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The Plastic Problem: We’re Overdoing It

June 17, 2020

How much plastic do we really need? Our plastic problem forces us to rethink our approach to food retail packaging. Here’s a look at four areas where the industry can reduce.

Do we need plastic to last a thousand years? (when our food doesn’t last a thousand hours)

Our food has an expiry date, but plastic packaging never does. Many grocery products, especially in fresh departments, are still in single-use plastic. They’re often coloured plastics, or mixed polymers specially created optimize freshness standards.  But fresh products don’t need a forever package: paper or structured cardboard can hold up produce, sandwiches and many items. Compostable substrates offer good packaging stability. Many in development are sourced from seaweed, grasses and other plant fibers: it’s likely that food-derived packaging will be what keeps our food safe in the future.

Do we really need to see what’s inside?

Many food packages are built to reveal their contents. Products like pasta, crackers and some snacks are come in boxes that combine a mix of paper or cardboard with a plastic window. Do we really need this peek-a-boo feature? Cardboard plus plastic film means the package is not recyclable. Other categories like cereals, cookies, mixes and other products have no window -and sell just fine.  Brands should redesign without a plastic window and tell customers they opted for sustainability vs visibility.

Do we need to wrap it twice? Or three times?

Some people believe that everything is better when bundled in plastic: just think of those wrapping machines at the airport. Plastic wrapping keeps something not only visible, but also waterproof, pest proof and padded for protection. Now many categories – especially household paper categories and club pack sizes – are showing up with layers of wrapping: single rolls of paper towels and toilet paper are plastic wrapped, overwrapped, and then wrapped again in a branded plastic band. Is this necessary? Can a layer – or two – be removed or substituted? What’s wrong with paper wrapping paper?

Do we need to wrap it at all?

New technology is helping us get rid of some of the plastic sachets in products that hold individual servings or portions.  We first discovered dissolvable sachets with laundry pods, and the technology is evolving to other categories. Suddenly a single use item doesn’t need to be in its own special container: it can maintain a safe self-containing barrier until it hits water – and then it dissolves. Dissolvable sachets will help rid a lot of single serve products of needless plastic pouches. Look for them soon in single serve soup mix, beverages like hot chocolate, creamers, pasta, oatmeal and rice.

Plastic reduction really is a game of inches. For those of us in the packaging industry, we need to help our clients by bring new sustainable solutions to design discussions.

Image Credit: DeCecco Packaging

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