The birth of plastic was in 1907. Today, life without this all-rounder is hard to imagine. But just that is the order of the day: we have to change our wasteful handling of plastics for the sake of the environment! The material, which was once highly praised for never decomposing, should in future only be used when there is no other, more eco-friendly option. The reason being that all the colourful plastic we use is creating mountains of waste, and we are now in over our heads. There is good news though: The packaging industry, one of the main contributors to plastic waste, has alternatives to choose from.
Plastic owes its stellar career to outstanding technical properties such as its mouldability, hardness, elasticity, breaking resistance, structural integrity when exposed to heat, and chemical resistance. These properties vary depending on which materials are added in the quite inexpensive production process. Thus, plastic fulfils the requirements of several areas of life like no other material – and is used accordingly often. However: Plastic is (still) mostly produced using crude oil and the process requires a lot of water and energy. But those are not the only reasons why the material is a climate killer.
Between 1950 and 2015, humanity produced about 6.3 billion tons of plastic waste¹. Of those, only 9 percent were recycled, and 12 percent were burned (thermally utilised). The rest, so around four fifths of it ended up in landfills or uncontrolled in the environment. And that is where plastic really turns into a problem, because plastic never rots. It instead takes up to 500 years for it to break down into tiny little pieces (microplastic), which you can now find everywhere: in the air, in the ground, in the water, in our food, and even in our bodies². Many of these microplastic particles are already themselves made up of harmful substances such as plasticisers, dyes, and flame retardants. And in addition to that, they bind harmful materials from the environment to themselves like magnets.
Packaging industry in a raw material shift: plastic-free packaging
The packaging industry is one of the main contributors to plastic waste. In 2017, every single citizen of the EU produced almost 174 kilogrammes of packaging waste, of which about one fifth (19 percent) was plastic waste³. The search for and development of plastic-free packaging is already well under way – here are 12 promising examples:
1. Packaging produced with paper injection moulding is made up of water, paper fibres, and so-called industry starch out of starch potatoes. The ingredients are mixed together, injected into an aluminium mould and “baked” into form. The carbon footprint of paper injection moulding packaging is 85 percent less than that of comparable plastic packaging. Paper injection moulding packaging is consequently produced completely organically, food-safe, recyclable, and biodegradable.
2. Prepared wastepaper can be recycled into moulded fibre packaging after dissolving it in water, without needing any binding agents. The resulting pulp is poured into a mould and pressed, while simultaneously extracting the water. The resulting moulded fibre only has to dry and is then ready for use. Moulded fibre packaging is 100 percent recyclable and biodegradable.
3. Recycled corrugated cardboard which is laminated (fully coated in paper) and cut into form (even inboard cut-outs and nests are possible) is a suitable replacement for plastic bubble wrap.
4. Recycled wrapping paper off the roll or in the shape of chips can be used instead of Styrofoam (polystyrene) and bubble wrap as a filler and cushioning material in boxes.
5. Special mushroom cultures, which are “fed” with organic waste, can replace Styrofoam packaging: They grow for a couple of days and are then cut up and put in a mould, which they completely fill out within five days. After that, the compact mass is heated to stop the growth of the mushroom and make the packaging sterile.
6. Sugar cane is the raw material used to make, among other things, organic TetraPak cartons for milk products and juices that require cooling.
7. There is ongoing research on an edible packaging foil out of milk, or more precisely the milk protein casein, which is known for being an oxygen blocker, among other things. The casein-foil is aimed towards replacing plastic foil made of crude oil.
8. By using seaweed, packaging can be made just like it is found in nature: The process known as spherification creates a waterproof skin out of algae, reminiscent of the skin of a grape, which can be used to create even bite-sized portions. This can reduce plastic bottles and containers such as cans, tubes, and cups
9. Lactic acid can be obtained from sugar and starch, which is the raw material used to produce biodegradable bioplastic bottles. They are even substantially cheaper to produce than conventional plastic bottles.
10. Potato skins were used by design students in Italy to create serving dishes in which they served French fries made of the very same potatoes. After use, the potato skin serving dishes can be disposed of in the organic waste bin.
11. Compostable cellulose paper can be used to replace aluminium foil, silicone-coated baking sheets, and plastic wrap.
12. Packaging materials out of straw and hemp are completely biodegradable and can be used together with cooling elements as insulated packaging.
About the author
Independent eco-journalist and #motherof4 Doreen Brumme writes all about having an eco-lifestyle at work, at school, and in family life on doreenbrumme.de.