Sustainable Package Design is a Must to Tackle Pollution Crisis
by Paul Foulkes-Arellano
Brand packaging designers have a vital role to play when it comes to driving positive change, no more so when it comes to sustainable pack innovation.
In recent decades, we’ve seen game-changing improvements in packaging efficiency, with more and more lightweight solutions brought to market. As a result of sustained R&D investment, packaging suppliers have both reduced the environmental impact of their product offering and reduced costs throughout the supply chain. But the increased use of plastics in food and beverage packaging has had unexpected consequences, as evidenced by shocking images across the media.
The changing profile of plastic packaging in recent years has been dramatic. PET plastic bottles are 30% lighter than 15 years ago. And on the back of decades of work to promote slimline packaging, plastic on average accounts for only 1-3% of the total weight of UK food and drink products. But their final resting place is not just landfill.
Across the globe, we still dump around 8 million tons of plastic waste into oceans each year. Every minute we dump the equivalent of one garbage truck’s worth of plastic into global seas. In some areas of the South Pacific, plastic debris is thought to outnumber plankton by a ratio of six to one. The pollution problem shows no sign of going away anytime soon, however, with plastic taking an average of 400 years to degrade in water.
The consequences for wildlife can be deadly. Thousands of seabirds and sea turtles, seals and other marine mammals are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. Endangered wildlife like Hawaiian monk seals and Pacific loggerhead sea turtles are among nearly 300 species that eat and get caught in plastic litter. Dissections of deceased sperm whales often reveal their stomachs to be clogged with plastic debris.
There is a growing body of evidence to suggest that we should be worried about the effect of plastic litter on human health too. Around a third of fish caught off the coast of South West England are thought to contain plastic traces, with seafood eaters at risk of ingesting toxic debris. More scientific research needs to be done, so in effect, we are in the dark of the true impact of trace plastics in food.
Recycling is often touted as the answer to the pollution problem, and impressive progress has been made in this area. Plastic products are made up of more recycled material than ever before, and we’ve seen sustained industry investment in recycling capacity for plastics. Despite a concerted effort to increase recycling, we still only recycle 14% of our plastic packaging.
The answer then is clear. While plastic is a great material, we need to be much smarter about what we package our food and drink products in.
This year I joined forces with campaign group A Plastic Planet. Its mission is to give consumers the chance to choose more sustainable packaging options when they shop for food and drink. The group is aiming to secure a Plastic Free Aisle in supermarkets, which would feature products packaged in alternative materials such as aluminum and sustainable plant-based materials rather than fossil fuel-based plastics destined for landfill.
A Plastic Planet wants to work with brand designers, brand owners and retailers to encourage more sustainable alternatives to goods designed for single-use plastic manufacture. With an unrivaled capacity for innovation, we think brand designers are ideally placed to realize our vision of a more sustainable future for food and drink in global retail. Collectively brand designers specify billions of units every year, and it’s clear we need forward-thinking brand designers to help brand owners switch out of single-use plastics.
With plastic pollution reaching endemic levels, it is incumbent on all of us to work together to find a better way forward.
Paul studied Modern Languages at Cambridge University specialising in Spanish linguistics. He is fascinated by shopper culture across countries and continents, having worked extensively in Asia and Latin America. He’s spent the past 28 years travelling the globe encountering brands and companies with exciting challenges, which also allows him to indulge in a spot of birdwatching.