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The Future of Plastic Packaging

futuristic abstract art made with plastic and blue lighting


Polythene packaging is one of the main parts of our business. So, naturally, we’ve got a pretty big stake in the future of plastic packaging – but we aren’t blind to the issues of it.

In a report by the Packaging Federation, the CEO discusses the mounting use of plastic packaging with Tesco’s Director of Waste, Recycling & Packaging. Their conclusion? It’s all down to consumers:

“…as long as consumers choose to live as they do now, modern packaging will continue to be an integral and necessary part of their lives.”

And maybe they’re right. After all, it’s only thanks to plastic packaging that we have supermarkets stocked with an abundance of fresh, affordable food throughout the year.  It’s the only reason we have services like Amazon and online retail.

Polythene packaging provides us with the only economically viable way to do this right now, and if this were to change, food and consumer product prices would skyrocket. Or worse, there would be a significant increase in food and product scarcity.

Nobody wants to miss out, but nobody wants to pay more.

The report also points out that plastic packaging and plastic pollution are a red herring, a trivial government distraction from the much more serious environmental issue of climate change and carbon output. But that’s not entirely fair; these are two totally different issues, and each one is as important as the other.

We now know that microplastics from plastics that have been improperly disposed of are in seafood and in the water supply – and this is directly affecting human cells. So, batting the problem away with “what about carbon?” isn’t helpful – it’s just replacing one uncomfortable truth with another.

Industry, environment, consumerism, economics, politics… it’s all intertwined, and it’s all really complicated.

How do we get around it? What’s the solution, if there even is one?

The problem? There is still no circular economy for plastic

A circular economy is where materials constantly go around in a “closed loop” system, rather than being used once and then discarded. Glass recycling works in this way – it is infinitely recyclable, with the additional advantage of being totally inert and natural.

But plastic doesn’t work in the same way. It absolutely can be recycled. But only a handful of times before degrading. End-of-life for plastic is, as a result, landfill or incineration.

Chemical and enzyme recycling processes are changing this – slowly. Unlike mechanical recycling, chemical recycling breaks the material down to its original chemicals, with no contamination.

But we aren’t there just yet. It’s going to take a huge effort from manufacturers to resolve the issue. Plastic blends will require standardisation, as there are currently far too many variants to effectively recycle like this, and community and industrial recycling will have to step up to never before seen levels.

Solutions available today: single use, biodegradable and recyclable plastic packaging – or giving up on convenience

What we know for sure is that there are only two solutions that we have today. Neither of them are perfect, but they would buy us enough time to develop new materials and processes at a reduced cost to what’s available now.

The first, most extreme, and most effective solution is to quit plastic altogether. That means no more fast deliveries, convenience foods, a drop in food choice and an increase in prices. We’d be in the same position we were in during the 1930s, packaging items with boxes, paper, wax, glass, fabrics and cans.

Sounds perfect, until you realise that these materials each have demanding production methods, increased weight, and limited application – meaning shifting the environmental burden to carbon emissions and water use. Some foods we have now can’t be packaged at all with these methods, meaning greater scarcity.

Above all, it will cost significantly more. Inflation, supply and demand are not anything like they were in the 1930s; the population is almost four times greater today, and £1 in 1930s money would be worth almost £64 today.

The second solution is the exclusive use of recycled and recyclable polythene packaging. This would mean that we still maintain convenience and availability of the products we demand, but have to step up recycling to meaningful levels and practises, including finding a way to close the plastic loop and develop a circular economy for plastic. In the near future, we could have the answer.

What about bioplastics and compostable plastic?

We have explored biodegradable and compostable plastic packaging in a previous article; and the conclusion is that these plastics mostly behave exactly the same as normal plastics – they just have better marketing.

Read more – How Long Does Biodegradable Plastic Take To Decompose?

Biodegradable polythene is a standard polythene with a biodegradable masterbatch added to it, meaning that IF it breaks down in landfill, it will simply turn into micro plastics. Also, it can’t be recycled at all, making it worse than recyclable polythene.

Compostable plastic only breaks down in an industrial composter, and cannot be recycled. It takes far more energy, water and resources to create and to destroy than recycling, and the end result is often worse due to a lack of composters or knowledge of how bioplastics break down.

What can we replace plastic with?

Right now? Nothing.

Nothing matches the strength, low weight, versatility and cost-effectiveness of plastic packaging. On balance, it remains the best possible solution. And if recycled properly, it is among the lowest impact materials environmentally.

The problems are that plastic is rarely recycled effectively, and can only go through recycling a handful of times.

Rather than seeking replacing plastic – a miracle material that makes modern life possible – we should seek to close the loop on a circular plastic economy. Of course, there are many alternatives to plastic packaging, but on balance many of these are worse for consumers and the environment.

Maybe the problem is that we see plastic as waste, not as a material. It’s problematic because of our attitude to it, not how it’s made or used. After all, plastic doesn’t throw itself in the sea.

If we, in industry and as consumers, learn to value the material that makes our world what it is, perhaps we can stop breaking the world with it.

Recyclable polythene packaging

We understand the impact of plastic on the environment – and we urge everyone to engage in recycling schemes for business and at home. Our polythene packaging is fully recyclable, and we even supply recycled material for certain applications, making use of material that would otherwise have been sent to landfill.

Want to know more? Call our friendly team on 01773 820415 for advice and help – or get a quote now.