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I’m not going to lie, researching the state of consumer packaging and where it’s headed is very depressing. The enormity of the situation is too big for any one person to hypothesize solutions. And for every positive initiative, it seems like there’s lobbying to cancel its progress.

We should be past the point of getting everyone’s attention around single-use plastic consumption. But, just for good measures, I did a little back of the envelope math:

We use 5 trillion plastic bags globally every year. A plastic grocery bag is about 18 inches long, which equates to 7.5 trillion feet or 1.4 billion miles of plastic bags made every year.

If we tied each plastic bag together, we could make a rope to Mars, with enough left over to build another rope to Jupiter… and still enough to make a return rope back to Earth. Our production of single-use plastic is absurd.

One thing we do a major disservice of when discussing plastics and packaging epidemic is that we like to place the blame as “X just doesn’t care”. Whether we pass the blame on profit-hungry corps or wasteful consumers, this doesn’t address the many other reasons this cycle perpetuates.

Major Obstacles

Obviously, it’s an obstacle of big business. Packaging companies exist to create the cheapest packaging for other consumer goods to ship in:

Today, the packaging sector generates $900 billion in annual revenues worldwide, according to McKinsey. McKinsey says that the packaging industry is on track to keep growing at a rate of 3.1% annually from now until 2022.

Elizabeth Segran, Fast Company

Packaging has become a basis for brand. Walking up and down the aisle, count how many items treat their packaging as essential to their brand recognition.

Not to mention, no single entity is responsible for making the change. Consumers, corporations, manufacturers, legislators. Everyone plays a role in this. Pointing the finger at any single group isn’t right.

However, the biggest lie is making consumers feel like the sole culprits. (Scientific American does a great job laying out the history of Corporate Greenwashing.)

There are so many obstacles here aside from “making people care about the planet”. And that’s why it can feel like we’re at a standstill.

Ways Forward

Recycling plastic is to saving the Earth what hammering a nail is to halting a falling skyscraper.

Scientific American

Recycling is not a solution to plastic pollution. Other solutions are needed.

Packaging Innovation

The most obvious area to turn is in making a better form of packaging that corporations can adopt when consumers bring torches to their doorsteps. Fortunately, there really isn’t a shortage of innovation to plastic packaging:

  • Notpla has created an “edible blob” that contains the liquid you want to drink – whether it’s whiskey or water. This alternative to plastic has been huge among marathon waste.
  • Complast and Hero Packaging are creating bio-based packaging from corn starch and cassava root.
  • Primitives has engineered plastics with algae and other bio-based feedstocks that are “smarter” than traditional plastics.
  • Aquapak has made an oil-based Polymer, Hydropol, that is engineered to dissolve in water (at temperatures between 40-70 degrees) or break down in anaerobic conditions to leave carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. So no nasty micro-plastic pollution. 
  • RePack and LimeLoop have created reusable mailer bags to cut back on the cardboard used for shipping. Imagine if Amazon implemented a reusable mailer program.
  • James Cropper is leading CupCycling, whereby coffee cups can be stripped of their 5% plastic coating and reused to make other paper products
  • Canovation has created the CanReseal line of products that can turn any aluminum can into a resealable storage container.

Will there ever be something cheaper than the $0.01 plastic bottles? Probably not. But it’s just a reality that we cannot satisfy profits and planetary safety at the same time.

No Packaging

I think the bring-your-own-bag idea could go much further than it is today. For instance, the zero-waste supermarket in Germany and others in the UK show us what it looks like to modernly shop for food without any packaging.

Beauty brand, Lush, sells 35% of their products without any packaging at all. And they also have set up programs where you can return old makeup packages for discounts. One, they’re showing how computer vision can be used in lieu of barcodes in order to scan and buy items, thus not needing packaging. Two, they’re showing how brick-and-mortar can be recycling centers themselves.

You can buy a refillable cup from Starbucks. But why can’t this be the case for all restaurants, fast food, and other places?

If I go to Dunkin Donuts and bring my own container to get my dozen donuts, thus saving them the dime or quarter that the box cost them, shouldn’t I receive that discount?

We should empower the bargain shopper and couponers to bring their own packaging, passing the savings on packaging onto the consumer.

Ultimately, all of the innovation in the world won’t convince companies to change over.

Legislation

Although 8 states have banned plastic bags, nearly twice as many now have laws protecting them. The lobbyists against environmentalists show that the government is really just a pawn here, caught in between a battle of narratives.

Consumers have forced a lot of verbal commitments:

Unilever, L’Oreal, Walmart, Target and Carrefour as well as Burberry are among 150 signatories to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation New Plastics Economy Global Commitment. The commitment is an ambitious set of 2025 targets addressing plastic waste and pollution, starting with packaging.

Nestlé, PepsiCo, P&G, among about 100 others have created the Brands For Good coalition – similar to the Sustainable Packaging Coalition – meant to make it easier for consumers to live sustainably by embedding social purpose into their products.

By 2025, 100 percent of McDonald’s guest packaging will come from renewable, recycled, or certified sources with a preference for Forest Stewardship Council certification.

Still, it’s hard to weed out the PR from the actual action.

TerraCycle’s Loop initiative is focusing on creating reusable packaging for major brands such as Quaker, Tropicana, and other items you’ll find at the grocery store. I’m particularly fascinated by how they’re going right to the companies who will have the most challenging time creating sustainable packaging.

A decade from now, how will our grocery store aisles look? How will our packages be delivered to our doorsteps? How will we receive food from restaurants?

All of it is changing.

And this is just the consumer scope. There’s also transportation, textiles, construction, electronics, medical equipment, and a load of other industries.

We must continue to put pressure where pressure is needed.

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