Although plastic has undeniably revolutionized the world, the statistics of its negative impact are disheartening: less than one fifth of all plastic is recycled globally , forty percent of plastic packaging is used just once before it is discarded , and, thus, consequently, eight million tons of plastic enters the ocean each year. From consumer products, manufacturing, medicine, and technology, plastic has proved to be a versatile commodity. The resilient polymers immediately promised inexpensive production and convenience when they were discovered in 1907. Unfortunately, society did not consider the impacts that this plastic revolution would have on the environment as production increased to create material for all facets of human life, including packaging material. 112 years after its conception, we are now only beginning to understand the deleterious effects of plastic pollution on natural ecosystem health. While small-scale social movements have been inspired by imagery of plastic straws in sea turtles’ noses, such calls of individual action are not sufficient enough to mitigate pollution in our oceans, encourage sustainable packaging, or eliminate our global plastic addiction.
Plastic pollution is a planetary issue. Therefore, collaborative efforts from public and private sectors are needed to create a fundamental shift in the way we produce, consume, and manage all waste and plastics. Examining the current supply chain at local, national, and global levels will identify action steps needed to create an achievable future in sustainable packaging. We must integrate new packaging strategies and techniques, particularly by investing in upcycled waste and biomaterials, to revolutionize packaging strategies and to effectively reduce the amount of plastic waste in our oceans. Green packaging is not a new concept – companies like GreenCellFoam, who creates foam made from corn, are leading the way of biomaterials. Green Cell Foam’s corn foam is a biodegradable and backyard compostable packaging insulator that produces 80% less greenhouse gases than petroleum-based products. Another company, Ecovative Design, creates packaging material made from mushrooms that naturally decomposes in 30 days.
Biomaterials offer a new frontier in eco-conscious economic growth and is the future of sustainable packaging. Natural materials, or materials that otherwise end up in the landfill, can be repurposed to support the world’s bustling and evolving global marketplace. Current producers of plastic materials should integrate new designs into their systems and begin working with their buyers to quickly replace non-recyclable products. Unfortunately, waste pollution is a problem we will continue to have as Earth’s population continues to grow. Although, with biomaterials, we won’t have to worry about the disgraceful sight of plastic bottles on beaches or chip bags floating in the wind. Biomaterial waste will melt into the Earth, and as long as companies use natural products, we will be giving back nutrients to nature.
Additionally, a heavy focus should be placed on supporting developing countries in strengthening their scientific and technological capacity to shift to more sustainable production and consumption patterns. This can be done by incentivizing the elimination of unnecessary plastic materials, encouraging zero waste innovation, and funding biomaterial research. At the same time, we must educate consumers about lifestyles of sustainable consumption by addressing issues that are associated with the convenient “throwaway” culture, as well as the misinformation around recycling.
Directly targeting global plastic production, offering eco-friendly and cheap solutions to consumers, and educating the general public about sustainable packaging methods are attainable goals in reducing the amount of packaging waste in the world’s oceans. Cultivating ideals of sustainable production and consumption will not only create a visible impact, but will also ensure that future generations have the ability to fulfill their own needs. It will guarantee our oceans are not suffocated by trash, and that all people have the opportunity to experience pristine environments. It will serve as a reminder that convenience should not come at the sacrifice of environmental consciousness. But most importantly, if we successfully move to sustainable packaging and solve the plastic waste problem by 2050 , future generations will be more 6 prepared to face their own environmental challenges by integrating the sustainability solutions we develop today to design a waste free tomorrow.
Geyer, R., Jambeck, J. R., & Law, K. L. (2017, July 1). Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made.
Essay by: Paraskevi (Evi) Karpos
Arizona State University