We’re at a place in time where people are more inquisitive than ever in regards to where products come from, what they are made of, and what happens to them after they’ve fulfilled their purpose. In many places around the world, we see people paying more and more attention to these questions and their answers, with many wanting to make informed decisions in order to contribute positively and ethically in the modern world. When people obtain their information from the popular media, it can cause a great issue. These outlets over-sensationalise information and don’t always provide a whole view, but instead aim to elicit strong responses from their audience- often biased towards the negative.
When broadcasters and main-stream media run stories on packaging and plastic, we often end up with these sorts of over-simplified, one-sided, partial answers rather than a complete view of the issue. Rarely do we see an in-depth, evidence-based analysis on how we can improve our behaviours and infrastructure, and in turn decrease the impact we have on our environment. Instead, these stories can actually influence peoples choices and behaviour in a way that can actually be worse for the environment.
It is abundantly clear that plastic has nothing but negative connotations in popular opinion, despite the fundamental functions it performs in our society. It is easy to forget the real purpose of packaging, when all that is focused-upon is the end-life of plastics. The very notion of plastic as cheap, as disposable, as worthless, is what got us into our current situation in the first place. We need to understand the reasons behind the vast pollution of plastic in our environment, to look further and understand how and why that plastic is there in the first place. The belief that plastic is evil and must be banned has lead the way for wide-spread ‘greenwashing’ in the packaging sector, with brand owners attempting to do the right thing by using packaging with eco-based claims of ‘biodegradability’ and ‘green’ packaging, that are in reality no better for the environment at this point in time than anything else on the market. It is vital that we instead create new, alternative materials in order to provide the cohesive strategy needed for sustainability (as one size rarely fits all), but we need to be knowledgeable in our choices- a fully compostable bag will still damage wildlife if it ends up in the ocean, after all.
Plastic is involved in every aspect of our modern lives, from protecting the food you buy to protecting medical staff and patients, from making vital parts in your vehicle or mobile phones to vital parts in human beings. The issue we have isn’t really to do with plastic, but with how consumerism has changed drastically over the past 60 years, and how our waste behaviours and infrastructure never changed with it. Economic factors influence more than just company profits, with people earning less, and not willing to spend more. When price is the mitigating factor in purchase decisions as it is with the majority of households, it’s going to impact negatively on the quality and quantity of products we buy and ultimately throw away.
So often we hear people questioning plastic in packaging specifically because they view it without respect for the function it has with product protection, shelf life and food safety. They ask why not go back to the good old days of glass, paper and aluminium? Because these materials don’t have the same functionality and the low production costs of plastic- and that’s not just cost in a fiscal sense; flexible plastics have one of the lowest carbon emissions of any packaging material in both production and transportation, and helps reduce food spoilage and waste. If we viewed plastic as a resource- albeit a finite one, then maybe we would have been quicker to innovate and allow the re-use of post-consumer plastics, rather than continuing to bury them in mountains of dirt (like in the good old days). While we can’t go back, we can definitely move forward. Let’s not hate plastic, let’s recover it.