Between the great pacific garbage patch and the modern worlds obsession with wrapping anything and everything in plastic (not to mention plastic alternative’s massive carbon footprints), unsustainable packing has a strangling grip on our planet. Though companies have moved toward more recyclable packaging, these systems function more for public image than sustainability. On top of this, many consumers don’t have reasonable access to recycle these products, and even when they are properly sorted, the material might be shipped across the ocean before ending up in a landfill. Now more than ever, it’s clear that our current reliance on polyethylene, Styrofoam, and plastic polymers is reaching a tipping point, one that ends in our planet’s asphyxiation.

Though plastic products and packaging have their place, and their convenience cannot be understated, it is my belief that the future of sustainable packaging is less evolution and more revolution. Under the current systems we are accustomed to, more than half of the products you purchase at the grocery store come in single-use plastic packaging. Your toothpaste, your body wash, beverage containers and virtually every ready-made meal come in sometimes recyclable, but ultimately disposable, single-use packaging. With nearly eight-billion people on our planet, this model is clearly unsustainable. This is why I believe the future is to discard the idea of picking up a product at a store, and instead focus on refilling our empty containers. For example, instead of picking up a new bottle of shampoo, you would simply bring in your own container and refill that. Though it will take adaptation, moving from single-use to a more permanent, forever-use packaging will save millions of pounds of unsustainable material from entering landfills each day. From potato chips to bread, virtually every product at a supermarket could easily be re-tooled to fit this idea. Reusable bags are a step many people take, but this really only focuses on one small piece of a much larger puzzle. Why would we champion a multi-use bag and then fill it with single-use products? Although severing our relationship with unsustainable packaging means sacrificing convenience, we must all recognize that convenience has come at a devastating cost.

Though I believe this unlimited-use type of packaging is the future of sustainability, it isn’t a new idea at all. Milk-men of the 1960’s would pick up empty milk bottles before dropping off the full ones, often reused hundreds of times. Many markets in the developing world don’t even offer packaging, instead relying on the consumer to bring their own. Even SpaceX has capitalized on the idea of reusable packaging, eschewing the practice of disposable rockets that NASA has used for decades in favor of safely landing their spent rockets for future launches.

In conclusion, unsustainable and single-use packaging has lead our planet to untold ecological damage. Although these systems we built have served us well, the future of sustainable packaging abandons old paradigms to reverse the impact they’ve made. We are often taught to reduce, reuse and recycle. The future should focus on not using products that need to be recycled in the first place.

Essay by: Nickolas Warner
Arizona State University

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