Ranging from trail mix in plastic bags to boxes of toilet paper being shipped across the globe. Let’s face it. Packaging is absolutely everywhere. Although not ideal, we live in a society that expects a level of sanitation and consistency when it comes to the products we consume. In order to meet that expectation, products are required to be packaged in a way that keeps them protected and untouched by outside elements. Now more than ever, with the extreme convenience of plastic and reliance on its accessibility, it is time to think outside the plastic bag. There are currently sustainable alternatives being used on a small-scale today, that when used on a larger scale tomorrow could become the future of packaging.
Packaging, specifically in regards to food, isn’t inherently bad. When done correctly it keeps the consumer safe, limits the amount of people coming in contact with the product, and helps keep freshness. The issue isn’t the concept of packaging itself, it’s the materials used. Materials such as plastics and polystyrene (Styrofoam), are currently the standard for cheap packaging. They are convenient, light-weight, cheap to make, and protect things from outside factors. There is unarguably an appeal, but at what cost? Oceans are filled with micro-plastics, beaches are covered with plastic bottles, and side-walks are littered with styrofoam cups.
Plastic is going to be around for thousands of years; as you read this there are approximately 8 billion tons of plastic suffocating our planet. We will see the negative effects of plastic long past the realization of how truly harmful and unnecessary it is. So then that leaves us with what we can do now to prepare for the future. The easiest most impactful shift is going to be in what kind of packaging materials are being used. There are many companies and brands looking at the past for inspiration on how to limit their post-consumer waste. Before the boom of plastic in the mid 1900s, most products were sold in either glass, clay, paper, leaves, aluminum, or better yet no packaging at all. All of these materials, some more ideal and practical than others, are great alternatives to plastic because of their ability to be recycled and reused. There are also companies looking into novel technologies and finding sustainable materials to package with. For example, there are now biodegradable plastics that only require 3-6 months to break down and companies that focus on using 100% recycled post-consumer materials for their packaging. Bamboo pulp cardboard and paper is my personal favorite option. Bamboo grows much faster in comparison to traditionally used softwood trees, while requiring a fraction of the water, land, or time. The materials used to make the product’s packaging is the real determining factor on the fate of the package, whether it will make it back to the earth, a new product, or to a landfill.
No matter the material, the consumer needs to have clear instructions on what to do with the packaging once it has served its purpose. The future of sustainable packaging will look like what companies and consumers mutually want it to look like. This can be referred to as “cradle-to-cradle”, the idea that there should be a plan in place starting with how the materials are sourced and ending with how they will be disposed in a way that they can renew again with time. This is where I really see a potential shift in attitude in regards to the future of packaging. It needs to be the responsibility of the producer to give clear instructions on the most sustainable options for how to either discard or reuse the packaging (as well as the product if needed). For example; companies could have a section on their website dedicated to listing resources on where their products can be recycled, or they could offer discounts for returning/reusing packaging from a past purchase. This is the fun part where packaging as we know it can completely shift and change to match the needs of our future.
We need new solutions for new problems and thinking of packaging in a “cradle-to-cradle” mindset allows for a different expectation on what service we need our packaging to do. The life cycle of packaging doesn’t just start at production and end once sold to the consumer, there is a much larger picture that needs to be taken into consideration. Everything these days comes in packaging, so this change while seemingly minor, can have beneficial outcomes beyond expectations. Rethink materials, rethink packaging, rethink our future.
Essay by: Valeria Acevedo
Arizona State University