Plastic Packaging and the Circular Life Span — Promises, Processes, and People

Credit: Pixabay by Hans

If you saw Slumdog Millionaire, you remember the scenes of poverty-stricken children in Mumbai running through fields of garbage, much of it discarded packaging. You can do a Google search on plastic pollution of the oceans and see floating islands of plastic — one in the Pacific estimated to be the size of Texas. You’ll also see beaches ruined by refuse and strewn with dead sea life. The response from corporations include pledges to reduce waste by a large percentage — typically by 2025.

EcoWatch announced in 2018 that 250 companies signed the EMF Global Commitment to bring about change. The players included big brands such as PepsiCo, Nestle, SC Johnson and Coca-Cola. Key goals these brands signed on for include:

  • Eliminate difficult or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging through better design
  • Make 100% of plastic packaging reusable or recyclable or compostable
  • Make sure 70% of plastic packaging is recycled or composted
  • 30% of all plastic packaging to include recycled material

This pledge has wide support from groups such as The World Economic Forum, The World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) and the Consumer Goods Forum representing more than 400 retailers and manufacturers from 70 countries.

But heads up. According to a representative of Greenpeace

“Corporations are not required to set actual targets to reduce the total amount of single-use plastics they are churning out. They can simply continue business as usual after signing the commitment.”

In other words, although pledges are inspiring, putting a fixed date against utopian goals may be a futile exercise. The fashion industry offers an interesting point of comparison. Like packaging, fast fashion relies on a throwaway culture. As a result, many of its sustainability claims amount to what’s called greenwashing, where promises are more public relations-driven than planet friendly.

For instance, in 2019, fashion brand Zara announced plans to become more sustainable by sourcing only organic or recycled materials. However, one spokesperson for the sustainability movement pointed out that it’s the business model itself that has to change. No matter the eco-profile of your materials, when you’re putting out 500 new designs per week like Zara, you’re still contributing to waste.

When you add to this the fact that plastic is uniquely suited to our present economy, you have to admit that a pledge alone is not enough.

Replacing plastic is not an easy fix

In 2019, National Geographic had this to say, “Plastic is quite good at what it does, which makes replacing it so devilishly difficult.” One example is a legacy juice brand that switched from plastic bottles to pouches. “Today the pouch is ubiquitous, holding everything from tuna to tomato paste, pet food to pickles.”

Brands value pouches for a number of reasons. They offer weight savings of more than 78% compared to other packaging materials. Less weight translates to a lower carbon footprint throughout the supply chain. But brands that use pouches quickly discover that one sustainability benefit can easily be replaced by a different sustainability problem. Pouches, it turns out, are kryptonite to recycling companies, which can’t separate their heterogenous layers.

In this same National Geographic report, authors offer a cautionary note:

“Shrink a cucumber in polyethylene and its shelf life stretches from 3 days to 14. The wrap, however, may last more than a century.”

If the sheer versatility of plastic makes it difficult to envision an economy without it, our recent pandemic has only increased its usage.

How has COVID changed the conversation?

Major trend spotter McKinsey & Company had this to say, “It seems likely that concerns about hygiene and food safety in the context of the COVID pandemic might become a higher priority while the sustainability performance of different packaging substrates could become a lower priority. Because of the pandemic, there is a new appreciation by consumers and industries of the hygiene advantages plastic packaging can offer that seems to be outweighing concerns about recyclability and plastic-waste leakage into the environment.”

How big a role does plastic play in the big picture? 

The question is whether or not we should eliminate plastic … maybe, maybe not. Do we have a plastic problem, a recycling problem, or a people problem? I believe the answer is “yes” to all three. I believe that the recycling system may be the biggest part of the problem, but when fixed, will have significant impact on the material supply chain and drastically change consumer habits

How to get consumers to change their behavior around recycling? Make’em an offer they can’t refuse.

For those in the Boomer generation, many will say that buying music was a costly habit when they were kids. You’d have to spend $20 for an album just to get one song you liked. Along came Apple, followed by streaming platforms. Now everybody has self-selected playlists and systems like Alexa that will play songs on demand. 

Digital technology is making all things possible. Can it change the way we recycle?

The future of recycling

TOMRA is a leading global consortium of like-minded thinkers and innovators all focused on one thing — how to provide technology-led solutions that enable the circular economy with ground-breaking collection and sorting systems designed to improve waste recovery and minimize the impact on the environment.

Using AI for smarter sorting 

In one of TOMRA’s e-books, Harnessing the Potential of AI,” the authors note, “The combination of massive amounts of data and significantly improved computer capabilities opens the opportunity for solving complex sorting problems. Deep learning, a powerful component of AI is a class of machine-learning algorithms that analyze multiple layers to progressively isolate high-level features from raw input.”

In other words, with deep learning, recycled products can be sorted faster than ever before. By combining the power of deep learning and advanced cameras and infrared sensors, solutions to sorting challenges are being found where none existed before. 

This is just one area of rapid advancement in the works as we look at the future of plastic. But no matter how sophisticated we get with recycling technology, there still remains the question — will people change their behavior?

Human nature

Full transparency; my firm, FORCEpkg, is in the business of branding and packaging design. It’s our job to create the most sustainable and cost-effective packaging solutions for the brands we serve. Plastic is one of the instruments in our toolbox. Brands have a lot to consider, such as product protection, child resistance, ability to communicate with the consumer and recyclability. In that area, plastic has made strides — but human nature hasn’t really kept up. 

I run a design agency populated in large part by millennials and am the parent to Millennial and Gen Z kids. I also teach packaging design at a college. So, I am a witness to recycling on a personal and a professional level. When I ask my packaging classes how much “recycled” and “recyclable” matter to them, I get a mixed response. Certainly, the number of those who say it does is increasing, but it’s nowhere near a majority. And when I observe their own behaviors in disposing trash, let’s just say ‘the spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak’. 

In fact, statistics back this up. A February 2020 piece in Forbes sited research that indicates, “when it actually comes to reducing or reversing our carbon footprints, evidence shows that older age groups are way ahead of millennials and Gen Z.” Some data points from that study conclude:

  • Recycling — 84% Boomers to 54% Millennials and Gen Z
  • Avoiding single use plastic items: 66% Boomers vs 55% Millennials and Gen Z
  • Only eating seasonal fruits and veggies — 47% vs 33%

Convenience is a way of life for consumers

The difficulty that many find when it comes to recycling plastic is that behavior has more to do with convenience than it does with conscience. Nobody wants to be the person responsible for the straw stuck up the nose of the sea turtle. But when it comes to everyday habits, it’s not the sea turtle most people are thinking about.  

A recent article in Ad Age focuses on brands that are thriving during the COVID-19 outbreak. Among those showcased are: Lysol, Clorox, Purell, Scotch Brit and the iconic Campbells Soup. All have been on the receiving end of criticism from the environmental movement, but during the current pandemic, safety is winning out over other concerns. 

On the flipside, we can’t discount those nation-size floating islands of plastic. Is it the plastic or human behavior that needs to change? In my opinion, we must find ways to address the human error component. Maybe COVID-19 is the pause we are forced to take in order to reexamine the impacts we have on our environment and on each other.