It has become a well-established fact that we face massive environmental crises in the near future due to industrialization. It was not all that bad though; we became able to feed and clothe more people with the help of industrialization. However, due to the switch over to utilizing factories our dependence on fossil fuels skyrocketed. Through this use, we created such unprecedented change in our biosphere that we actually may have set into motion a whole new geological time interval that will affect the planet for millions of years to come.
Part of our heavy dependence on fossil fuels stems from how pervasive plastics are in our daily life. Plastics are made from natural materials like coal, natural gas, and crude oil that is then put together in a polymerization process. Furthermore, we produce 300 million tons of plastic each year according to Plastic Oceans International, a nonprofit organization. From this, more than 8 million tons of plastic is dumped into the oceans every year. This is so much plastic that by 2050 the World Economic Forum predicts that there will be more plastics in the ocean than fish (in terms of weight). On top of that, plastic does not degrade, but instead only breaks up into smaller particles called microplastics. These microplastics will eventually make their way into our food and thus into our body. Microplastics invading the body is such an unprecedented situation that no one knows what will come from it. Moreover, whatever afflictions the microplastics will cause will pose major problems for every human, no matter the race or social class. This will be due to the eventuality that microplastics will become so pervasive that all the fish we consume from the ocean will contain them. If we do not change our current manufacturing processes and consumption habits plastic waste will decimate our oceans and eventually our bodies. That is why it is crucial for packaging manufacturers to adopt environmentally friendly packaging. Acting now will help to mitigate the massive suffering plastic pollution can cause.
A great way to help reduce the waste caused by plastic packaging is recycling. As far as we knew, we did our part in helping by just tossing a juice bottle in the recycling bin. However, it turns out that we were misled because in actuality half of the plastic and a good amount of the paper we discarded was just being sold to China. This habit of shipping our recyclables to China started in the early 1990’s and lasted up until 2018 when China banned imports of foreign garbage. This crackdown is known as National Sword and as a result it left US waste management companies dumbfounded with hundreds of tons of recyclables piling up at US ports and warehouses. Due to the heavy dependence on China to sort our recyclables, the US recycling infrastructure is terribly outdated and underdeveloped. The fall out from it all has led some to to label it the “death of recycling.”
So to answer the question, packaging recycling programs do not work well right now due to the simple inability to efficiently process our recyclables. However, I would say that it is not all bad. While the recycling industry has been left at their most vulnerable, now is a great time to pivot and improve for the future. China banning foreign imports was the right thing to do because now it has brought to light our terrible incompetence in dealing with our own recycling concerns. Thankfully there will still be some time to bounce back, but if this happened later down the line when plastic packaging production would have been even greater and the Earth was in worse shape I am not sure how the recycling industry could have hoped to recover.
Thankfully, the future for sustainable packaging looks bright. There are many great alternatives to conventional polymers including a bio-polymer called polyhydroxyalkanoate (PHA) that is very comparable to its counterparts and was even created around the same time. The only reason that PHA was not used as much as other polymers was the lack of a market for sustainable packaging in the past. Thankfully the desire to live more sustainably grows by the day. Hopefully, this opens up a stronger preference in markets and manufacturers respond by utilizing PHA. In addition to PHA, biopolymers like fungus are also being developed to counteract the problem with waste.
Despite this, we should turn to reductive steps before using alternative polymers and recycling. While switching to biodegradable polymers and utilizing recycling programs greatly help in the fight for sustainability it does not address our problematic consumption habits. Single use packaging is just a part of our consumer experience and it has been that way for decades. It can make things quite convenient at times and of course everyone likes that. However, in the long run it starts to add up and the price we pay ends up being the oceanic devastation. To curb this we can create products that generate less waste. For instance, some convenience stores like The Refill Shoppe in Ventura California has changed over to a bring your own container system that greatly minimizes packaging waste. Innovations like this help took cut down on waste while also helping to develop mindfulness. Admittedly, some of this innovation lies in the hands of designers to create products that can help to improve the waste problems. Later on when we pair our developed mindful habit with alternative biodegradable polymers, plastic waste will hopefully fall to negligent numbers and the suffering that would potentially be caused can be forgotten.
Essay by: Immanuel Garcia
Arizona State University