“All the king’s horses and all the king’s men will never gather up all the plastic and put the ocean back together again.”
The debate about plastic packaging as become very emotional. As a specialist packaging design agency, we’re conscious of our responsibilities when we recommend packaging solutions to our clients. We’re also aware that the plastics story is more nuanced than it may at first appear.
After all, there are good reasons why plastic is such a popular packaging material. It’s cost-effective (although rising oil prices impact on this), can easily be made food-safe, and can be moulded into any imaginable shape. It’s this flexibility that makes plastic so important.
The flipside is that discarded plastics can take decades to degrade. Today’s straw, fork or water bottle could still be littering the planet in a century’s time – or more. People are becoming more aware of the consequences of using plastic items, but the truth is that we can’t simply stop using plastic.
If correctly sorted and processed, many kinds of plastic can be recycled. In South Africa in 2018, over a quarter of a million tonnes of plastic was recycled. As well as reducing the amount of oil used to create virgin plastics, recycling makes an important contribution to our economy – it creates jobs in collecting and sorting as well as at recycling facilities.
Rather, we’ll have to find realistic alternatives.
When we investigate these, we need to check that they tick as many boxes as plastic does. In other words, they need to be as cost-effective and easy to produce as plastic packaging.
They also need to be suitable for food and liquids and have a reduced environmental impact.
Of course, we already have alternative packaging materials in the shape of glass, paper and cardboard. These can all be recycled, at the expense of energy use (and waxed cardboard coffee cups, for example, can’t be).
Are these materials the answer? Yes, in part, although there are disadvantages to each. Discarded glass containers may never biodegrade, and paper and cardboard cannot perform every function we currently use plastic for.
We need to find packaging materials that are cheap, safe, convenient and that don’t cause pollution – and yet still work just as well as regular plastic. That’s quite a challenge, but the answer may be growing all around us in the shape of biodegradable plastics. In other words, plastic that naturally decomposes after use, without releasing any harmful substances into the environment.
Plastics can be made biodegradable by adding certain substances, but a more exciting possibility exists with bioplastics – that is, plastics that are made from renewable sources such as corn (maize) or starch.
The potential to grow plastics rather than make them from fossil fuels could be the solution to our plastics problem. Bioplastics have all the functional benefits of plastic – including ease of branding.
They don’t release carbon when they decompose, and they break down much more rapidly than conventional plastics.
However, bioplastics don’t have all the answers. They lack the clarity and structural integrity that can be achieved with regular plastics, and most tellingly of all, they are very expensive to produce.
Concerns have also been raised over the use of farmland for growing plants for bioplastic, rather than food.
Consumer education will play an important role in addressing the challenge of disposable plastic packaging causing environmental problems and doesn’t require any technological innovation. If more of us reject single-use plastic (for example, by taking our own cups when we get coffee), and if we reuse and recycle the plastic that does come into our lives, we can make a difference, individually and collectively.
Ultimately, as with so many of the challenges we face, there is no single or simple answer. Rather, it’s most likely that a combined approach will be successful, involving more responsible use of conventional plastic, changing consumer behaviour, and investment into viable alternatives to plastic.