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The Environmental Impact of Plastic Packaging and Sustainable Alternatives

Updated: Feb 8

Plastic packaging has undeniably revolutionized the way we store, transport, and consume products, but with this convenience and durability comes a significant environmental impact. Plastic production requires the use of fossil fuels in the refining of petroleum to create the polymers that makeup plastic. This initial step in manufacturing plastic is a primary contributor to climate change.


Once plastic is produced, it can take up to 500 years to break down in the environment. This means that plastic production’s negative impacts extend far beyond its processing to significant long-term pollution on land and in the oceans. As this World Wildlife Fund graphic shows, the timeline for the degradation of plastic materials can be multi-generational.


How long does plastic take to degrade?
WWF Australia Report, Lifecycle of Plastics

Plastic packaging seems to be all around us, especially at home. Whether it is something we purchased from the grocery store or the next item delivered to our doorstep, plastic packaging is ever present in our daily lives.


Some common types of plastic packaging include:

  • Bottles

  • Bags

  • Containers

  • Trays

  • Lids

  • Films

  • Foil


In this blog post, we'll discuss the benefits and drawbacks of using plastic for these types of packaging, as well as some ways to reduce your environmental footprint by choosing plastic-free package options.

Benefits of Plastic Packaging

There are many reasons why plastic packaging is so widely-used by product manufacturers.

Here are a few of the primary characteristics of plastics that lead to their continued use in everyday consumption:

  • Durability: Plastic is a durable material, which makes it ideal for packaging products that need to be protected from physical damage.

  • Lightweight: Plastic is a lighter material, which makes it efficient to transport and store.

  • Affordability: Plastic is relatively inexpensive to produce, which makes it a cost-effective option for packaging (this ignores the significant externalities we will cover later).

  • Versatility: Plastic can be molded into a variety of shapes and sizes, making it ideal for packaging a wide range of products.

  • Hygienic: Plastic is a non-porous material, which makes it difficult for bacteria to grow on it. This makes it a good choice for packaging food and other products that need to be kept clean.

Drawbacks of Plastic Packaging

Despite its many benefits, the use of plastic packaging has many negative consequences for our world on a grand scale. Here are a few of these drawbacks:

  • Non-biodegradable: Plastics can take hundreds of years to break down in the environment.

  • Pollutant: When plastic breaks down, it releases harmful toxins into the environment, polluting the air, water, and soil, and even harming wildlife.

  • Ocean pollution: A large amount of plastic waste ends up in our oceans, where it can harm marine life. Our recent blog post on microplastics, A Beginner’s Guide to Microplastics, dives into the growing concerns of this area of pollution, focusing on the issue of microplastics often overlooked in many household items. To get a sense of just how much plastic is in our oceans, it’s estimated that there are over 5 trillion pieces of plastic floating around, growing higher each day (National Geographic).

  • Landfills: An overwhelming amount of plastic waste ends up in landfills where it releases methane, a greenhouse gas that contributes to climate change.


What is Being Done About Plastic Packaging?

There are a number of things that can be done to reduce the environmental impact of plastic packaging. One is to simply use less of it. We can do this by choosing products that come with less packaging, or by reusing or recycling plastic containers and bags. View our post about reducing plastic waste by choosing alternatives here.


Another way to reduce plastic pollution is to support companies working to develop more sustainable packaging alternatives. There are a number of companies developing new materials that are biodegradable or compostable, or that can be recycled more easily. There are several ways in which corporations are being incentivized to be more sustainable with plastic packaging:

  • Government regulations: A number of governments around the world are introducing regulations that require corporations to reduce their use of plastic packaging. For example, the European Union has introduced a ban on single-use plastic straws, stirrers, and cotton buds, and it is planning to introduce a deposit return scheme for plastic bottles.

  • Consumer demand: Consumers are increasingly demanding that corporations adopt more sustainable practices. A recent survey found that 72% of consumers are willing to pay more for products packaged in sustainable materials.

  • Investor pressure: Investors are increasingly looking at the environmental impact of companies when making investment decisions. A number of large investment firms have announced that they will divest from companies that do not meet certain environmental standards.

  • Corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives: Many corporations are adopting CSR initiatives as a way to improve their reputation and attract and retain customers. These initiatives often focus on reducing the company’s environmental impact, including the use of sustainable packaging.


As the environmental and economic costs of plastic pollution become more apparent, we can expect to see even more pressure on corporations to adopt more sustainable practices.


Additional tips for reducing your own plastic footprint:

  • Bring your own reusable bags when you go shopping.

  • Use reusable water bottles and coffee mugs instead of disposable ones.

  • Avoid buying products that come with an excessive amount of plastic packaging.

  • Recycle plastic whenever possible.

  • Compost food scraps and yard waste instead of throwing them away.

  • Support businesses committed to sustainability.


By following these tips, you can make a difference in the fight against plastic pollution. As the world becomes increasingly aware of the dangers of plastic pollution, there is a growing movement to find more sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging. Some of the most promising alternatives include:

  • Edible packaging: Edible packaging is a new and innovative way to package food. Edible packaging is made from food-grade materials that can be eaten. Some examples of edible packaging include seaweed wraps, rice paper, and fruit leather.

  • Compostable packaging: Making packaging compostable has allowed certain communities the ability to recapture packaging materials in their existing food waste programs and local compost facilities.

  • Biodegradable plastics: These plastics are made from materials that can be broken down by microorganisms in the environment.

  • Compostable plastics: These plastics can be broken down into compost, which can be used to fertilize soil.

  • Reusable containers: These containers can be used over and over again, which helps to reduce the amount of waste that is produced. Glass, metal, and paper containers are great materials to consider for reusable containers.

  • Reusable bags: Reusable bags are a great way to reduce your reliance on plastic bags. There are many different types of reusable bags available, including cloth bags, canvas bags, and tote bags.


There are a number of personal and environmental benefits to using alternatives to plastic packaging, such as:

  • Reduced pollution: Alternatives to plastic packaging help to reduce pollution. When we use plastic alternatives, we are reducing the amount of plastic that ends up in our oceans, landfills, and food chain.

  • Sustainability: Alternatives to plastic packaging are inherently more sustainable than plastic, being made from renewable resources that can be easily recycled or composted.

  • Health: Studies have shown that chemicals from plastic can leach into food and beverages, so by using alternatives to plastic packaging, you can reduce your exposure to these chemicals.


By switching to more sustainable alternatives to plastic packaging, we can help to protect the environment and our health.It is likely that plastic packaging will continue to be used in the future, but there is also a likelihood that a great shift towards more sustainable forms of packaging could occur as well. This shift will be driven by a number of factors, including:

  • Increasing public awareness of the environmental impact of plastic pollution.

  • Government regulations that restrict the use of single-use plastics.

  • Technological advances that make it possible to produce more sustainable forms of plastic packaging.


By understanding the impact of plastic packaging and switching to sustainable alternatives, we can help to protect the environment and create a more sustainable future. Need help getting started? Head to Plastic Detox to help get you jumpstart your plastic-free journey!


 

References:

[1] WWF Australia Report, Lifecycle of Plastics <https://wwf.org.au/blogs/the-lifecycle-of-plastics/

[2] National Geographic, Ocean Trash: 5.25 Trillion Pieces and Counting, but Big Questions Remain <https://education.nationalgeographic.org/resource/ocean-trash-525-trillion-pieces-and-counting-big-questions-remain/>

[3] Business Wire, Recent Study Reveals More Than a Third of Global Consumers Are Willing to Pay More for Sustainability as Demand Grows for Environmentally-Friendly Alternatives <https://www.businesswire.com/news/home/20211014005090/en/Recent-Study-Reveals-More-Than-a-Third-of-Global-Consumers-Are-Willing-to-Pay-More-for-Sustainability-as-Demand-Grows-for-Environmentally-Friendly-Alternatives>

[4] Lisa Zimmermann, Zdenka Bartosova, Katharina Braun, Jörg Oehlmann, Carolin Völker, and Martin Wagner. Plastic Products Leach Chemicals that Induce In Vitro Toxicity under Realistic Use Conditions. Environmental Science & Technology 2021 55 (17), 11814-11823. <https://pubs.acs.org/doi/epdf/10.1021/acs.est.1c01103>

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