This post was sponsored by noissue, who are experts in sustainable packaging, advocates for reducing waste, and founders of an Eco Packaging Alliance reforestation programme. This post was created collaboratively: all editorial choices mine.
Plastic. It’s pretty much impossible to get through one day in our lives without plastic featuring in there somewhere. In many ways, it’s become the glue to modern consumer culture. From the branded bags that our clothing purchases come in, to the wrapping that covers produce at the grocery store, plastic is basically everywhere. It’s so ubiquitous that many of us don’t even notice it.
But ignoring plastic comes with a cost. The status quo of plastics use (i.e. constant production and a lack of responsible disposal) is fast becoming one of the biggest barriers to worldwide conservation efforts, but the magnitude of this problem is still a surprise to many. The final episode of Blue Planet 2, which looked at the impact of plastic on marine life, caused widespread shock and outrage. So let’s take a deeper look at the origins of plastic pollution, and the steps we need to take globally to solve the problem.
What actually is plastic?
We all know that it’s an issue, but most of us don’t really know what plastic is. Without knowing where plastic comes from, it’s difficult to understand why it presents such a large problem. This understanding is vital if we are going to see a mass effort to reduce plastic usage.
The word ‘plastic’ refers to any material that is easy to shape during manufacturing. Hence why we name ‘plastics’ after their main characteristic. All plastics are made from polymers, which are long chains of carbon or hydrogen atoms which originate from petroleum or natural gases. These are not renewable energy sources, which means plastic is not a sustainable material.
Even though they might be organic in origin, plastics are man-made. Their polymers are combined and rearranged in ways that would never occur in nature. For this reason, a plastic bag won’t biodegrade in the same way that a paper bag would. It takes hundreds of years, as opposed to months. As more and more gets produced and thrown away the natural biodegradation of plastic simply cannot keep up with this pace. This leads us to where we are now.
The environmental impact of plastic
Plastics are proving to be one of the most destructive substances that humans have created. The long life of plastic means that it has become well-integrated into the natural world – with devastating consequences.
It’s estimated by National Geographic that only 9% of plastic gets recycled. The remaining 91% ends up in our landfills, and increasingly within our oceans. Each year we produce over 300 million tons of plastic, with 10% of this ultimately ending up in the sea. If left unchecked, plastic could outweigh fish by 2050. Its buoyant nature has led to the creation of what is known as the ‘pacific trash vortex’ – a gigantic floating landfill in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It’s now double the size of Texas and is growing rapidly.
When plastic does biodegrade, it breaks down into ever smaller pieces, which become almost microscopic. These plastic particles are also called ‘mermaids tears’ as they easily spread through ocean currents. This means that marine animals digest plastic at all levels of the food chain: Plankton, the fish that feed on them, and even by humans – we now unconsciously digest around 11,000 pieces of microplastic per year, with unknown health consequences.
If plastic is so bad, why are we so dependent on it?
Despite its environmental harm, we need to admit that plastic is a wonder material. It’s strong and waterproof. It’s also durable and lightweight in comparison to materials like glass. This is why plastic eventually took over the majority of our packaging materials, from bottles and jars to bags and wrapping. Finding a replacement with all these characteristics is no easy task.
This unholy alliance between plastic and our packaging is responsible for much of our plastic pollution. According to the EPA, packaging constitutes one-third of all household waste, about 190kgs per year. Many packaging elements such as soft plastics are not recyclable, which adds to the chain of waste ending up in our landfills and oceans. Once packaging has outlived its purpose, we eliminate it by whatever means are the most convenient. It’s pretty much impossible to think of a world without packaging. Or even more radical, a world without plastic.
Although we are pushing forward in finding solutions to this problem, things are set to get worse before they get better. eCommerce retail has bought the need for packaging to a whole new level. Annual eCommerce sales are set to hit $4.5 trillion by 2021, an 246% increase since 2014. As online sales skyrocket, this means higher transportation of goods to customers, and so more packaging. Whether we like it or not, packaging is a necessity. A pledge of ‘zero packaging’ is as unrealistic as it is unpractical. This means that long-term, sustainable packaging solutions are the only way forward.
So, what is the first step?
As much as we might love to ban plastic tomorrow, it isn’t possible without suitable replacements. It’s going to be a long road to eliminating plastic totally, so we need to start by tackling the most salient issues.
Removing single-use packaging
When it comes to plastic, there is a hierarchy in the damage it causes. Soft plastics are the most harmful because they cannot be reused or recycled. We need to reduce plastic pollution in the immediate future, and the best place to start is eliminating plastics which are single-use and non-recyclable. It’s a sobering fact that a plastic grocery store bag has an average use time of only 12 minutes. They can cause hundreds of years’ worth of damage, all for the sake of getting our groceries into the car. Even small steps, such as replacing plastic wrap with plant fibres, or choosing smaller containers to remove the need for packing filler, make a huge difference to a brand’s footprint. As consumers adjust to using reusable containers and packaging, plastic will begin to lessen its hold on our habits.
