Are we addicted to plastic?
Plastic has a powerful hold on retail practice. Solving a problem starts with understanding how we got here. Here are reasons why we have such a bad plastic habit:
The food and plastic industry have evolved together to create packaging that is not only lightweight and cheap but makes products better. New plastic formulas made of blended polymers have been designed to guard against the ills of travel, humidity, light, and bacteria. but these new-fangled plastics are impossible to recycle!
Food waste wins
Plastic can take some moral high ground when it comes to food waste: it’s great at extending food shelf life. Shrink-wrap a cucumber in polyethylene and its life is extends from 3 to 14 days*. Many products gain up to 15 days shelf life wrapped in plastic.
Plastic makes products look great: deli meat sleeves, a package that shows the ‘best side’ of a cheese, black trays that frame meats and meals, or domes that make something small look bigger.
Hard to beat value
It’s low cost and lightweight, which makes plastic containers cheaper to ship than glass. Plastic has been a cost efficiency leader, but now costs we never counted on are beginning to mount up all over the planet.
No question: plastic is very good at what it does – and we’re hooked, but only 9% of plastics are recycled** Would some old school materials have a better chance of being re-used?
What about glass?
When the business of buying food to take home first began, it started in glass containers. And glass still as a certain kind of gravitas for any product. Sure, it’s heavier. And glass is breakable. But consumer awareness of the plastic problem may make it a better option: it is 100% recyclable, and systems in place mean that about 80% of glass gets recycled. While many established beverages find the economics challenging to get back to glass, new indie beverages are launching in this more sustainable choice.
What about aluminum?
Dasani has announced that it’s putting water back into aluminum bottles. Aluminium soda cans have been around for decades, and thus a decent infrastructure for recycling them exists. Dasani has gone one better with their new aluminum bottle: it has an aluminum screw-on cap – a closure that soda cans don’t have and a feature that water drinkers expect. Aluminum can be as light as plastic, is also 100% recyclable and currently about 50% of the cans make it to a recycler. Aluminium isn’t see-through, but years of walking grocery aisles have trained most of us that we don’t always need to see what we consume to buy it.
Can we make it simpler?
Before plastic was problem, many producers pushed a plastic upgrade on their product. The food industry has challenged plastic producers for better engineered and better-looking plastic: brightly colored, glossier, and thicker. Polymers were blended to optimize humidity, shine, colour and weight. They impress, but blended polymers cannot be separated and are therefore are unrecyclable. Going back to simple single polymer plastics may shave off some shelf life. They might make the product look at little less fancy and a little flimsier. But at least the package will have more than one life.
*Flexible Packaging Association
**Recycling Council of Ontario