The plastic packaging conundrum

Published on: 21st September 2018

In the wake of the ‘Blue Planet’ effect, the world is finally sitting up and taking notice of the problems of ocean waste. High profile media coverage and public pressure are succeeding in influencing change as manufacturers are forced to respond to consumer demands and governments introduce levies on single-use coffee cups and plastic bags or ban plastic straws and cotton buds. These items were vividly highlighted in the BBC documentary so appear to be the most obvious target for public and political action. Unfortunately, they barely scratch the surface. Dubbed the supervillain of the ocean waste crisis, plastic packaging is undoubtedly facing the greatest criticism and major changes are essential in order to improve the situation.

When I hear that 21% of us believe that we should opt for entirely petrochemical plastic-free packaging, alarm bells start ringing. Based on observations and experiences in FMCG packaging over the years, I know that what appear to be obvious alternatives and the saviours to the problem will gain popularity with the masses but could actually introduce significant problems elsewhere.

I have compiled a list of 10 plastic packaging sustainability solutions currently being discussed. For each solution, I can highlight its virtues but also offer a counterpoint thus illustrating the conundrum we face when selecting the right approach.


1. Bio plastics

Logic would suggest that plastics created from renewable organic resources rather than oil are a better long-term option for the planet. However, the availability of land for agriculture is becoming more stretched to meet the demands of food production. As the global population expands, using the land for crops such as corn or sugarcane to produce bioplastics could mean that we could be creating problems for food production elsewhere on the planet. Seeking endorsements from organisations such as the Rainforest Alliance or Fairtrade, and clearly communicating this on pack might allow consumers to base their choices on ethical merits.


2. Biodegradable plastics

Plastic bottles, bags, and films can take 100s of years to break down. Accelerating their degradation so that they can be used to fertilise the soil must be a good thing. Yet, biodegradable plastics shouldn't be confused with compostable plastics and can’t simply be thrown into our garden compost bin. They require specific conditions in commercial composters in order to break down into a useful product. Biodegradable plastics can be difficult to distinguish from petroleum-based plastics and can actually contaminate existing sorting streams rendering recyclate batches useless. They can also generate harmful greenhouse gases through decomposition if they accidentally make it into landfill so clear labelling, better public information, and new recycling technologies will be required to accompany the uptake of this route.


3. Compostable plastics

Quickly breaking packaging materials down into nutrient-rich compost at home benefits the soil and removes packaging materials from government waste collection. In order to qualify as compostable, a plastic must biodegrade by 90% within a few months, must be made of at least 50% organic materials and mustn't leave behind any toxic residue. Not everyone has garden composting facilities and the volume of packaging waste produced by each household per year may produce an unmanageable volume of compost to practically use on the average garden. Domestic indoor composters are being developed which could deal with this material but might also require compost collection services, particularly for those living in apartments.


4. Edible packaging

Nature has provided perfectly good examples of protective edible skins in fruits etc so why not try to emulate this with packaging. The need to wrap cucumbers in plastic film or package a single pre-peeled orange in a clam pack is rightly considered unnecessary. The protection of food from contamination throughout transportation and storage is an essential function of packaging so consumers are unlikely to want to ingest an edible shell that could have been compromised at any point in its journey from source. As the pack itself also becomes a perishable element this solution could actually contribute to an increase in food waste. Edible packaging is likely to be a better option for take-away food rather than off the shelf products.


5. Re-usable packaging

Packs that can be utilised for other purposes beyond their primary use could mean that they are kept out of the waste management loop altogether. Although reusable packaging may work for occasionally purchased products, consumers are unlikely to continually find uses for high-frequency consumables like yoghurt pots etc. Refillable packs seem to be a more realistic alternative and one that was once the norm for many grocery items. Some niche stores are dedicated to this service but larger retailers will take time to develop the infrastructure to support its widespread adoption.


