The world is drowning in plastic, and single-use packaging is a big part of the reason why. Throwaway wrappers and containers are practically impossible to avoid in our convenience-obsessed times. From pasta to orange juice, nearly every item of food and drink we purchase today comes encased in some form of plastic designed to be used once, then cast aside.
Though recycling is often touted as a way out of this morass, the reality is far less rosy. Food and beverage packaging can employ dozens of plastics, including expanded polystyrene, aka Styrofoam, which is verboten in most municipal curbside programs. Some forms of packaging—think Capri Sun pouches or milk cartons—combine one or more types of plastic with disparate materials like foil and paper, which are difficult if not impossible to separate once melded together.
Of the more than 14.5 million tons of single-use plastic generated by Americans in 2018, according to the US Environmental Protection Agency, just 8.5 percent was recycled. The vast majority was landfilled, incinerated, or left to litter streets, clog up waterways and poison marine life. Markets for recyclables are growing scarcer too, now that China, once the world’s biggest customer for used plastic, has banned imports of most forms of scrap material, creating what some experts have dubbed a “global crisis in plastic waste,” with few options but to burn or bury it.
While developing more efficient waste-collection infrastructure or building larger-scale domestic recycling operations are potential fixes, both require significant time and long-term investments that are not always forthcoming. Even lightweighting, a process that creates plastic cartons, jugs or trays out of fewer and thinner materials without sacrificing functionality, ignores plastic’s central premise: it’s made from petrochemicals, spews greenhouse gases across its entire life cycle and can take more than a century just to break down.
With some 72 percent of Americans saying they’re actively reining in their plastic use, according to a 2019 Pew Research survey, food and beverage makers are aware that changing consumer attitudes are making fossil-fuel-derived packaging increasingly untenable. It’s for this reason that food and beverage giants such as Nestlé and Coca-Cola have set ambitious goals to increase the recycled content of their packaging. Plastic alternatives, made from bio-based sources such as sugarcane or algae and designed to be biodegradable or compostable, too, have emerged as possible solutions. They’re still niche, though their market share is expected to grow as both consumers and manufacturers alike envision a waste-free world where packaging feeds the environment rather than pollutes it.
“People want to have more responsible packaging,” says Linda Gilbert, founder and chief executive officer of EcoFocus Worldwide, a Pennsylvania consumer research firm. “I think we’re going to see more packaging come from plant-based [alternatives], whether sustainably grown trees or even food-industry waste materials.”
This is true especially of younger consumers. In an EcoFocus poll of US shoppers conducted in 2019, nearly 57 percent of millennials said they try to buy products in packaging made with plant-based materials. The healthier the food, the greater their expectations, with 71 percent agreeing that food and beverages with healthier ingredient lists should use packaging materials that are healthier for the planet as well.
“I think that a lot of the change is going to come from millennials moving forward,” Gilbert says. “And I think this is a large part because they’re defining [sustainability] in a bigger way than boomers who say, ‘Oh, I recycle, I’m green.’”
Even so, manufacturers face a particular conundrum: how to protect their goods during shipping, maintain their safety and keep them from spoiling without running roughshod over the planet. Plastic, for all its environmental evils, does its job inordinately well, preserving flavor, texture and nutrients while averting food waste. It serves as a protective blockade between products and external gases, shielding them from chemical reactions such as oxidation and preventing bacterial cross-contamination.
“Product safety is absolutely paramount with highly perishable products,” says Meghan Stasz, vice president of packaging and sustainability at the Consumer Brands Association, a Washington, DC–based trade group for the consumer packaged goods industry. “But then we also want to do that with as minimal an environmental footprint as possible. And that’s what all these major consumer packaged goods companies and their R&D departments really spend their life’s work working on.”
There are no perfect solutions—not at the moment, anyway, says Nigel Kuzimski, director at Curious Design, a New Zealand firm that redesigned the packaging of Brink’s Free Range Chicken to include a tray made from corn-based Plantic plastic. In terms of sheer recyclability and reusability, for instance, glass is hard to beat. “But it’s obviously very fragile, and it’s quite heavy if you’re [shipping] it to places,” Kuzimski says. “That’s why plastic is still the preferred option for most clients.”
Still, compostable packaging, which tries to mimic regular plastic, can be tricky for a variety of reasons. To ensure shelf stability, many will break down only in industrial composting facilities to which not everyone has access. If compostable products get mixed up with conventional plastics, they can contaminate the recycling stream. Some researchers caution that compostables don’t necessarily outperform regular plastic in environmental life-cycle assessments, may not degrade in seawater if they end up in the ocean and might fragment into microplastics rather than vanish into nature as intended. Certain biodegradable products might contain a blend of bio-based and petroleum-based polymers to help them maintain their integrity for traditional-plastic printing machinery and ensure that graphic elements such as ingredient lists and barcodes remain crisp and legible.
There’s also the matter of expense: virgin plastic is both widely available and phenomenally cheap, which makes it practically and economically difficult to compete with. When British illustrator and designer Jenny Daymond worked with marketing agency Zeitgeist Communication to develop a plastic-free muesli-bar wrapper, they opted for TIPA, a home-biodegradable film that can handle a full-color illustrated design while providing a window into the contents of the packaging. The concept was ultimately rejected by the client, however, because the additional cost proved too steep. “I think for them it was a leap too far into the future,” Daymond says.
For Jennifer James Wright of design studio Citron, on the other hand, a compostable bread bag for one of her clients, a bakery and beer garden called Easy Tiger in Austin, Texas, made perfect sense. “We are very fortunate here in Austin and some other Texas cities to have curbside composting,” she says. “To me, it was a no-brainer, like, ‘Hey, let’s find a bioplastic that performs just as good as a polybag for breads.’ And then we’ll educate folks on the packaging itself [about] how to dispose of it.”
Indeed, using a more virtuous material for packaging isn’t enough. Manufacturers also need to signal to consumers how to properly dispose of it. A 2018 EcoFocus survey found that 68 percent of consumers described it as extremely or very important for end-of-life directions to be visible on the packaging.
“We hear constant frustration from consumers about the lack of information on labels as to whether packaging is recyclable or not,” Gilbert says. “Even when they look at a can of soup, they’ll say, ‘Well, that little recyclable label is so important yet so small, and it’s buried in all this other stuff.’” And the clearer the graphical signposts, the better. “Americans aren’t very good at reading,” she adds.
Another approach to eliminating packaging? Eat it. Notpla, a London-based startup, uses seaweed extract to create little pillow-like edible pods, called Oohos, that can supplant single-serve condiment sachets or replace plastic bottles and cups in races and other sporting events. In 2019, London Marathon runners received Lucozade Sport drinks in Oohos at a rest stop. “You can either pop them in your mouth and eat them (just like a cherry tomato!) or nip the corner and suck the drink out!” Notpla advised on its Instagram page.
Not all packaging can be as ephemeral, however, and the only way to guarantee it’s dealt with in the way it’s supposed to is to build in circularity from the start.
Loop, a reusable packaging platform from New Jersey’s TerraCycle, offers popular grocery items, like Häagen-Dazs ice cream and Hidden Valley ranch dressing, in durable glass and stainless steel tubs designed to be returned, cleaned and refilled, similar to the milkman model of the past. Loop debuted in 2019 with a home-delivery system, and it’ll soon be piloted in a number of supermarkets across the globe. In 2021, select Burger King restaurants in New York City, Portland and Tokyo will test the model using reusable sandwich containers and beverage cups. In Toronto, Tim Hortons will soon give customers the option of receiving their drink or food order in a reusable container, which can then be returned to a restaurant for cleaning and reuse.
Pivoting to reusability is a bigger commitment for businesses because it requires an overhaul of their supply chains, but it also demonstrates that they view sustainability as something more than a box-checking exercise or the remit of niche companies with equally niche audiences, says Jasmin Druffner, durable packaging designer at Loop.
“People do want to consume these big brands,” she says. “They just want the big brands to be a little bit more sustainable.” ca