Can we break our addiction to plastic? The future of packaging
This video on Youtube of a marine conservation biologist trying to help a sea turtle relieve of a plastic straw up its nostril went viral with 38m views. Similar gut wrenching videos of vast swathes of plastic dumped in the ocean – the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (supposedly twice the size of Texas) – have inspired some people to stand up and say no to plastic. However, the change has been very slow. This article talks about how serious the problem remains, particularly focusing on the amount of plastic used for the ubiquitous packaging of consumer goods.
“Today, roughly 6 per cent of global fossil-fuel consumption goes into making plastic, and that is expected to increase to 20 per cent by 2050, according to the International Energy Agency.
Plastic has become the go-to for packaging goods…The share of plastics in packaging increased from 17 per cent in 2000 to 25 per cent in 2015, according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, which has done extensive work on how to fix plastic pollution. Most of this is used once and discarded — costing $80bn to $120bn annually and flooding a global recycling system that simply cannot handle the stuff.”
Whilst awareness for recycling has picked up and indeed companies committing to using recycled packaging material is also growing, it is still an insignificant portion and beset with genuine technological challenges.
“Although few in the industry admit it, the reality is that plastic recycling rates globally are woefully low. About 8.3 billion tons of plastic has been produced since the 1950s, but research shows that only 9 per cent has been recycled. The remainder has ended up in landfill, the ocean or loose in the environment. High-income countries often ship their waste around the world for recycling but some of it is dumped instead, a problem that intensified last year when China closed its doors to waste imports.
Unlike glass or metal, plastic packaging cannot be recycled ad infinitum because it degrades in quality. While scientists are working on so-called advanced recycling techniques to overcome this problem, they are not yet commercially viable. In the meantime, only 14 per cent of plastic packaging is even collected for recycling.
.. “The real problem is that the technology to recycle plastic films just doesn’t exist,” says Mark Miodownik, a professor of material science at University College London, referring to the plastic in clingfilm, plastic bags, produce bags and multimaterial sachets. Then there is the toothpaste tube. Colgate-Palmolive, the world’s biggest toothpaste maker, has spent five years working on a recyclable tube. We currently use roughly 20 billion tubes annually, all of which end up in landfills or incinerated.
…This reality has led green campaigners to argue that corporate pledges to make packaging recyclable are a cop-out. They would rather industry reduce the volume of plastic used instead. To date, only one big consumer goods company has committed to do so: Unilever aims to reduce annual use of plastic packaging by about 14 per cent by 2025. “It behoves the plastic industry to confuse people. Recycling is bullshit. It is a fig leaf of consumerism — a way to appease our guilt,” says Siân Sutherland, who co-founded the advocacy group A Plastic Planet.”
There are initiatives to come up with alternatives which are relatively environment friendly.
“With $46m in venture funding, Israel-based start-up Tipa has developed a compostable flexible plastic film made of bio-materials that can be used to package everything from coffee beans to fresh carrots.
Notpla, a London-based start-up, has pioneered an edible, home-compostable film made of seaweed, which can be used to package drinks or sauces. Early trials have included handing out water pouches at the London marathon, Glenlivet whisky pods at a cocktail festival and replacing plastic ketchup packets in orders from Just Eat, the UK’s largest takeaway delivery platform.”
However, none of these are yet to be proven to be implemented at a scale that large consumer companies can deem cost effective. For now, change has to be driven by the conscious consumer who doesn’t mind a little bit of inconvenience or will pay extra for keeping the environment safe and clean for future generations.
“Sartre is one of the early customers of Loop, a new company that seeks to eliminate waste by teaming up with well-known brands such as Häagen-Dazs ice cream, Dove soap and Crest mouthwash to make their packaging reusable. Now in trials with tens of thousands of people in Paris and across the US, the company aims to create a radically new shopping model in which packaging becomes durable, reusable, valuable and sometimes even beautiful, instead of something to be immediately thrown away. The start-up is working both with multinationals such as Nestlé, Unilever, Procter & Gamble and PepsiCo and the supermarkets that distribute their wares.
The concept appealed to Sartre, who uses the service to teach her seven- and nine-year-old children about how their consumption habits affect the environment. “I’m pretty militant about it,” she admits. “I really want to show as a consumer that I don’t want any more plastic, and send a message to big companies that I’m ready to spend money to back another model of consumption that is more in line with my values.” Sartre is in the vanguard of a burgeoning consumer movement against plastic packaging that has begun to spur change at the world’s biggest makers of food, drink and household products. Industry executives say that vocal customers have pushed concerns about climate change and pollution up the agenda to the point where big businesses can no longer ignore them.