6. Recycled plastics

As more recyclable materials are kept out of landfill we will have a greater quantity of recycled plastics available to make new bottles. There is a danger, however, that as more manufacturers move towards increasing their percentage of recyclates in new bottles the availability of recycled PET becomes more scarce. The UK Plastics Pact target, to ensure there is 30% average recycled content across all plastic packaging, is great but relies on a significant increase in the levels of plastic recovery and assumes that we continue making packaging out of the type of plastic we are seeking to replace!


7. Flexible packs

Moving from rigid packaging containers into flexible pouches means that we use less material to package the same quantity. However, flexible packs can not only be difficult to handle in production but also by consumers (particularly the elderly). They require more substantial transit/in-store packaging compared to their rigid packaging alternatives. The design of smart refill systems and changes in consumer behaviour would make these formats more viable.


8. Single Polymers

Many bottles, food trays, and films are made of multi-layered materials which cannot be separated and recycled so we should only make plastic packaging from a single polymer. However, many of these multilayer materials have been specifically engineered to offer particular functional benefits such as great barrier properties that ensure longer shelf life. Shifting away from these high performing materials could require more material to create thicker walls, but they are also likely to reduce shelf-life and again increase food waste. More sophisticated recycling, not less sophisticated materials is surely a better option.


9. Deposit returns

There is a big drive to reduce litter and landfill through either taxation or reward schemes by offering a small cash sum to consumers who return their bottles and cans. Some evidence suggests that this could divert the more easily sorted and therefore more valuable materials away from our fledgeling waste recycling industry. This could undermine the already established and effective kerbside collection and could be a backward step in our journey towards more sustainable systems. Deposit return systems have proven to be successful in other countries so it should be possible to find a solution that accommodates both schemes.


10. Product compaction

Reducing the size of the pack contents allows the size and weight of the pack to be reduced too. Shipping less water or utilising transportation pallets more efficiently is not only good for the environment but makes good financial sense for manufacturers. However, consumer confusion could lead to underdosing or overdosing which can actually cause an increase in consumption or create a health risk. Clever pack design, graphic communication, and media support could all be employed to overcome the risks to this positive solution.


Sounds difficult, so how do we move forward?

There is no magic bullet to fixing the issue of plastic packaging waste but, as we have recently seen, having it high on the agenda will undoubtedly help accelerate us towards better solutions.

There is no doubt that our disposable culture is at the root of our waste crisis. The long-term health of our planet is dependent on comprehensive systemic solutions to be found by businesses, the government and the public. Each will need to acknowledge a level of compromise:

  • Manufacturers will need to acknowledge that there will be inevitable compromises on revenue as they invest in new production processes, or find their product out of favour and liable to incur tax levies.
  • Governments will need to acknowledge that significant investment will need to be made in improving our waste management infrastructure nationwide, as well as educating the public on new initiatives.
  • Retailers and Consumers will need to acknowledge that there will be some inevitable compromises on convenience that will require a shift in their existing consumption and disposal habits.

Designers have a good understanding of consumers, brands and technical manufacturing constraints which mean that we are uniquely positioned to help navigate this minefield and offer an informed view on the trade-offs.

Our researchers can provide deep insights into the consumer barriers and evaluate handling characteristics of new pack formats, our materials specialists can aid in the identification of the most appropriate material applications, our designers can ensure that the brand equities are maintained and the packs remain relevant and desirable, our engineers can work with material processors to ensure new designs are technically feasible. By looking at how we make and unmake everything, we may actually be able to offer solutions that also make good business sense in the circular economy.

The recent announcement of the UK Plastics Pact is a welcome start to addressing the crisis we are facing and, hopefully, will trigger other countries to follow. As 60% of the plastic waste entering the world’s seas come from just 5 countries in Asia (compared to only 0.2% from the UK), our success in improving the long-term prospects of the planet lies in our ability to change the consumption and disposal habits in parts of the world where we have less of a voice. The advantage of working with global brands is that we have the potential for much greater impact by influencing change through smart design.


Written by Dai Sanders, Consumer Sector Manager