Updated: Sep 22
Moving away from single use plastic packaging is imperative to curb the damage being done to our world. Not only are people waking up to the longevity and wastefulness of packaging, but countries in Asia that until recently accepted plastic waste from the West for low cost recycling, have stopped accepting the duty of recycling for us. Therefore returning the burden of our plastic waste to us. In response to the demand to shift towards more sustainable packaging options, a flurry of R&D into new eco-packaging materials and methods has begun.
These can be largely divided into two categories, the packing itself, and the way it is produced.
The first area that needs to be addressed is improving the sustainability of packaging producing machines and methods. Energy efficiency, along with water use and chemical waste production are all key elements that need to be looked at when developing an eco-friendly new packaging type. Utilising machinery which uses less resources, doesn’t produce toxic substances, as well as potentially runs on renewable energy will go a long way to reducing a company’s environmental impact.
So what actually are sustainable packaging materials? Well, they offer the same functionality as the regular packaging that they replace, whether that be waterproofing, impact protection, safety etc., while reducing the environmental impact to a minimum. Traditionally, sustainable packaging has focussed on biodegradable or compostable options, however new initiatives are also looking at sustainable packaging options that include reusable and recyclable packaging.
Interest in ethical and environmentally friendly food types and diets have increased hugely over the past few years, and to keep pace with these ethical and sustainably minded consumers, many companies have started offering greener packaging options with their food products. For example, Sainsbury's and M&S have decided to choose a maize-based packaging on some of their products in the near future.
Compostable versus biodegradable
But what is the difference between biodegradable packaging, and compostable packaging? The aim for most companies using these sorts of packaging products will be compostable over biodegradable. This is because there are no stipulations as to how long biodegradable packaging takes to break down, while compostable products must break down within 90 days, and leave no toxic residue behind.
Sustainable doesn’t just mean compostable and biodegradable, in fact it requires a lot of energy to produce new packaging again and again, sustainable or otherwise, however, what uses much less energy is making reusable packaging. Reusable products are a central tenet of the circular economy, the idea that reusing everything, instead of extracting more resources to create products is the most sustainable way we can exist.
The Loop initiative
The Loop initiative is a packaging plan agreed to by major companies including Nestle, Unilever, and Proctor & Gamble, which uses durable, refillable packaging again and again. This approach is working well in cosmetics, personal care, food and retail. This idea isn't new, just think back to when milk was delivered in glass bottles that were collected when finished (also on an electric milk float for extra points!). Many supermarkets are trialling refillable and waste free aisles following the success of zero waste stores at a local level.
Some amazing new materials and ideas have come about from all over the world, seaweed, plant starch, mushrooms, seafood shells and many more have found new uses in the form of environmentally friendly packaging. More traditional items including packaging made from recycled plastic bottles (rPET) have been employed as well! So our activewear is not the only thing making use of all those old plastic bottles!
The march towards sustainability runs throughout commercial enterprises, from big to small, all companies are having to consider the environment when making decisions about their packaging. We can expect to see further research and development in paper and bioplastic packaging, as well as more novel packaging designs and materials which ideally will combine longevity to save on energy, as well as avoiding the problems of plastic packaging. Combined with high-efficiency production machinery run on renewable energy, and low emission delivery, we may one day be able to minimise our environmental impact to a mere fraction of what it is today.