The next time you’re at the grocery store and the checkout clerk asks the question, ‘Paper or plastic?’ be sure you have all the facts. Paper is the environmentally friendly choice, goes the mantra, but, after calculating the total environmental impact plastic starts to look like a good choice (unless, of course, you carry your own cloth bags). Here is a comparison of various packaging options that might surprise you…
Is plastic the public enemy #1 for environmentally-conscious shoppers? After all it is supposed to be non-renewable, non-biodegradable, not all types can be recycled, and a lot of it ends up in our landfills.
Deciding to avoid plastic would seem a wise choice, but looking more closely, plastic requires little energy to produce and shipping costs are also low because of its strength-to-weight ratio. This translates not only into reduced raw materials but also lower energy requirements for production and shipment: reduced environmental impact.
The fact is that the three main characteristics of plastic: strength, lightweight and flexibility all contribute to make plastic the packaging material of choice for a wide range of industries today.
Still though, it isn’t perfect. Anne Johnson, of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a Virginia-based industry working group says that everything is a trade off when it comes to selecting the proper packaging. They admit that all types of packaging are environmentally unfriendly in different ways. Only nature has come up with packaging materials that meet the necessary environmental requirements, think of fruit like oranges and bananas.
Let’s consider our non-fruit options:
- Glass (primarily as bottles) are classic containers for soft drinks and alcohol, however glass requires a lot of energy to make and also to recycle; and it is heavy to ship.
- Paper products can package a wide range of products easily and it has the much touted benefits of being renewable and degradable. But similar to glass, it is bulky to ship, can require a lot of energy to produce and may also use environmentally damaging chemicals in its production.
- Metal packaging such as aluminum is often just impractical due to its sheer weight, but also because it requires a lot of energy to produce and the recycling process weighs heavily on it total environmental impact.
Given all of this, it is very difficult to state with certainty which is green and which is not.
Helen Lewis of the Sustainable Packaging Alliance in Melbourne, Australia, feel that plastic’s characteristics make it a less environmentally damaging choice than glass or paper. With greenhouse gas emissions nearing the top of most environmental and political agendas, plastics begin to look good, since reduction in total energy requirements reduces the environmental impact.
Of the three R’s of waste management, only plastic hits all three:
- Reduce. By requiring few raw materials for production of an equivalent strength container in other materials, plastic reduces the materials and energy needed.
- Re-use. More and more plastic items are being re-used or made to be re-useable (think of the ubiquitous plastic bag and refillable detergent bottles as examples).
- Recycle. All types of plastics, once dumped into landfills are becoming more and more recyclable and those plastics that cannot be recycled easily are often being burned to generate energy as plastic produces more than 3 times the energy as conventional combustible waste. Further the resulting ash has only 10 % of the volume and 20 % of the weight further reducing the overall amount of waste to be taken to the landfill. At present, efforts are underway to turn the ash into useful construction materials such as building blocks and roadways.
Efforts are also being made to produce more biodegradable plastics made from corn, wood pulp, and sugar, among other sources. (See these May, 2006 GNN-i stories about bio-bottles and bio-bags.) Anne Johnson commenting on the recent Biodegradable Plastics in Packaging conference held in Chicago last year stated that a very intriguing future source is switchgrass.
"Switchgrass is a native North American prairie grass that can grow in depleted or poor soil anywhere, from the south of Mexico to the north of Canada," she said. "Land and climate conditions unsuitable for many agricultural products can sustain switchgrass.”
One company, Innovia Films, has developed a biodegradable plastic film for fresh food that has excellent transparency and is semi-permeable to moisture providing good anti-mist properties. The film, called NatureFlex NVS, also offers a good barrier to gases and aromas; and is cellulose based, derived from renewable wood pulp sourced from managed and sustainable forests.
Alright, so plastic isn’t evil after all, but what about some of the seemingly more obvious packaging excesses? Shrink-wrapped vegetables? Over-sized packages on electronic items?
Industries rarely act without being sure of a healthy profit for their efforts. What seems like excess packaging (ok, we can leave this one for a debate) has proven to be smart for business.
- People can put clean, wrapped potatoes straight into the microwave – this ease of preparation translates into higher potato sales.
- Oversized packaging can serve two functions by better protection of the product so that it reaches the store shelves in one piece and also reducing potential for theft since bulky items are more difficult for a shoplifter to conceal.
- Safe arrival of the product is critical point in our global society where products are often manufactured in one part of the world and shipped to another.
Even with recycling efforts on all packaging materials, 69 million tons of it enter US landfills each year so what is a consumer to do?
"Always try to pick refillable packaging," says Marko Hekkert of Utrecht University in the Netherlands, who compared the greenhouse gas emissions of a range of packaging materials. If that’s not possible, a pouch is the next best option for liquid products, followed by cardboard cartons, and then a lightweight plastic container. Aluminium and steel cans are a no-no due to their high energy requirements to produce and ship. He points out that soda is no longer sold in cans in the Netherlands. Says Hekkert, "Metal is just bad packaging."