Ultimately, consumers are a brand’s biggest shareholders. More than ever before, consumers are factoring sustainability into their purchasing decisions. Brands who put real effort into transforming sustainable ideas into practice are being rewarded. 66% of global consumers are now willing to pay more for goods that are sustainable, throwing doubt on claims that more expensive sustainable practices threaten business. In fact, the opposite is true. Younger purchasing groups like Millennials and Generation Z favour brands whose values align with theirs. As more environmentally conscious generations filter through, we are set to see a big shift in consumer habits.And as awareness grows about the environmental damage caused by plastic, there is a growing pushback against its usage too. The power of social media has been particularly instrumental. Studies show that tweets about plastic waste skyrocket after the release of Greenpeace ads. If we put more effort into calling out businesses who are continuing with unsustainable plastics use, we will start to see much bigger efforts by corporations to get with the times. After all, if there is one thing that businesses fear the most, it’s a loss of customers.
Research into sustainable solutions
There are already some great sustainable packaging materials out on the market, but it still isn’t as mainstream as it needs to be to put a real dent in plastic pollution. Globally we have been very slow to embrace that we need to find alternatives to plastic use. It’s only now, when we are at a crisis point, that we are starting to look at this more seriously. However, research and development into new designs and materials is a slow process. They need to meet many very stringent parameters in terms of safety to consumers and safety in disposal. This slows down the number of new innovations which appear on the market. More efforts need to go into this area if we are going to have long-term solutions to plastic use. Unless we can find ways to modify plastic to lessen its environmental impact, we need to find sustainable packaging alternatives.
So what does sustainable packaging actually mean?
Sustainable packaging can be something of a buzzword even within the industry. Put simply, there is no one definition of what makes packaging sustainable. This makes it difficult both for consumers trying to make sustainable purchasing decisions and for companies wanting to make the shift towards environmentally-friendly packaging. A search on Google for ‘sustainable packaging’ will bring up an avalanche of content from NGOs, packaging companies, scientific journals and more. As with any online source, some are more reliable than others, and trying to put together this jigsaw puzzle can be intimidating to say the least.
However there a few consistent principles for sustainable packaging that we can rely on:
Is it safe to both consumers and the planet through its lifecycle?
The core idea of sustainable packaging is that it is a part of the circular economy, where resources are designed to stay in circulation for as long as possible through reuse and recycling. And a longer life cycle reduces waste. This contrasts with the linear economy of plastics use, where it gets produced, used and disposed of. Truly sustainable designs need to cater for consumer and environmental safety at every stage: When an item is produced (i.e. the energy and resources this uses), how it performs during use, if it can be recycled, and what happens when it’s finally disposed of.
Does it still meet requirements for cost and performance?
Truly sustainable packaging is also about more than just its environmental impact. It’s also about spreading awareness and making eco-friendly practices more mainstream. However, the uptake will be limited if the cost puts it out of the reach of most businesses. If a sustainable alternative isn’t versatile enough to cater for different packaging needs it won’t be a viable option for consumers and businesses alike, and only a narrow group will adopt it. For it to be a viable option for businesses, it needs work well aside from its environmental impact.
Does it maximise the use of recycled/reusable materials?
Using recycled or regenerated materials will massively reduce the environmental footprint of packaging. Recycled materials use less energy in their production than virgin materials do. If the energy expended during production outweighs the environmental benefits of the design, it isn’t the most sustainable option. Papers and cardboards are still great options, as they are renewable sources which can be recycled or reused by the consumer, which keeps packaging in circulation for longer.
Is it efficient?
All of us have unpacked an item and discovered the obscene amount of packaging used. Whether it’s coating everything in plastic wrap or sifting through unnecessary layers of cardboard, it’s frustrating and demoralising. Whether packaging is recyclable or biodegradable is secondary to whether it’s actually needed at all. If not, the design uses more resources than it needs to, and it’s not as sustainable as it could be. Choosing packaging which can accomplish more than one role is a great way to maximise efficiency. For example, custom tissue paper provides protection for your product, as well as enhancing its appearance and providing a branding opportunity. Best of all, it reduces costs for businesses through the need for less packaging elements.
Sustainable packaging materials
There are already some great plastic alternatives on the market for packaging. Many people forget that certified materials such as papers and cardboards are renewable sources, and their use should be encouraged where possible because there are recycling and reuse options. However, there are also other alternatives that are not widely known about too. Many of them are relatively new materials, so their use is still fairly small-scale, and there is also confusion surrounding the differences in their production and disposal processes. These are the three main groups of materials which are emerging on the packaging market:
Bioplastics get a lot of heat because they have ‘plastic’ in the name, but this isn’t meant in the traditional sense. As mentioned above, ‘plastic’ is a characteristic of materials which can be moulded easily. Bioplastics are the same in this regard, the difference is that they come from renewable and not petroleum-based sources. They also don’t contain BPA, a harmful industrial chemical used in conventional plastics production. Bioplastics can be produced from a variety of different sources. The most common are sugarcane and corn, which are broken down into sugars and starches, which are then reformed as plastic. This allows them to safely biodegrade over time, so long as they’re disposed of under the right conditions.
