Can we find a solution to the plastics problem?
A dominant theme in packaging today is sustainability. It seems to be at the core of every packaging conversation, and plastics, in particular, are the villain du jour.
As I walked the recent PACK EXPO Las Vegas, I saw booth after booth where exhibitors were touting their sustainability efforts. Among flexible packaging companies, many companies were displaying pouches made from monomaterials so the packaging would technically be recyclable (only if it can be collected and processed locally). Equipment suppliers discussed how their machines can easily handle lighter weight films. Consultants delivered presentations on how the industry should handle the plastics dilemma, promoting everything from biodegradation to pyrolysis.
Meanwhile, brand owners continue their search for solutions. After all, many of the world’s largest consumer goods companies have made commitments to make plastic packaging more recyclable, reusable, compostable or from recycled content by 2025. The clock is ticking.
But is it all for naught? A recent Greenpeace USA report warns consumers to be skeptical of the solutions announced by multinational corporations to tackle the plastic pollution crisis. “These false solutions, such as switching to paper or ‘bioplastics,’ or embracing chemical recycling, are failing to move us away from single-use packaging and divert attention away from beneficial systems that prioritize refill and reuse,” the report states.
At the same time, MIT researcher Andrew McAfee says we’d be better off putting our plastic waste into well-managed landfills. “Recycling plastic uses up a lot of resources, and after all the hauling around, sorting, and processing of bottles and containers, it often ends up getting thrown away or burned,” he claims. The article includes a report published in Science Advances suggesting only 9 percent of the plastic used is recycled, while consulting firm McKinsey estimates just 16 percent of plastics are reprocessed and turned into new plastic goods.
Cheryl Baldwin, a sustainability consultant with Pure Strategies, offers her suggestion: “With rising demand for plastic, little recycled content and poor recycling rates, companies need to look carefully at their packaging strategies to ensure improvement of packaging design, recycling systems and consumer engagement in recycling.”
She says smarter packaging design is key to the solution. To meet the Ellen MacArthur Foundation’s New Plastics Economy Global Commitment, packaging companies and CPGs must:
- Eliminate all problematic and unnecessary plastic items.
- Innovate to ensure that the plastics we do need are reusable, recyclable or compostable.
- Circulate all the plastic items we use to keep them in the economy and out of the environment.
While I find truth in all these ideas, I know that those of us in the industry will be hard-pressed to follow through and completely eliminate the plastics problem. Its use will continue because plastics are simply an ideal material for packaging that offers many benefits that protect a product.
But we can’t stop trying, can we?
John Kalkowski, Editor-in-Chief
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