Plastic packaging took a hit in 2018 with the rise in global awareness of the impact it has on the environment. There is increased media coverage about plastic debris on ocean life and, needless to say, little of it has been positive press.

Macro and Microplastics

The Ocean Wise team in Vancouver, Canada presented some interesting statistics from their research in the Pacific Ocean. The findings reveal a significant presence of macro and microplastics in the water. When plastic breaks down, it does not disintegrate rather it finds its way into sea life and even sea salt. It is safe to say that 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? Plastics do have their place and they play an 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. Statistics show the carbon footprint of producing food is much higher than that of packaging. 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 and dispose of packaging materials. Packaging of any kind does not belong in nature. The key to protecting wildlife and the environment is to dispose of our waste responsibly.

The first rule of thumb in the waste hierarchy is 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 are 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 with some more common and more readily recyclable 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 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

To meet the needs of product protection, there is often a requirement to use several types of materials such as in multi-layer plastic pouches.  We have seen the growth in stand-up pouch bags replacing jars, boxes, bottles, and bags because they offer the necessary barrier properties, great graphics, and are lightweight and less bulky. In addition, they do not dent or break during shipping.  However, these multi-layer laminated structures are expensive to recover and recycle.

As a result, there is a trade-off because life cycle assessments comparing flexible plastics to other materials generally present a more sustainable option. The good news is efforts are underway to recover and recycle these flexible plastics. For instance, effective early 2019, Recycle BC will be collecting multi-layer plastic packaging at all depots in British Columbia.

Stand up pouch examplesThe circular economy promotes package optimization through design by 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 the lack of a standard system in place for recovering these materials. Fortunately, efforts are underway to harmonize practices for effective collection and repurposing of these flexible plastics.

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 how to dispose of the packaging to your consumer.

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

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