Packaging in general cannot be sustainable. Since Adam and Eve ate the apple in the garden of Eden, the impact of humanity on the planet has been destructive so there’s no such thing as sustainable packaging, because the packaging manufacturing process uses and abuses natural resources.
However, reality has it that we cannot live without packaging … in the big cities. Local and rural towns could live without packaging for locally produced food with a short farm-to-market chain, but this would be difficult to do in big cities. Processed foods also need to be packaged. whether in rural towns or in big cities.
The Golden rule
There’s no such thing as sustainable packaging so the main question is: which packaging option is less toxic for the environment and for humans.
The quickest answer to this question is twofold: what are the (1) environmental and (2) human health concerns?
- Environmental concerns
What packaging type can you find that is nearby your manufacturing site and to your regional customers? That’s usually the easiest question to answer. If there are several packaging options to this question; your next questions should be: which manufacturing site is less polluting to its local environment?
- Human Health
That’s answered in a single question: Which packaging contains less toxic chemicals?
If you ask me, the human health concerns should come above the environmental concerns if they lead to different outcomes.
Reusable vs Single use packaging
In theory, reusable is better than single-use packaging in the sense that is has a lower negative impact on the environment. In reality, reusable packaging comes at a certain environmental cost. I’m not sure if reusable packaging is always better and environmentally friendlier than single use packaging: it may have to be compared on a case by case basis.
Plastic vs other material types
Plastic has a bad reputation as it has become the symbol of consumerism. However, I’m not sure if plastic should be decapitated based on its reputation which is often the fruit of emotional thinking.
Other types of packaging materials rely on plastic, for instance: aluminum and steel cans, and paper cups use a thin plastic layer (liner) so if we apply the eco-design rule and the monomaterial principle set up by the European Commission we may well have to skip the middleman and stick to the plastic material.
Achilles heel of plastic packaging
The most important problem of plastic packaging are ‘toxic chemicals’. When you eat food that has been in contact with plastic, the chances are high that it has been contaminated with nanoplastics and toxic chemicals.
The same applies to other packaging materials; for instance paper cups have been using forever chemical and PFAS … but these are usually incorporated through the plastic layer.
There’s one packaging option that has no toxic chemicals: glass, but glass has the highest carbon footprint. However, low-quality glass may also be contaminated with lead and cadmium metal (use in the manufacturing process). One should also differentiate between reusable and single-use (recyclable) glass. The cleaning process of reusable glass doesn’t “just” use clear water; detergents and chemicals are also used to clean the reusable glass. Single use glass has a very high carbon footprint due to the high temperatures needed to melt glass.
Compostable plastics are said to be compostable under some conditions. The problem is that some of the co-polymers used to make plastic degradable by bacterial digestion is toxic for the soil and thus also for human health.
The problems lays in the compostable principle itself, the residue of the composting process of compostable polymers contains toxic chemicals and will be used as compost on our farmlands. The risk of contaminating the food chain at its source is just too big.
The most important co-polymer used to make plastics biodegradable is PBAT mostly produced by BASF, a company whose moral standards are highly questionnable (PBAT and the Third Reich Connections). Using the bacterial digestive residue of PBAT and mixing it with healthy organic compost to be used on farmlands is an environmental and human health hazard.
Biodegradable plastic’s achilles heel is that it involves littering the packaging in the open environment and expecting it to disappear.
Another major question is the following: do we want packaging that ends up in the open environment (land or water) to degrade or do we want it to remain intact so that it can be collected and removed from the open environment afterwards?
Recyclable plastic is a well established myth. The only example of plastic packaging waste recycling that I know of is PET bottles recycled into new rPET bottles or polyester (synthetic textile). The problem is that rPET contains more toxic chemicals that virgin PET and polyester creates ocean micro and nanoplastic pollution and makes you infertile.
Chemical recycling of plastic waste has been on the shelve for the last 30 years and nobody tried it a commercial scale. It’s also a highly polluting process and the end result of the chemical recycling process may not be recycled plastic pellets for packaging applications but will mostly be used as a kind of slimy fuel. If the energy input of the chemical recycling process measured in kilowatthours (kWh) is higher that the energy output generated by the combustion of that plastic waste fuel …. then it’s just another greenwashing scam.
Definitions of Recycling
There’s been a lot of discussion regarding the definitions of ‘plastic recycling’. Here’s my opinion on this matter.
