Let’s talk about plastic: does it have a place in the future of packaging?

Samantha Gibbins plastic free July blog post
Photograph by John Cameron (Unsplash)

In 2017 Sir David Attenborough raised the profile of plastic pollution with what is referred to by many as the Blue Planet effect. The following year volunteers doubled for the Great British Beach Clean and organisations started to take note. More products started to be packaged in less plastic or moved away from plastic to alternate materials such as paper or glass, and this trend continues today. In 2020 the UK Government announced plans to implement a tax on plastic packaging, which came into force last year and further regulations have since been implemented to push the responsibility of managing single use waste back onto manufacturers.

When plastics come up in conversation, reactions swiftly move to how awful the material is, how much an individual recycles and tries to avoid buying plastic where possible. However, there is some nuance missing in this assessment and I’d like to explore how moving large volumes of production into paper and glass alternatives might not be the perfect solution.

Plastics came about, in part, to relieve the bottleneck of needing to rely on nature to provide raw materials. For example, plastic bags came about to protect trees being felled for paper bag production! The benefits of plastic are apparent, it is lightweight, (relatively) cheap and durable. But as we know this has led to prolific manufacturing of plastic, leading to vast amounts of waste in landfill and litter across the planet. Here it takes hundreds of years to decompose, releasing microplastics and toxic chemicals into the environment. Of course, with the climate crisis in mind, it cannot be forgotten that the starting material for the majority of these plastics is the fossil fuel crude oil. Even recycling plastic can cause challenges. The on-pack imagery can be confusing to individual consumers and can lead to ‘wish-cycling’, where well intentioned people will put a non-recyclable item in recycling. This can result in an entire street’s recycling being thrown into landfill. 

So far, so bad, but what other solutions are out there?

Let’s look at paper. The demand for paper is increasing as more packaging is shifted away from plastic. This is positive when thinking about the waste that escapes into nature, as paper is biodegradable. Paper is also easier to identify and more widely recycled, provided it is not laminated or soiled with food grease. But paper is degraded with each loop through the recycling process, meaning there will always be a demand for ‘virgin’ paper into the process to maintain quality. Making paper is also an inherently energy and water hungry process, which requires deforestation to provide the key raw materials; wood pulp and fibres. On top of that, the finished packaging will often weigh more than its plastic counterpart, so more material is needed to meet the same demand as plastic packaging, which means a greater total consumption of raw materials. 

The other plastic alternative that is rising in popularity is glass. The most obvious point here is weight: glass is a heavier material (up to 40 times heavier than its plastic counterpart), so will add more emissions in the travel and logistic stages. Glass also takes a lot longer than plastic and paper to break down in the environment (up to 1 million years!) but no toxic chemicals will leach out during this process. Making glass is also incredibly energy intensive; furnaces have to reach temperatures of 1500°C to melt the raw materials together and reach a mouldable state. The raw material – silica sand – is the second most-used resource in the world and there isn’t enough to meet current demand, let alone a growing market and the extraction process causes significant damage to the surrounding environment. However, the finished product is recyclable and reusable, some say it is infinitely recyclable but each processing goes back to that incredibly hot furnace.

As you can see, the plastics problem is wider than just a ‘plastic’ problem, with each material discussed bringing different challenges. Still, materials research is stepping up to produce innovative materials that are starting to reach the market. Mushroom packaging and films made from seaweed are examples of novel solutions that consume less energy to make and don’t break down into any unwanted side products at end of life. However, these aren’t yet produced at scale and, more importantly, for these materials to be truly future proof, legislation and infrastructure needs to be put in place to ensure the correct use and end of life waste management.  

I envisage a future using a mix of these materials, with local infrastructure in place to support the collection and management at the end of life. If we rely on just one solution too heavily, the demand for those raw materials will become extractive and damaging. But our relationship with materials needs to change as well, buying less ‘stuff’, choosing items without excess packaging and increasing our re-use of materials where possible. For everything else, the recycling infrastructure needs improvement to handle a wider range of materials, making it more efficient and easier for people across the UK to understand and access. Mandatory labelling on how to dispose of packaging will start in 2027, but I would love to see more organisations communicating the wider story; what is the impact of moving from a plastic wrapper to a paper one? Why not share the carbon footprint data and lifecycle analysis work? All of these strategies will help people make informed decisions to help build our future planet.

Whilst these big changes need to be managed at a system level by government and businesses, there are still steps that you can take as an individual to make a difference. Some examples include:

  • Hold businesses and government accountable. Write to MPs and customer services to share your concerns. This can feel pointless and frustrating, but each voice has power and if no-one is saying anything, then the corporations will take silence as acceptance and support.
  • Reduce and reuse as a priority over recycling and extend this mindset beyond plastic and packaging.
  • Talk about it! Not in a competitive “I do more and recycle more than you” way, but in a way that leads friends and family to a deeper understanding of this complex challenge.

We all have a part to play in shaping the future and I encourage everyone to think about committing to do something as part of this year’s Plastic Free July.