How often have you been chugging down a cold drink on a scorching day when you noticed a small note on the bottle, in text smaller than even the legal trademarks, that said “please recycle?” After reading that seemingly obvious request, how many times did you think to yourself, “so how many people are just throwing these away?” While that is a valid question to ask, I would like to dissect the deeper issue at hand and ask this: Why was this drink packaged in plastic in the first place? Why do companies relinquish responsibility for plastic waste the moment it ends up in a customer’s hand? Plastic pollution didn’t start with the buyer; it started with corporations. Our world existed before single-use packaging and we can surely do it again.
In order to move towards a future of sustainable packaging, we must recognize that the root of the problem lies within corporations. After all, they are the ones creating the biggest demand for plastic by buying directly from plastic suppliers, and why wouldn’t they? Plastic is cheap, durable, easily formed into any desired shape, and it’s light which means ease of transportation. All of these qualities make it ideal for packaging. What companies neglect to address is that plastic is too durable. It exists years after being made, and single-use plastics people throw away today will exist long after their grandchildren’s children. There is currently so much plastic in the world that scientists estimate our oceans will have more plastic than fish by 2050. Most of that plastic comes from single-use packaging. This is why we must convert to sustainable packaging as soon as possible.
Good news is that sustainable packaging isn’t some far-off Star Trek ideal- it’s a real movement happening right now. The only problem is that not enough companies are doing it. To better understand how to achieve our goal of sustainable packaging, we should first examine just how harmful single-use plastic has become. Here is a hard truth that everyone needs to hear first and foremost; plastic is not recyclable. Not in the way we’ve been led to believe. Plastic can be downcycled. This means the quality of the plastic becomes different once it’s been reformed but it still has a use. This reformation process can be done up to a certain number of times. At that point, its polymers can’t bind anymore and they become microplastics. Yes, those itty-bitty pieces of plastic that will never break down and are present everywhere on the planet including our food and water supplies. Those microplastics.
Recycled plastic has a small market. Almost every plastic food packaging you encounter comes from virgin plastic. Used plastics are deemed too unclean to reuse for food. To make matters worse, recycling facilities end up throwing away over 25% of gathered materials. Until recently, the U.S. shipped plastic to China to be recycled, but China has since barred this trade so the U.S. has been throwing away the overflow. In reality, this percentage is likely closer to 30%-40%. At this point it should be easy to see why single-use plastic needs to end.
Avoiding single-use plastic isn’t enough to achieve sustainable packaging. Reintroducing single-use packaging made out of other materials will still contribute to trash in the ocean and overflowing landfills. Ultimately, avoiding single-use anything as much as possible is the real goal. So how does this look in the real world? Let’s focus on these simple guidelines: reuse, repurpose and compost. An easy example of reuse is glass bottle deposits/returns. Coca Cola solely used to be sold in glass bottles which were then returned to be sterilized and used again for new beverages. Today we see dairy being sold on a small-scale in this manner, where consumers pay a deposit for the bottle and receive that deposit when they return the bottle. Häagen-Dazs once entertained the idea of metal ice-cream containers that could be mailed back for reuse. Over a year later and this idea still hasn’t shown up on the market. Make-up companies have also been using similar methods, as well as toiletry companies like Lush, who offer store credit for empty containers returned to them.
Repurposing becomes a bit trickier, and could mean one of two things: the consumer repurposes the packaging, or the company does. We’ve all repurposed a metal candy tin or a glass jar, but it’s not sensible to repurpose every single package we buy. Our cupboards would be overflowing to the point of threatening a downpour of jars every time we opened them! Companies can repurpose their materials by recycling/downcycling them. Film plastics are being downcycled into road asphalt. Yogurt cup plastics are being downcycled into clothing fibers. A yoga pants company is even taking back torn yoga pants and recycling them into new ones. The key here is company responsibility. Any company sending out single-use packaging also needs to be responsible for where that packaging ends up. Thankfully, there are hundreds of ways companies are achieving this already.
This last point of sustainability is going to throw another curve ball at you. Are you ready for it? Compostable and biodegradable absolutely are not interchangeable terms. The difference between the two isn’t very noticeable based on physical examples alone. The real difference comes from putting these objects to the test and seeing how they do in commercial composting facilities. Compostable objects do just that; they break down in a reasonable amount of time and become compost, an organic material used in fertilizing gardens and crops. Biodegradable objects, made from plant-based plastic, degrade over time and sometimes not much better than objects made out of traditional plastic. Sometimes they biodegrade in nine months, sometimes four years. What often happens is that objects labeled as biodegradable still have to go through several rounds of commercial composting before they show any signs of decay. Ongoing studies are showing that plant-based plastics are still showing up in landfills and oceans. I’m greatly stressing the difference between these two definitions because in the end, compostable packaging is superior to biodegradable packaging in terms of sustainability.
By now, the idea behind sustainable packaging and how to achieve this should be clear. Corporations must make the first step to shape the market, and consumers will naturally adjust from there. For corporations, those steps include: avoiding plastics, moving away from the idea of single-use, offering take-back programs, recycling their own waste, and sticking to truly compostable materials. Ultimately, it’s going to take a lot of people who care to start speaking up with their dollars. If we start buying exclusively from companies that offer sustainable packaging, other companies will have to follow suit to keep up with the competition. No longer should we settle for single-use plastics. Let’s offer solutions, spread awareness and demand changes. The future of sustainable packaging is here!
Essay by: Asch Qattawi
Western Washington University