Single-use plastic packaging is clogging up the oceans and overwhelming landfill sites. Alternatives that are both sustainable and recyclable are under development but the need a boost to become economically viable and more mainstream.
Global plastic production had mushroomed from 15 million tonnes in 1964 to 311 million tonnes only 4 years ago. It is expected that this figure will double in the next few decades and by 2050, according to the World Economic Forum, there could potentially be more plastic in the oceans than fish.
Unfortunately, despite the moves to encourage recycling of plastic waste, a substantial amount of plastic packaing is uneconomical to recover, reuse or recycle. So we need to be lookng for materials with a large range of properties that make them viable alternatives to unrecyclable plastic.
Here are 5 sustanable and affordable packaging alternatives:-
Edible films and wraps. These starch-based products have been around for a while, but at the US Department of Agriculture, they are now developing a film made of milk protein. In South Korea they have been looking at animal protein.
Algae-based packaging. If you boil up seaweed you get a gelatinous substance called agar. This can be used to create textures that can replicate bubble wrap and foam packaing. This is currently being pioneered by researchers in Japan, Lithuania and Spain.
Mushroom-based containers. Grown from agricultural by-products, this so called myco-foam is produced from mycelium a fungal network of threadlike cells, which are like the roots of mushrooms. Ecovative in the United States is at the forefront of this technology. Swedish retain giants, Ikea are looking at using this type of packaing to replace polystyrene, which is tricky to recycle. Whilst polystyrene takes thousands of years to decompose, mycelium can simply be thrown into the ground where it will biodegrade in a matter of weeks.
Cellulose, fibre and resin. Bananas,coconut, softwood forestry by-products, as well as grasses and cereal stalks all have the potential to become bioplastics. Some materials can be heated, melted and injected into moulds which is crucial if they are to compete with petroleum-based plastics.
Plant-based polymers. Biopolymers can be made from corn or potato starch, even sugarcane. Long molecular chains such as polylactic acid can be deried from annually renewable resources. A number of companies from New Zealand to Thailand produce this.
Currently 95% of plastic packaging has only a short one-use life cycle. It is used and then thrown away and results in a loss to the global economy of more than $80 billion a year – according to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation.
One of the biggest challenges is getting manufacturers to move away from the old, familiar products. New packaging is not necessarily more expensive to produce, in the long term, but as with any new product, the initial costs are in the start up when economies of scale have not yet kicked in.
This is where YOU come into the equation. As a customer of any store or company using plastic packaging you hold a very important piece of the puzzle – you buy their products and if the customer is always right then if enough customers DEMAND that alternatives to plastic packaging is found then the companies WILL supply it. It only takes one major brand to announce a policy change and others will follow.
Make your voice heard NOW!