We have woken up to realise that we have created a large scale and global problem with the way we use plastics. The core of the “plastic problem” is not so much about plastics being a durable and slowly degrading group of materials, but about badly designed end use applications, non-functioning waste management and recycling systems, and most of all people’s and companies’ careless behavior. This has led to plastics ending up everywhere; from the bottom of the Mariana Trench, to the top of the most remote mountains. In the public debate, the obvious solution is to get rid of plastics, starting from the most common single-use plastic item – the packaging. At its worst, plastic as a material is perceived as a hazardous material that can be replaced with almost any given material to make the packaging more sustainable. This narrative has led companies to look for plastic free alternatives.
On January 2020, Green Alliance (UK based independent think tank) published a report: What the grocery sector in UK is really doing about packaging. In the report, they had made an alarming discovery: “Worryingly, the brands report that decisions to switch away from plastic are often made without considering the environmental impact of the substitute materials chosen, or whether or not there is adequate collection and treatment infrastructure in place for them.”
As we start to look a bit closer on these “plastic free” alternatives, we often see that they either are not in fact plastic free, or the overall environmental effects are greater than of plastics. The challenge is in replacing a material, that can be used in direct food contact, protects the packed goods extremely efficiently with a low amount of raw materials, is light weight and durable, and eventually often recyclable. Many times the solutions we see today, are utilising plastic as a binder or as a coating to reach the required properties. Although the amount of plastic used is lower in these alternatives, the overall amount of material needed could be increased and the recyclability compromised. Claimed alternatives to plastic packaging range from entirely different materials, such as glass or cartons, to plastic coated cartons, composites combining plastic with fibers, to bioplastics and biodegradable solutions.
For example, biodegradability doesn’t look like a solution to tackle the littering problem. According to Finnish Environment Institute, only some biodegradable plastics actually decompose rapidly in the Baltic Sea: “Biodegradable and bio-based plastics are increasingly being used in packaging and in disposable and consumer products. In a marine environment, plastics may migrate long distances, accumulating on shores and in mid-ocean vortices, causing harm to marine life and to the marine environment. As biodegradable plastics become increasingly common, the risk of them ending up as marine litter also grows.”
According to the Guardian, in UK, MP’s have warned that plastic alternatives may worsen marine pollution: “Compostable and biodegradable plastics could add to marine pollution because there is no infrastructure in place to make sure they break down correctly. The environmental think tank Green Alliance said there was evidence that the term biodegradable made consumers think it was fine to discard it into the environment, which would make pollution on land and at sea even worse.”
CMO Ari-Pekka Pietilä is in charge of Amerplast corporate product development with years of experience in R&D and different materials. “Material efficiency and properties are unique in plastics. It’s very difficult to replace those especially in food packaging where food waste is a dominating factor from emissions point of view. It’s food production that creates most of the emissions, not packaging. This further addresses the importance to reduce food waste,“ says Pietilä.
“What can be done, is to think about material solutions and the amount of materials used in packaging, as well as durability, to minimize material usage and waste. We, at Amerplast, have already worked for several decades with this to minimize material usage and maximize properties of the materials. In addition, we recycle our internal waste and also source significant amount of external waste material to be used in different nonfood applications.”
CMO Ari-Pekka Pietilä
The most sustainable and long term solution to tackle the issue of plastic pollution, would be to change our way we as a society see and deal with plastics. In practice this would mean a systemic change towards circular economy: