Plastic packaging has taken quite a hit this year. With the rise in global awareness around the impact of plastics and the environment, there has been increased coverage on the impact of plastic debris on ocean life. Needless to say, little of it has been positive press.

Macro and Microplastics

We met with the Ocean Wise team here in Vancouver, where they presented some interesting statistics from their research in the Pacific Ocean. To date, the findings reveal a significant presence of macro and microplastics in the water. When plastic breaks down, it doesn’t disintegrate rather it finds its way into sea life and even sea salt. I think it is safe to say that we agree plastics do not belong in our oceans, on our beaches or in our forests.Ocean Wise Microplastics

So why are we seeing so much plastic packaging in the market? That is because plastics do have their place and they play a very important role in our day to day lives. Plastic packaging is instrumental in protecting, preserving and extending the shelf life of foods and beverages, particularly fresh and shelf stable items and statistics show that the carbon footprint of producing food is much higher than that of packaging. In addition, plastics are lightweight, durable, and incredibly versatile making them an ideal material for many applications.

“Plastic packaging is instrumental in protecting, preserving and extending the shelf life of foods and beverages, particularly fresh and shelf stable items.”

The real issue is how we use packaging materials and how we dispose of them. Packaging of any kind does not belong in nature so any effort we make to dispose of our waste responsibly is a key to protecting the wildlife and our environment.

The first rule of thumb in the waste hierarchy is always to reduce our use. We can reduce by not using the packaging at all, such as straws, take out cups and shopping bags. Other ways to reduce is by decreasing the number of raw materials and finding alternative materials with higher yields. Manufacturers have been ‘light-weighting’ packaging for years to not only reduce use but to also manage cost.

“Manufacturers have been ‘light-weighting’ packaging for years to not only reduce use but to also manage cost.”

How Plastic is recycled - Plastic pellets
Recycled post consumer resin pellets

There are many types of plastics materials used in packaging and some are more common and more readily recycled than others. It is expensive to collect, separate, recycle and find markets for the materials. The ideal situation is to recycle the post consumer plastics back into its original use in order to retain a higher value. For instance, shopping bags can be recycled back into raw materials, resin pellets, to be reused in packaging again. Plastic water bottles are collected and recycled again and again but that is not the case with all plastics.

Multi-layer Laminated Structures are Difficult and Costly to Recycle

Often times, in order to meet all the needs of a product, there is a requirement to use multiple types of materials such as multi-layer plastic pouches or what we call multi-layer laminated structures. The issue with them is that because they are multi-material recycling is difficult and costly.  We have seen the growth in stand-up pouch bags replacing jars, boxes, bottles, and bags and there are several reasons for this growth.  They offer the necessary barrier properties, great graphics, are lightweight and less bulky than other materials. In addition, they do not dent or break during shipping.

As a result, there is a trade-off because when we conduct a life cycle assessment comparing products packaged in flexible plastics to other materials, the plastics generally present a more sustainable option. Efforts are currently underway to recover and recycle these flexible plastics. For instance, Recycle BC will be collecting multi-layer plastic packaging at all depots in British Columbia, effective January 2019.

Stand up pouch examplesThe circular economy promotes optimizing packaging through design with the thought to keeping the materials circulating for as long as possible. This requires an understanding of how the package will be disposed of at its end of life. The challenge is that there is no standard system in place for recovering these materials. Fortunately, there are efforts being made to harmonize practices to enable materials to be collected and repurposed effectively.

Three Things You Can Do

1. Design your packaging with sustainability in mind. Use common materials and ensure you understand where the packages will end up after consumer use. For more information, see our blog post, How to Design Sustainable Packaging, and the white paper, Ocean Plastics, What the Packaging Industry Can Do, published by Ocean Wise and PAC, Packaging Consortium, October 2018.

2. Communicate to your consumer how to dispose of the packaging.

3. Qualify your sustainability claims and make sure you can support them with data.

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