Sea of Plastic
As we celebrate Earth Day, there are some glimmers of hope on the the horizon. A great deal has been achieved in the last 20 years, particularly in the field of recycling. Nowadays there is barely a corporation or small business that doesn't have an environmental policy, but the trick is to get beyond the sometimes very convincing virtue-signalling and drill down to the nitty gritty. Packaging design must do more to help.
Whilst all packaging contributes to global warming to a greater or lesser extent, discarded waste plastics are also a unique threat to wildlife, and especially marine life, because of the time they take to degrade. Even micro plastics can be ingested by filter feeders, then larger animals up the food chain build up toxins, leading to illness or death.
In March this year, researchers found micro plastics in human blood for the first time:
Source: Down To Earth
Over time, more and more types of packaging have been accommodated by the recycling system. This takes the pressure off manufacturers, whose products tend to be judged by consumers based on whether they can be recycled or not. The relatively recent widespread acceptance of most types of thermoformed plastics (trays, yoghurt pots etc.) for recycling is certainly convenient for producers and consumers, but it sends mixed messages when recycling is already confusing enough. Suddenly most plastic packaging is OK, because you can recycle it.
It is also worrying how supermarkets are controlling the recyclability narrative.
Although it is true that packaging can help to reduce food waste in some instances, this shouldn’t be used to justify the introduction of ‘protective’ packaging for goods that don't really need it, notably fruit and vegetables. The packaging may well reduce product waste to some extent, but for the retailer it has the added benefit of presentation and portion control, making the products look more premium, whilst being easier for the customer to scan at the checkout.
Realistically, the majority of consumers are well aware that they should cut down their use of plastic, both for their fossil-based content and the dangers they pose to wildlife. However, faced with the rows of convenience packaging dominating supermarket shelves, consumers understandably will go for the easy option: Prepared fresh fruit and vegetables, ready meals, salad pots, etc. Yet for some of us supermarket shelves are a sea of newly guilt-free recyclable plastic.
Coastal Microplastic Flatlay. Source: Dan Lewis via Unsplash
But help is at hand...
The focus for packaging is very much on reducing single-use plastics, and two new developments will simultaneously help reduce plastics and improve recycling.
The first is legislation in the form of the UK Plastic Packaging Tax, introduced this very month, which levies £200 per tonne of packaging with less than 30% plastic content. It will put pressure both on plastics users to reduce virgin plastics imports and help the recycling industry find a market for its recycled plastic, so less of it will end up being incinerated. It may even encourage efforts towards genuine packaging Reuse systems, avoiding recycling altogether.
The second development is the Plastics Pact which is a voluntary scheme, whereby participating organisations sign up to a code of best practice to eliminate problem plastics and ensure that plastic packaging is designed for easy recycling. Hopefully it will result in the removal of certain non-recyclable plastics, like PVC and expanded polystyrene, and put an end to plastic bottles with non-removable tops and over-large shrink-sleeving.
Self-policing by the the packaging and retail industries comes a distant second to actual legislation, but it is a step in the right direction.
Many products are still over-packaged and recycling is only part of the answer. Material reduction and reuse are usually better solutions, and other more sustainable materials can often be found to do the same job.
Less is more. Lets buy less and use less packaging… Happy Earth Day!
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