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The Packaging Problem

The problem with packaging: are the alternatives to plastic as fantastic as they seem?

With the current climate and many people turning to online shopping for their items. Many packaged items are arriving in some form of plastic; it makes you wonder just how much extra packaging there is lurking around on this earth!
Have you ever ordered clothes for them to arrive at your door in a large plastic bag only to find, once you open it up, that each item bought is also individually wrapped too!?

If so, you are not the only one.

Many companies package like this because it is lighter than other packaging materials, so lessens fuel consumption during distribution. As well as this, garments are usually already wrapped in the warehouses to protect them from damages in an environment that could be dirty, so all of these items for your order are simply just collected and put into another bag to be sent to your door. This is a very common packaging practice because not only is plastic cheaper to produce, but the lightweight nature of the material can also result in less fuel consumption in the long run.

However, the real question is, does the slightly reduced fuel consumption outweigh the damages caused to the environment by the packaging itself?

The main problem with plastic is its production and properties. Plastic is made from crude oil, a finite resource that is running out and cannot be replenished. In its production it releases large amounts of carbon dioxide, and other harmful gasses, into our atmosphere. After this process has occurred, the final product is a plastic that is lightweight, durable, waterproof and decay resistant. The key words being ‘decay resistant’ which means completely indispensable, it will not biodegrade; henceforth, it causes damage to wildlife and the environment for many years after you have received your parcel.

Through the duration of 2016, 45% of plastic waste was recycled in the UK. However, the lightweight packaging kind is still significantly less recyclable than harder plastics that make up items such as plastic bottles. This is because the machinery isn’t equipped for this type of plastic material and any attempts to
recycle it clogs up the machines. This makes lightweight plastic packages one of the most polluting plastics due to its properties and a large contributor to the global plastic waste figure prediction of over 1 800 million tonnes of plastic waste in the world by 2050.

There are a few simple ways to combat packaging problems, as well as many biodegradable alternatives to plastic that are helping reduce waste.

But are they truly the best options?

Many sustainable alternatives are not quite as good for the environment as they may seem. That being because they contain materials that are not as sustainable as first thought; or they break down but not completely disappear; or maybe they need specific environments in order to biodegrade!

Corn-starch packaging
This is the most widely used type of biodegradable packaging in the UK to date. It is seen and used by many clothing brands, food companies and local food stores have made the switch from plastic bags to corn-starch alternatives. It is made from PLA (polylactic acid) which is created from the fermentation of corn-starch. It produces a material with plastic properties that is known as corn-starch plastic.

Positives

  • It is biodegradable
  • Compostable
  • It is sustainable, renewable and very easy to produce
  • Free from toxins that are harmful to people
  • Fewer greenhouse gasses are released into the atmosphere in the production process than with conventional plastic

Negatives

  • There are very few composting sites that actually provide the right environment to fully biodegrade PLA
  • Consumers are likely to put these plastics into recycling rather than compost, they will not breakdown in this environment
  • Composting PLA on large scales can result in acidic compost, which makes the composting less efficient
  • It is produced from the same part of the corn plant used for the food industry, making it a competitor not a user of waste. This could result in more removal of wildlife spaces for further corn production or the rise in grain prices, which is an affordable food staple for struggling people
  • It comes from a crop that most likely uses pesticides which cause damage to the environment and wildlife before the packaging is produced
  • It must be disposed of in compost waste. Any other means of disposal means it won’t biodegrade

Biodegradable packaging peanuts

These pieces of packaging are made to replace traditional polystyrene packaging peanuts, biodegradable ones are made from nontoxic materials like wheat and starch. They are supposedly better for the environment and will dissolve in water or be able to be composted to dispose of them.

Positives

  • Dissolve in water
  • Compostable
  • Free from toxic substances

Negatives

  • Like corn-starch, the original source of the plant-based materials is an issue. They use the same part of the crop that is edible to humans. This will result in even more land being taken up to accommodate for this agriculture, or the price of the affordable staple foods will go up which is a cause for concern, especially with a lot of world hunger
  • Production costs are higher meaning many businesses will turn to the polystyrene to cut costs
  • They have more weight than traditional polystyrene peanuts, which leads to higher shipping costs and more fuel consumption on transportation
  • If they are not properly disposed, they will not biodegrade, much like corn-starch

Mushroom packaging

This type of biodegradable packaging is not as widely available in the UK as corn-starch at this moment, however, like corn-starch it is an affective alternative to plastic, and it is cheap to produce. The packaging uses agricultural waste which gets fused together by the roots of the mushrooms, creating a matrix known
as mycelium. This material is so versatile that it can be moulded and dried into specific shapes to protect fragile items. It creates the perfect environment positive alternative to Styrofoam.

Positives

  • Unlike corn-starch, this process uses waste and therefore isn’t in competition with any other industry
  • Avoids the need for harmful chemicals
  • Biodegradable, breaks down into organic matter through composting
  • Cost effective, renewable, no need for light, water or chemicals
  • Can be broken down and used in the garden to aerate and provide nutrients to soil
  • Anaerobically compostable – it will break down in landfill where there Is no oxygen

Negatives

  • Although it will break down anaerobically in landfill it takes a significantly longer to decompose.
  • Meaning that simply throwing the material away is not the ideal option
  • Significantly heavier than standard Styrofoam which results in heavier loads that lead to more fuel consumption while in transportation. So, produces more of a carbon footprint in the distribution process
  • Technology is still relatively new

Corrugated bubble wrap

This type of packaging is created specifically to replace the need for standard plastic bubble wrap within packaging. Corrugated bubble wrap is made out of recycled cardboard waste. To create it, small incisions are made in a concertina type effect to create a material that protects against shock, like its standard
bubble wrap counterpart.

Positives

  • Can be reused and recycled post first use
  • Made from recycled cardboard to begin with
  • Biodegradable
  • Sustainable

Negatives

  • Not as durable as regular bubble wrap

Choose Recycled!

To increase the recycled/recyclable content of packaging is to reduce landfill waste. It is as simple as that!

As a consumer the choice to buy from brands that promote recycled packaging, or packaging that is easily recyclable is very important. Look for brands that package in a plastic-free-ways, for example: use cardboard only, or even better, recycled cardboard!

Here at Ethilution we do just that. It all began with a simple conversation with businesses, shedding light on the problem of packaging and we offered them a simple solution to prolong the life of their packaging.

This resulted in the implementation of a system within the local community to ensure that people’s single use cardboard packaging is diverted to us rather than just simply being thrown away or recycled (Amazon is by far the most popular packaging!). The cardboard is then rebranded with the Ethilution logo and a message of awareness, before being used to package our items.


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