Somewhere out there, every piece of plastic you’ve ever seen or touched is still laying around. It may even be inside you, broken down into pieces small enough to be inside the food we eat and the water we drink.
When I throw away a piece of plastic, I feel guilt. I feel shame, because I feel that by contributing to plastic waste, I’m part of the problem, not the solution. But I only feel that way in the moment, because it’s easy to forget that it is a myth perpetrated by massive corporations that care more about using their wealth and power to keep shareholders complacent than keeping the environment clean that the global scale of global pollution that we see is somehow caused by a widespread lack of personal responsibility and not systemic failure to keep those corporations accountable for their actions. Coca-Cola, for instance, is one of the biggest polluters on Earth.
It’s obvious why pressure is mounting on large-scale sellers and shipping companies to drop single use plastics altogether. That being said, there will only be change once it is compelled by financial incentive or legal mandate, but some combination of one or both is bound to happen eventually. The question then is, what is the future of sustainable packaging?
Before going any further, I want to point out that plastic isn’t prevalent without good reason. It’s just too bad that a material popular for its low cost, ease of manufacture, versatility, strength, light weight, and durability, is used for things only intended to be thrown away. It seems that more and more people are recognizing this issue, as biodegradable and recycled packaging grows in popularity; so many pieces of packaging these days brag about being “x% post-consumer” content.
That being said, great efforts are underway by biological researchers to make plastic-eating bacteria a feasible option for reducing the amount of plastic waste in the environment. In the future, a common practice might be employing such bacteria in landfills, or maybe even including these bacteria with consumer packaging, either embedded in the packaging to ensure that the plastic eventually disappears, or as a separate container for consumers to add to their garbage.
In the meantime, an intermediate solution might be to cut down on the number of types of plastic. On many kinds of plastic packaging, one can often see a recycling symbol with a number in it from 1 to 7. These symbols represent the kind of plastic the packaging is, and by extension, what may need to be done to recycle it. Numbers 1 and 2, representing Polyethylene Terephthalate (PETE) and High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) respectively, are by far the most commonly and easily recyclable kinds of plastic; a typical recycling facility is likely to have the resources for dealing with these plastics, but not others. Therefore, regulation or consumer action demanding that companies reduce plastic use to these kinds as much as possible would benefit the environment.
In conclusion, the future of sustainable packaging does not lie with plastic, but rather with biodegradable replacements, and between then and now, methods for managing all the plastic we already have to deal with will have to fill the gap.
Essay by: Brian McGarry
Louisiana State University and Agricultural and Mechanical College