wrappers – are made using unrecyclable plastic, while others – such as bottles and bottle caps – are made using different types of plastics, which means they need to be separated before they can be recycled. Dyes can also be problematic, as they often mean the packaging can only be recycled into plastic with a darker colour.
End-user consumers regularly aren’t aware of these limitations or the regional variations in curbside recycling requirements, meaning large amounts of recycling waste – over 500,000 kg in 2019/2020 alone – is rejected due to contamination. There are promising chemical recycling technologies that can address this by melting plastics down to oil, creating an “infinite loop”, but there is still work to be done to make them commercially viable.
What can we do about it?
It is tempting to say we should simply ban or move away from plastic packaging altogether. In reality, however, it’s not that simple. Doing so would certainly reduce the amount of plastic building up in the environment, but it would also have many knock-on impacts that could be even worse. We could expect to see rises in food waste due to shorter shelf lives, electronics that are damaged during transit due to poorer protection, and transport emissions due to heavier packaging alternatives.
Banning plastic and swapping it for another material that we’d still use once and throw away does not solve the root cause of this problem. The issue is the linear take-make-waste approach according to which most packaging is designed. To solve the plastics problem, we need systems change not just a material change.
The circular economy provides an alternative. With this approach, packaging would be designed for reuse, not just for use. There are a number of changes that would need to be made for this to be realised.
The obvious one is to phase out single-use plastics. Wherever possible, these should be switched out for non-virgin plastics that are fully recyclable or biodegradable/compostable within short timeframes.
Beyond this, the key change will be designing for multiple cycles of reuse. The secret to closing this materials loop is aligning product design and waste management; if end-of-life is properly considered during the production process, many of the current issues could be avoided. This could be accelerated by implementing Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPRs) with fines and penalties if companies do not meet strict targets for recyclability and/or use of recycled materials in their packaging.
What has been done already?
While we’re still some way from achieving a circular packaging system, there have been several changes in areas with less resistance, like removing unnecessary packaging, introducing mono-materials, more clearly communicating how packaging should be disposed of / reused, and opening refill-only shops.
A great example of this is the UK Plastics Pact. Launched by The Ellen MacArthur Foundation and WRAP in 2018, it has brought together leading supermarkets, brands, and packaging and recycling companies to address the UK’s broken plastics system. It has already had a big impact. Compared to 2018, the 2020 figures show:
- 10% reduction in plastic on supermarket shelves (with problem plastics down 46%)
- doubling of recycled content levels from 9% to 18%
- 18% increase in amount of plastic packaging being recycled (44% vs 52%)
The UK has also introduced a Plastic Packaging Tax of £200 per tonne of plastic packaging components containing less than 30% recycled plastic that a company manufactures or imports.
We’ve made some progress in this area ourselves. In 2021, we worked with our supplier, Direct Foam and Packaging, to develop and launch Eco Strata™. This a brand-new material that offers similar characteristics to traditional LDPE foams (which are hard to recycle) but is made from over 70% recycled plastic waste (10-times more than in average foam) and is fully recyclable.
Reuse is always our priority, however, and this is something we apply to our packaging as well. We’ve set up local networks to reuse non-recyclable packaging that we receive, and we’re currently exploring returnable packaging that is designed for several cycles of reuse.
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