The Changing Packaging Landscape
The consequences of high demand shipping and fast- moving consumer goods have changed the landscape of packaging. With the importance of positive unboxing experiences as well as environmentally responsible materials, packaging design has been changing at rapid speed and we’ve seen the use of plastic within packaging evolving just as quickly.
Plastics and Sustainability
The packaging industry is very dependent on plastics and as we’ve seen a shift for more eco-friendly, sustainable packaging, and the types of plastics being used. With this new objective, a circular strategy has been implemented which has the potential to improve the economy and environment drastically.
Recovering and Reusing
Collectively, U.S. plastic resin producers have made a goal to recycle and/or recover all plastic packaging in the next 20 years. A lofty, yet achievable, plan that will support retailers, produce quality consumer goods, and improve sustainability. With so many different and innovative solutions being developed, plastic packaging will remain a trusted way to keep items fresh, clean and sterile while reducing the amount of contamination and waste.
The circular initiative encourages packaging and other plastic-end products to be designed for reuse and recycling purposes, encouraging the end-user to fulfill that cycle. Rather than designing packaging that is traditionally unboxed and tossed away, different plastic solutions need to be explored that make the consumer stray away from a one time use. For example, more durable, plastics could lead to the return/reuse of the packaging. The overall goal is to give plastic packaging a more responsible life cycle.
There have been standards set to help plastic packaging reach these goals and complete this circular life cycle. Operation Clean Sweep (OCS) is dedicated to helping every plastic resin handling operation “achieve zero pellet, flake and powder loss.” Companies are encouraged to take the OCS pledge and commit to minimizing accidental releases of raw material into the environment and keep the majority in use while also promoting the OCS mission. OCS-Blue is an even higher commitment that these companies are promising to provide performance data on these plastic resins that will be publicly released and aid in overall performance. Some examples of what OCS-Blue members commit to are:
– Provide education on the OCS program as part of the company’s new employee onboarding
– Educate shipping contractors to help them understand the importance of OCS, sharing the OCS transportation brochure
– Annually share with the Plastics Industry Association information on the company’s best management practices (BMPs) for implementation of its OCS blue Membership commitments. This information will be used in OCS literature and on the OCS website.
– Plan and deliver a briefing on OCS annually to all relevant resin handling employees.
Not all plastics are created equally though. There are three main categories of plastics, each with different components and levels of recyclability. In order to comprehend the sustainability of different plastic “families”, it is necessary to consider the entire lifespan of the plastic, keeping in mind that recycling and composting materials is only beneficial when done to completion and seeing the cycle go full circle.
Traditional Plastics: Traditional plastics can sometimes be recycled but are almost never degradable. For example, water bottles.
– Pros: Cost-effective, Recyclable and/or reusable, Durable
– Cons: Entirely artificial, Will never decompose naturally, Largest source of pollution
Biodegradable Plastics: Biodegradable plastics can be broken down eventually with the help of microorganisms but may leave behind toxic residue.
– Pros: Entirely degradable, Degrade quickly, Reduce waste accumulation
– Cons: May leave toxic residue behind, Can only degrade under proper conditions, Not recyclable/reusable
Bioplastics: Bioplastics are made of natural, renewable materials and will decompose naturally under the right conditions.
– Pros: Entirely natural, Compostable, Harmless to the environment, Made from accessible materials
– Cons: Can be expensive, May not be durable
Understanding Plastic Packaging
It can be recycled, but will it be recycled? Most traditional plastics are technically recyclable, but it is usually up to the consumer to make sure the material is going to the proper recycling center. Throwing plastics in the recycling bin is not a guarantee that they will be recycled.
Traditional plastics will not decompose on their own. For the same reason, that plastic is one of the most durable materials, it can take up to 1000 years to decompose naturally. That being said, many traditional plastics can be degraded with certain additives.
It’s important to note, “recyclable” does NOT equal reusable. Plastics that are harder to break down and recycle may sometimes be repurposed instead, but other plastics than can be recycled easily may not be safe for reuse. Recycled plastics do not remove their environmental effects. It is worth mentioning that recycling plastic only reduces the production of new plastic, but the waste remains relatively toxic for the environment.
Sustainable Plastic Packaging – Biodegradable Plastics
Biodegradable products typically take around three to six months to decompose. Biodegradation can occur through oxygen, water, or light depending on the chemical process applied to the plastic. Biodegradable plastics and Bioplastics are not to be confused though. While often used interchangeably, the largest difference between biodegradable plastics and bioplastics is that bioplastics are made entirely from natural materials, which not only makes them degradable but also compostable.
Biodegradable isn’t always good for the environment. Unlike bioplastics, there is no guarantee that biodegradable products will decompose into natural substances. Since the plastics are still made from chemicals, there is a chance of the plastic leaving behind toxic residue after it decomposes.
These plastics can only break down under proper conditions. Even if biodegradable plastics are made to decompose without toxic residue, they will not break down if improperly disposed of. When biodegradable plastics end up in landfills or oceans, they are most often just as harmful as regular plastics are. Biodegradable products should not be recycled. Unlike traditional plastics, biodegradable plastics are not meant to be recycled or reused.
Natural and Renewable – Bioplastics
Bioplastics are plastics made entirely of natural materials and for the same reason, most are able to decompose naturally through composting. However, bioplastics that are made to be durable may not be biodegradable. Bioplastics that will biodegrade can be separated into bio-based (plant-based) plastics and biomass-based (starch and cellulose) plastics. PHA and PLA are the two kinds of bio-based plastics, while Cellulose Acetate and Starch are the primary biomass-based plastics.
Common uses: Packaging materials, agricultural applications, medical devices, disposable personal hygiene products
Pros: At-home composting, water insoluble and relatively water-resistant, good ultraviolet resistance, biocompatible, nontoxic
Cons: Poor resistance to acids and bases, can be sticky when melted
Polylactide Acid (PLA)
Common uses: Packaging and paper coating, mulch films and compost bags
Comparable to Polystyrene(PS), Polypropylene (PP) or Polyethylene (PE)
Pros: Easily manufactured, cost-effective, can be used as shrinkwrap
Cons: Takes longer to decompose, hard to compost at home, poor heat resistance
– Wood and bamboo
– Paper with plastic lining
Existing Sustainable Packaging
– Alter Eco: Utilizes renewable, plant-based materials for its packaging and wrapping
– Captain Blankenship: Makes its packaging from 100% recovered and recycled ocean plastic, as well as recyclable paperboard
– Seed Phytonutrients: Found in Sephora products, it uses 100% post-consumer paper and plastic liner so that the paper is able to get wet and dry without crumbling.
Creating a New Cycle
As consumers have been rethinking packaging and how to use environmentally responsible materials, packaging design has been changing rapidly. Specifically when it comes to plastics. Ensuring plastic packaging is sourced smartly and contributes to the circular strategy of being reused and recycled, we are seeing a change in how companies and manufacturers use plastics as a whole.
For more information on packaging or to discuss Beyond’s packaging strategies and resources, please drop us a note at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for reading!