The world is addicted to plastic. Plastic pollution is one of the most urgent environmental issues of our time. Each year, 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging is produced across the world and of that, only 14% is ever recycled. What isn’t recycled, ends up in the ocean. Our addiction to plastic has fueled a massive increase in the supply of disposable plastic products that has choked the world and which we have proven unable to handle. In Africa and Asia, where waste collection systems are either inefficient or nonexistent, plastic pollution is at its most visible. Yet, this visibility disguises the extent of pollution in the developed world, especially in those countries with low recycling rates. Many developed world countries struggle to collect discarded plastics. The ubiquity of plastics has caused some people to call for a global treaty under the auspices of the United Nations. Some have called this era, the Plastic Age, because of the impact that plastic pollution has had on the fossil record. This has led many people to try and develop sustainable packaging.
Creating sustainable food packaging is one of the most important aspects of the struggle to create sustainable packaging. The population growth spurt that the world has had over the last six or seven decades has resulted in an ever-rising demand, not only for food, but for the plastic that is often used to package those foods. As populations continue to rise, particularly in the developing world, the problem of plastic pollution becomes ever more critical. Yet, as awareness of the effects of plastics on the planet increases, the demand for sustainable packaging has soared.
The trouble is, recycling is hard. Not for merely behavioral reasons, but for infrastructure and resource reasons. Recycling plastics is resource-intensive, demanding a lot of electricity, water, and transportation systems. This poses a problem in the developing world where existing resources and infrastructure may be poor or non-existent and the funds to develop and improve those resources and infrastructure, lacking. It is also a problem in the wealthier nations, where political polarization may hamper the development of solutions. The other problem is one of leakage: even when plastics are recycled, they are recycled into goods that at some point will be dumped in a landfill. It is hard to escape the reality that plastics are nonrenewable and that the bulk of them are never recycled.
An important thing to note is that we use plastics so extensively because plastics are the best at what they do. If you are transporting food across long distances, and want to p-rotect it from bacteria, the elements, pressure and light, you use plastic. The shelf life of many foods can be dramatically extended through the use of plastic wrapping. Of course, the food gets eaten, but the wrapping remains forever. Plastics fulfil other useful rolves. They allow you to see what you are buying, for example. And, in terms of economics, plastics are cheap to make.
This has led many designers to try to work with plastics rather than replace them. In the developed world, recycling systems are fairly well established. The packaging industry works with thirty kinds of plastics to develop and manufacture its products. Those designers who are willing to work with plastic have been on the hunt for a single polymer group that would meet the performance requirements of packaging, could be used in existing machinery without too many adjustments being necessary, and could also be processed in existing municipal recycling systems and used to create new plastic packaging. That is a tall order and, to date, little progress has been made.
Other designers want to get rid of plastic packaging completely. An example of this is how Starbucks committed to phasing out its plastic straw by 2020 and replacing it with a sipping spout on each lid. Even though the new lids would weigh more than the old lids, the phasing out of plastic straws would result in more plastic being recycled.
Another example of how we can learn to make do without plastics, is with pasta. Pasta is normally packaged in recyclable paper-based boxes with plastic windows. When we buy dry cereals, we accept a photo of the cereal without needing to see inside the box. Perhaps we could learn to accept a photo of the pasta and get rid of the unnecessary plastic windows? There are many small ways plastics can be removed.
Other possible innovations have been promoted. MonoSol, the makers of water-soluble film technology, have in the past used their technology for dishwasher pods, but it can be used for the safe packaging of food, without affecting the smell, taste or even texture of the food, except when flavouring is added. Water soluble packaging is already used in the food industry and MonoSol believes that it can be used for packing retail portions of foods cooked with hot water. The search for sustainable packaging is well under way and will continue until scalable solutions are found.