Studies have confirmed that only 14% of 78 million metric tons of plastic packaging is recycled every year.
It was also revealed that nine million tons of plastic waste flow into the oceans, which is a common problem in most developing nations across the continent.
Experts also estimate that the problem would get worse in the coming years. As the nations get richer, citizens start to consume more packaged foods while others consider buying grocery or meal-kit services.
But how did plastic change the world? When did the throwaway culture start? Are there safer and eco-friendlier packaging alternatives? In this comprehensive guide, you will know them all! Enjoy!
How Plastic Changed the World — A Brief History
In the 20th century, food companies started manufacturing and using cellophane (commonly called a flexible wrap) made from plants.
With the public’s high demand, chemists imitated this polymer with less toxic polyethylene, polyvinyl chloride, and other components to create Saran Wrap.
Unlike cellophane, Saran Wrap is not compostable.
In the 1970s, Capri Sun, a German-based juice concentrate company, provided its products in a gusseted pouch.
Packed with ultra-thin layers of aluminum foil and plastic, the gusseted pouches were found to be effective in keeping food fresh even without refrigeration. They were also shipped flat, saving space.
From juice drinks, the gusseted pouches were used in pickles, tuna, pet food, to tomato paste. The research confirmed that more than 92 billion pouches are manufactured in the US every year.
Also, recycling companies encounter some trouble separating the heterogenous layers in pouches.
With the alarming tons of plastic packaging that end up in landfills and go in the ocean, designers, recyclers, engineers, investors, and biologists work together to develop packaging that falls in the mandates of the circular economy.
What is it? It is a design framework that cycles any old material back into a high-value product, emphasizing remanufacturing, long-lasting design, and reuse.
How does it work? Goods cycle in two common loops in the circular economy. One recovers metals/polymers for reuse. The other returns the materials to nature with composting programs.
A Swedish research institute, RISE, has also made a flat cellulose-based container for spices and other freeze-dried veggies.
Every time diners add hot water into the container, its folds stretch into a compostable bowl.
The Wyss Institute at Harvard University created a cost-effective, clear, and completely compostable plastic called Shrilk.
Made of a silk protein and chitosan, Shrilk is used to make rigid shapes. However, it has not been introduced into food packaging yet.
A Compostable Future Depends on the Access to Compost Systems
A compostable future is dependent on access to municipal compost systems.
Over the years, municipalities in the US, Canada, and Europe have been setting compost systems.
But it is not enough. In New York City, for instance, plastic waste far exceeds the capacity of processors. That is why investors are still hesitant to build the facilities.
Are There Eco-Friendlier and Safer Alternatives?
Definitely! Since recycling systems are highly accessible, many designers stick with plastics.
Currently, several plastics are used in food packaging. Despite that, experts aim to look for a single polymer group that exceeds performance requirements or demands minimal equipment changes. But still, they are unable to develop that product.
While experts are on the hunt for a super environmentally friendly plastic, some people strive to reduce disposable packaging. There is also a great solution of using smart packaging, which is a sustainable solution for all cases. Here are a few prominent companies that eliminated their single-use packaging:
Starbucks surprised many of their valued customers when the company announced that they were phasing out plastic straws in their 30,000 stores worldwide with an elongated sipping spout.
Unlike straws, the new cold drink lid uses 9% less plastic. In terms of design, the Nitro lid has a wider mouth to guarantee optimal sips of the liquid.
MonoSol, a US-based company, also manufactures a wide variety of ethylene packed polymers that dissolve when exposed to water.
Commonly used for laundry pods and dishwashers, the ethylene-based polymer is a proven, safe, and effective food packaging to contain food, according to regulators from the US and Europe.
With its potential, most companies in the food-service sector have switched to melt-away packaging.
What’s more, the polymer does not affect the taste, smell, and texture of the food unless extra flavorings are added.
Tomorrow Machine, a Swedish design studio, also developed a food packaging line called This Too Shall Pass, which consists of a bottle of cooking oil made from wax and caramelized sugar. It is then cracked to release and use the oil. It is easy and proven to avoid single-use plastic that ends up in landfills.
That’s not all. Tomorrow Machine designs a pouch for refrigerated liquids. Made from seaweed, Tomorrow Machine claims that the pouch is long-lasting.
Tomorrow Machine designed a pyramid-shaped package with a colored beeswax for other dry goods, attracting attention from many. Still, it remains a concept.
How Do Meal-Kit Delivery Services Adapt to Sustainability?
Meal-kit delivery services have been gaining massive popularity, and the market is estimated to increase in 2023.
Despite the convenience, meal-kit delivery services are accompanied by mountains of less sustainable ice packs, Styrofoam packaging, and bubble film.
But not all companies are the same.
Temperpack, a 3-year-old startup, provides meals in recyclable shipping boxes. Each composes of Kraft paper stuffed with a foam that melts to fiber as time goes by.
Temperpack claims that ClimaCell foam only generates one-tenth of the greenhouse gases produced by polystyrene peanuts.
Is It Possible to Have a Package-Free Living?
Of course! It is possible. Many retailers follow the trend. A famous supermarket in the Netherlands, Ekoplaza, devotes an aisle to approximately 700 plastic-free goods.
Specifically, every item is wrapped in a certified compostable plastic.
The British retailer, Iceland, started reducing plastic packaging with returnable glass bottles. While it led to concerns from critics, a Czech delivery system, MIWA, made it happen by collecting and returning reusable capsules and containers to producers.
Overall, the secret to reducing plastic packaging that goes in oceans is discipline. If the habit of recycling and reusing is ingrained in our minds, global warming will not be worse than we have expected. But it is never too late. Together, we can make the impossible possible.