Completing the Plastic Packaging Circle

These days, you can’t walk through a natural products grocery store without noticing the endless displays of food products packaged in plastic clamshells and non-recyclable stand-up pouches. For the food product manufacturer, they’re strong, light and cheap. For the consumer, they’re convenient. But for the planet, they’re bad. And that affects us all.

In 2014, there were 311 million tons of plastic products and packaging produced globally, according to a report called The New Plastics Economy – Rethinking the future of plastics, published by the World Economic Forum, Ellen MacArthur Foundation and McKinsey & Company. That number is expected to rise to 1,124 million tons by 2050. All this plastic production, of which packaging represent about one quarter, creates numerous challenges for the environment. Only 14% of plastic packaging is collected for recycling. And 8 million tons leak into the world’s oceans each year, according to the report. The rest ends up in landfills where it decomposes into microplastics that stay there for decades to centuries. And plastics are manufactured from petroleum products. The extraction and production of these products contribute to greenhouse gas emissions and subsequent global warming.

Although the over-reliance on the use of plastics causes us many problems, there are also many solutions available. One such solution is public policy changes. We can increase taxes on plastics as a way of incentivizing manufacturers to use other more sustainable materials. Another public policy change is currently being proposed in the Minnesota state legislature that would force manufacturers of plastic products to help pay for the recycling of those plastics. There are similar proposals in other state legislatures, but none of them have passed yet.

Another solution is a public-private partnership like the Arizona Center for Algae Technology and Innovation. This research center at Arizona State University studies, collaborates, and helps private companies launch alternative uses for algae. Recently researchers at the center have discovered it is possible to make a bioplastic out of algae that would break down like wood or other natural materials.

Private sector solutions are encouraging too. Innovative companies are using biodegradable bioplastics made from sugar cane and corn for industries such as medicine, food, toys, and apparel. Things like disposable knives and forks made from bioplastics will completely biodegrade if composted properly. And about all those stand-up pouches lining the shelves at your local natural products retailer? Now there’s stand-up pouches made from recyclable mono type plastics (unlike regular plastic pouches which aren’t recyclable) and from compostable materials.

Ultimately it will take a combination of these solutions to curb our consumption of plastic. Packaging designers have a role too, when designing new packaging for their clients. Consumers can also affect changes by rewarding brands that use sustainable packaging with their purchasing decisions.

Bentley Brands is a brand communications firm that helps clients in the natural products industry grow their brands through unique, effective and highly personalized services.

stacks of bundled plastic waste
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