The packaging is part of our daily lives, although we do not usually realise about it. It can be made of different materials, but this post will be focused on plastics that are responsible of half of the global packaging market (All4Pack, 2016), it is a material that in some cases cannot be degraded or, when possible, it usually takes hundreds of years. The amount of plastic we are consuming is such that, if we maintain this rate, it is estimated that by 2050 the oceans will have more plastics than fish (Ellen Macarthur Foundation, 2017). In fact, there is a huge island of floating plastic garbage in the Pacific Ocean that is a perfect example of the consequences of our actions.
But how did we get to this situation? And more importantly, how can we get out of it?
The amount of plastic packaging we use is related to a historical process of economic and technological development. As we dominated materials’ engineering and improved our technical skills, the creation of new packaging allowed us to ensure better conservation of our food, to transport technological products over greater distances (we have all played exploiting plastic bubbles of transport packaging!) and to transform our lifestyles in unimaginable ways. We have improved in practicality, comfort, speed and safety. Let’s be honest, we have all appreciated having our takeaway coffee when we were late for work or college. And let’s not forget that behind every packaging, there are huge design teams, merchants, logistics companies, etc. who live off the sale of that product. The economy and society are also pillars of Sustainability.
The increase in our plastics consumption is closely related to cultural, historical and economic issues and the amount of plastic we consume varies a lot from country to country. For that reason, the solutions to this problem vary according to each place, but there is consensus at a global level in grouping the strategies under 4 pillars: Reduce, Reuse, Recycle and Redesign.
There are several alternatives to reduce the use of plastic. The simplest one is to choose the products that we consume in the supermarket and avoid those with tons of packaging. Choosing the larger options of the products often helps to reduce our consumption (this solution is always easier when it is not perishable food). And of course, bring our reusable bags from home. There are countries where one-use bags are not even sold in the supermarket.
The number of stores offering bulk products is also growing. For example, in Spain Granel (https://granel.cat/donde-estamos/) has stores in different cities and offers bulk cereals, legumes, oils, etc. with cloth or glass containers that can be reused. In New Zealand, the “Food in the nude” campaign is putting an end to packaging for fresh foods (fruits, vegetables, vegetables) in supermarkets. Another example is the Chilean company Algramo (https://www.algramoalmacenes.com/nuestra-historia.html) that with its bulk sale proposal was recognized in 2015 as one of the 50 most innovative companies in the world and currently they are moving towards the next point of the strategy …
Another development of Algramo was the creation of a chip-integrated smart packaging so that once the container is bought, you can scan its code every time you go shopping, load it in vending machines (for example, with laundry detergent) and even receive a compensation for it.
An increasingly popular option is to buy durable and reusable plastic bottles to drink our daily water. If we eat out, we can also reuse cutlery that although being disposable it does not mean it is single-use. And there are many cases where reusing is encouraged by product design. For instance, the designer Steve Haslip created boxes to send clothes purchased by e-commerce that can easily become hangers.
There are many recycling options that depend on the will and availability of each one. In many cities, properly separating waste for better treatment is a good possibility. In Germany, bottles can be taken back to the supermarkets and it is possible to recover the money that was additionally paid when buying for using plastic. Many other cities have differentiated containers and there are companies responsible for such recycling.
There are also possibilities for the home. A quick search in Google gives us endless ideas ranging from furniture (tables or chairs for example), to pots, vertical gardens and even solar collectors to heat water with solar energy and reduce our consumption! We can do this at home or through projects like Sumando Energías (https://www.sumandoenergias.org/) in Argentina where we can collaborate with families that need it.
In this pillar, it may be more difficult to design domestic solutions, but it is good to know that there are many projects devoted to the design of new biodegradable and natural materials, based on algae or oils (instead of fossil fuels like plastics), providing more sustainable solutions for our packaging.
The options are numerous, but the change must be fast. We are already perceiving the consequences of our actions and it is time to act if we want to prevent the problems from being irreparable. We can do it actively with some of the alternatives mentioned above. Although sometimes it seems hard work, it is easier than you think and there are families that have managed to produce zero (or almost) waste in their daily lives (/https://zerowastehome.com/blog/). We can also put pressure on governments when voting and we can demand changes as consumers. If we are increasingly aware of our environmental impact and we opt for more sustainable products, companies will need to adapt and provide solutions (as they are already doing in many cases)!.
Now you can provide ideas or suggestions in our comments section and we will answer them during the week. Next Thursday we will continue with a post on energy efficiency and some tricks to reduce our consumption at home.
See you next week!
All4Pack (2016). Packaging: Market and Challenges in 2016. Paris. Retrieved from https://www.all4pack.com/Media/All-4-Pack-Medias/Files/Fiches-marches/Packaging-market-and-challenges-in-2016
Ellen Macarthur Foundation. (2017). The new plastics economy: Catalysing actions. Retrieved from https://www.ellenmacarthurfoundation.org/assets/downloads/New-Plastics-Economy_Catalysing-Action_13-1-17.pdf