Plastic recycling can be divided into several categories:
- mechanical recycling
- chemical recycling
- advanced recycling
- enzymatic recycling
- biological recycling
- organic recycling
Chemical and Advanced recycling
Chemical recycling uses acids and solvents to degrade plastic waste. In this context, they speak of depolymerisation of plastic waste.
The word ‘advanced recycling’ has been used by the industry in recent years as a replacement for the term ‘chemical recycling’ because the word ‘chemical’ has a bad connotation in the public sphere. In other words: ‘chemical’ is not really a word that fits into the ‘sustainability’ and ‘circularity’ storytelling.
Chemical recycling is not a new process as it has been developed for more than 20 years; for instance pyrolysis. It’s not yet mainstream and it’s still in an experimental and development phase. It’s believed that chemical recycling may be an answer to the plastic waste that cannot be recycled mechanically. There’s a lot of hope placed on chemical recycling, however there are also many doubts regarding the technical, economic and ecological soundness of chemical recycling.
In the eyes of some companies, advanced recycling means chemical recycling + enzymatic recycling. In my eyes, chemical recycling is chemical recycling; and it should not be referred to as advanced recycling.
Advanced, enzymatic and biological recycling
Many companies will use the word advanced recycling to refer to chemical recycling because the word chemical has a bad reputation.
The word biological recycling is also used as a synonym for enzymatic recycling. However, some compostable plastics companies are also using the term biological recycling to refer to the composting of plastic which works on the principle of bacterial digestion of plastic (biodegradation).
In other words: for some companies biological recycling only means enzymatic recycling, for other companies biological recycling also includes “composting”.
In my eyes: advanced recycling includes enzymatic recycling and other types of recycling that doesn’t involve composting, biodegradation, mechanical or chemical recycling.
Biological and organic recycling
In my eyes, biological recycling is a synonym for enzymatic recycling.
Some compostable plastic companies will use the term biological recycling to describe composting of plastics. Some companies will also use the term organic recycling to describe the composting of plastics.
I think we should differentiate between ‘recycling’ and ‘degradation’. Recycling means that the end result leads to plastic pellets that can be used to produce new plastic packaging so we may want to differentiate between biological recycling and biological degradation.
Circularity of plastic waste
It’s all about marketing and money.
The public has been told for the last 35 years that plastic was being recycled (mechanically). However, since China decided in 2018 to stop importing plastics waste from Western countries … the plastic waste has hit the fan.
The plastic industry needs to find solutions to deal with plastic waste to be able to surf on the circular economic wave and to reassure the public and the decision makers that everything is fine in Plastic land.
Reality is a bit different. The circular economic model is a new term for something that has been around for many years: the ability to valorize and thus to monetize byproducts generated from the manufacturing processes. To put it bluntly, a new industry was created on each byproduct stream.
The industry was able to convince decision makers that plastic waste could be valorized … because they see a business opportunity. The industry is currently receiving a lot of subsidies by Western governments to develop new recycling processes to deal with plastic waste.
The circular economic storytelling wants you to believe that all waste can be recycled.
I think it’s not completely correct: byproducts can be valorized but waste cannot. Well, except of course if you consider the profits made by the companies responsible for incineration or landfilling of plastic waste; but that’s non-circular as the plastic waste is destroyed or removed from the economic / industrial process.
I think circularity has its limits and plastic waste may well be an insurmountable barrier …. the bottom line. To some extend we have to accept that our way of life is generating waste … not only byproducts.
I think plastic waste may well be one of the achilles heels of our economic and consumption model.
A lot of plastic is exported to third countries with the promise that it will be recycled while in fact it’s just littered, landfilled or incinerated abroad in dubious conditions. In that case, it may be wiser to have a look at Western regional incineration infrastructure and see if those can be improved to reduce environmental and health hazard so that the plastic waste export ‘buffalo bill show’ can be stopped.
We’re stil nowhere of having found the silver bullet when it comes to plastic waste.
The decision of China to stop importing Western plastic waste should have been a disruptive moment to solve the plastic waste problem but it wasn’t. Since the European Commission has launched the EU SUP Directive we’ve seen an avalanche of greenwashing that we have never seen before.
No packaging option is sustainable in terms of sourcing, processing and end-of-life option.
But the problem is that we need packaging …. so it’s a serious dilemma….