There is a lot of confusion surrounding the difference between biodegradable and compostable packaging, especially as some designs are technically both. Although the process is similar, there are some distinct differences. Compostable materials must be disposed of in conditions friendly to the microbes which break down the components, whereas regular biodegradable materials don’t need oxygen to facilitate the process. Composting, however, is usually much faster and can be disposed of either in a home composting heap or a commercial one, making it a viable option for all consumers. The noissue compostable eco-mailers, for example, take only 6 months to biodegrade because they are made entirely out of corn starch. They are also waterproof and highly durable, making them a great alternative to conventional plastic mailers.
In contrast to bioplastics, these are still made from petroleum-based sources. They are modified so that they degrade much faster over time. Most are modified to make them more sensitive to light or heat, which accelerates the break-down process. However, this can only be done under controlled conditions, meaning that some form of organised collection process is needed for consumers.
The Challenges for Sustainability
Competing with plastic
The biggest issue is that plastics are still just too cheap and convenient. For new businesses starting out there are a lot of upfront costs, and packaging might not get much of a look-in. Many manufacturers don’t cater to the needs of smaller businesses, because of the need for large order quantities. Options that are both custom and sustainable are also limited. In comparison, plastic is well-suited to these different needs, often making it a more attractive option. Plastic is mass-produced, easy to source, and versatile.
This versatility is important, because packaging has more than the singular purpose of protecting the product. It helps keep the product safe i.e. cleaning products and chemicals, allows for the efficient distribution of goods, and communicates a brand narrative. If packaging cannot be a part of a cohesive branding strategy, it accomplishes far less than it could for the cost. Any replacement materials need to emulate this, which is easier said than done. Food packaging, for example, is one of the biggest hurdles, because consumer safety is paramount. Designs have to be able to ensure that public health issues like cross-contamination won’t occur. Often, the sustainable options are limited.
The need for a big culture shift
Eliminating plastic means a big shift in thinking for consumers and businesses alike. Why? Because we are accustomed to thinking in the short term. The biggest concern for consumers is usually convenience and cost. For businesses, it’s about profit. We aren’t well-versed at looking at the ‘big picture’ of the planet and society as a whole, especially if it means shaking up these norms. This is why we have been slow on the uptake to tackling climate change; it means rocking the boat and upsetting the status quo. Consumer backlashes against the banning of single-use plastic bags is a case in point. Humans traditionally think for as long as we can see ahead for. Anything more than two or three generations is just too remote to consider. To truly tackle plastic pollution, we need to be thinking centuries ahead in terms of solutions.
Gradually we are seeing companies adopt a focus on social and environmental responsibility in their operations, which would have been unthinkable even just a couple of decades ago. But seeing this becoming a mainstream position is still a way off.
Consumers having greater involvement
Sustainable packaging designs need to make the consumer their primary consideration. There is a growing trend of brands adopting sustainable packaging as a selling point, but not following through in explaining this to consumers. This is a big issue since businesses usually don’t control the end stage of the packaging life cycle: disposal. There is a lot of confusion amongst consumers about the difference between compostable, biodegradable and/or recyclable packaging. If this isn’t explained well, there is a big risk that packaging will end up in a different waste stream and cause contamination. If sustainable packaging isn’t disposed of properly, we haven’t gotten any closer to solving the problem.
A 2018 study on found that the biggest barrier to eco-packaging adoption is a lack of understanding by consumers of how it works. This is because the details of disposal are usually the responsibility of ‘someone else’, e.g. recycling. This feeds back into how we conventionally design packaging. The little recycling symbol is usually the only instruction we get, but the majority of consumers now consider this to be lacking. 70% want more product information included on packaging than is usually provided. Today, there is much greater interest in the origin and production of products, and this includes packaging. But this desire is still not being catered to by many businesses, slowing the spreading of awareness around eco-packaging.
In sum, we have a big fight ahead of us to solve our reliance on plastic, and tackling the problem lies in changing both consumer and corporate attitudes. Traditionally we think in the short term and usually choose whatever is the most convenient option to solve the needs we have. However this picture is changing: we are seeing businesses take greater steps to reduce the impact of their operations. With more cost-effective sustainable options now available, there are far fewer excuses for environmentally damaging packaging practices.
Consumer pressure is the key; the more that we push for environmentally responsible practices, the more we will see them adopted.
Noissue is built on the belief that being environmentally responsible in your packaging decisions doesn’t have to come at the cost of high prices or quality. Their premium custom tissue paper is acid-free and FSC-certified as being socially and environmentally responsible in its production. Their eco-packaging alliance also allows customers to contribute to global reforestation by planting trees on your behalf in areas of need, helping your brand to build it’s on the ground impact. Their low minimum order quantities and quick turnarounds mean that they are suited to help everyone, from small independent businesses to fortune 500 companies. They provide the premium packaging solution that doesn’t harm the planet, so you can get back to what is most important: your business.