As global awareness of mindful, environmental living increases, it is important to reflect on what the future of sustainable packaging looks like in a world that is becoming ever more dependent on e-commerce, which has been further exacerbated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Nearly half of all plastic ever manufactured has been made in the last 21 years, and one-time use packaging accounts for forty percent of all plastics produced. Less than one-fifth of all plastic is recycled globally, with the United States recycling just nine percent of all its plastic waste. E-commerce grew a staggering forty-four percent in 2020 alone, with 2021 projected to follow closely behind. These statistics will have devastating consequences on the health of our natural ecosystems if online retailers and our governments do not begin to implement green solutions.
Plastic, a product of human innovation, is not biodegradable. Every single item of plastic packaging that has ever been created still exists on this earth. As of now, a majority of packaging waste is sent to landfills which inevitably finds its way into the environments on which we depend. Research shows that at least 8 million tons of plastic enters our oceans every year. Studies predict that half of all sea turtles worldwide have ingested plastic. Dead seabirds are often found with bellies full of plastic waste, a dark reminder of how rapidly garbage has increased in our oceans over the last forty years. Noting again that plastic is not biodegradable, harmful bacteria known to cause human disease has ample opportunity to collect on the surface of plastic items which can then be ingested.
Not only does plastic pollution alter our ecosystems, it poses an enormous threat to wildlife and puts human health at risk. Luckily, continued activism and educational efforts surrounding conservation means that people are more interested than ever in learning green, sustainable practices. This spells good news for our environments as retailers begin to offer clean alternatives to single-use packaging, which begins by ditching plastic all together in favor of biodegradable, plant-based materials. Over-packaging is a widespread issue in e-commerce, often creating a bag-within-a-bag-within-a-box effect. People are paying mind to businesses that streamline their packaging designs and increase their use of recyclable materials. The more recyclable materials you incorporate into a piece of packaging, the longer the continued use of those elements will be. The increased moral sense of responsibility a consumer acknowledges every time they buy with sustainability in mind is helping our world for the greater good.
In addition to efforts made by consumers to embrace sustainability, conversations around green legislation plus increased political activism are helping us make great strides towards conservation. As of 2021, eight states have imposed fees or outright bans against single-use plastic bags. Since the state of Maine’s decision to prohibit the distribution of plastic bags by retailers unless measures to collect and recycle said bags have been made, four other states have followed suit. The creation of new laws that encourage conservation efforts will greatly increase the rate at which we may start to recover our damaged ecosystems.
In any case, the future of sustainable packaging looks bright as consumers look to hold businesses and governments accountable for their carbon footprint, so we may have the opportunity for a greener tomorrow. We have the solutions; we only need to enact them before it’s too late.
Essay by: Taylor Marshall
Arizona State University