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Packaging Guilt - Making Peace


Do you know that an unwrapped cucumber will only last 3 days! The 1.5gms of plastic wrapping of a cucumber extends its life to 14 days.

Unfortunately, with glaring waste statistics such as  -the average UK householder throws away an estimated 400g of packaging every day [pdf] and 25% of household waste is packaging [pdf] –  care and concern for the fateful cucumber can easily be swept aside.

Many of us, and with good reason, equate packaging with wanton waste excesses that impacts our environment negatively.

Is there a case for packaging?

Packaging does and can play s significant role in a circular economy in three major ways:

  • maintaining the value of the product
  • playing an important role in the distribution of products
  • being environmentally friendly with innovative packaging materials.

The Packaging Guilt – Making Peace


  • Packaging plays a pivotal role in enabling delivery of products from production to consumption. It contributes to a circular economy by easing transportation and maintaining the value of a product during the distribution, thus preventing product waste. We use packaging because food and other goods are grown and produced in one place and used in another. People in urban environments are less likely to have space to be self-sufficient, and hence rely on food and other products grown and produces elsewhere and delivered to them.  If we could get our greens from the field onto the plate without packaging, farmers would because their greens would be cheaper than their competitors.
  • Packaging hence increases global trade and oils the wheels of the global economy.
  • Unpredictable harvests, especially of food, can lead to either a scarcity or abundance and hence waste. Packaging enables products to be stored to prevent waste in times of abundance and used in times of scarcity.
  • Green transportation. Packaging can add weight and hence more energy to transport products, burning more fuel, adding to the greenhouse emission and carbon footprints. But ‘green transportation’, promising new technologies may be the solution. But for now, we could use more environmentally-friendly modes of transportation such as electric HGVs and trains, especially if the power comes from clean and/or renewable sources such as hydroelectric, geothermal, wind turbines, or solar power.

Innovative Packaging

Added to the above advantage of playing a pivotal role in distribution is that innovative packaging further enhances the value of the product whilst being environmentally friendly.

  • Plant-based materials. More and more plant-based materials which are biodegradable and easily disposed off are used for packaging. On a national scale, France has passed a new law which will come into effect in 2020 to ensure all plastic cups, cutlery and plates can be composted and are made of biologically-sourced materials.

Examples include:

Element tableware  - Element is made from cornstarch and yam. It is 100% biodegradable and hence one does not have to worry about which recycling bin to put it in. It is disposed off into your normal waste heading for the landfill.

It meets the ASTMD6400 D6866 and EN13432 standards. The amount of carbon dioxide released in the creation of Element is 72% less than conventional plastics. In fact, 95kg of carbon dioxide is released in the creation of the material granulate of Element compared to 3.45 kg released in the creation of polystyrene.

Tetra Rex bio-based drinks carton is manufactured from plastics derived from sugar cane and paperboard. The carton has 4kg less embedded carbon than conventional polyethylene on a per kg basis.

Hovis uses a sugar cane-based renewable polyethylene bag for its Seed Sensations range. The bag, which has a 75% lower carbon footprint than traditional bread bags, was developed by Australian firm Amcor Flexibles.

Allplants  -  instead of relying on refrigerated vans during delivery and their resulting  ozone depleting refrigerants chlorofluorocarbons (CFC) and hydro chlorofluorocarbons (HCFC), allplants uses a ‘spaceman’s envelope’ made from plants to keep its products refrigerated in transit. The system relies on a sponge-like insulation liner made from post-industrial raw denim fibres, coupled with high-duration deep freeze gels. The gels contain no toxins so can be safely poured down the sink after use, while the liner has two parts. The external part is plastic and can be recycled through your local recycling system, the inside part is compostable.

  • Wider range of sizes. Packaging delivers a wider range of appropriately-sized portions hence enabling smaller portions to be served to avoid food waste.
  • Food on the go. Single serve packaging enables and supports this huge food industry.
  • Food without preservatives. Without effective and innovative packaging food shelf life cannot be extended and protected without the use of preservatives.

Maintaining the Value of the Product

Packaging keeps the value of the product especially food by keeping it cold, protecting it and extending its shelf life.

Packaging prevents product waste by protecting products on their journey from production to consumption; it also enables food to be kept fresher for longer at home with re-sealable packs, dispensing systems.

An anti-microbial absorbent packaging from Sirane has given diced beef two additional day’s shelf life in recent trials with a UK meat processing company.

The trials demonstrated a two-day increase from nine to eleven days of the shelf-life of the packs containing Sirane’s ABM pads compared to existing packaging.

The functions of Packaging

Do you often wonder why products are packed they way they are?  Can you imagine getting your toothpaste in a brown paper bag!  The function of the packaging is to protect the product from both external and internal factors such as dirt, light, moisture, oxygen, bacterial growth, temperature and physical damage.

Packaging contributes to sustainability by saving more resources than it uses and preventing more waste than it generates. Packaging keeps products in perfect condition, ensures they survive the journey through the supply chain and enables consumers to receive wholesome, safe food and undamaged goods.

Have you notice that ground coffee packs have a valve? The valve allows gas to escape from the pack. Coffee is packed quickly after roasting to keep its flavour, but it continues to release carbon dioxide and the valve allows the gas to escape so that the pack does not burst.

Some products, especially shampoos and body lotions, come in an upside down bottle – called a tottle – for easy dispensing and to ensure that every last bit of product can be used.

Ever wondered why your crisps comes bags made of in very thin material – half the thickness of human hair? It keeps the crisp crunchy.

Common misconceptions about packaging materials. 

Is paper better than plastic? Should we all revert to the brown paper bag for all our groceries? All packaging materials have their environmental pros and cons; none has a monopoly of environmental virtues.  One of the polymers which are currently hailed as the culprit of the environment - ‘Expanded Polystyrene’ –has the lowest carbon footprint of any polymer because it is 98% air.

So packaging guilt need not to be taken to the extreme.

Let us all take responsibility for:

  • promoting and encouraging the use of more plant-based packaging material;
  • not littering and for making sure we dispose of our waste out carefully for collection for recycling or other treatment.

We must also be mindful of the fact that recycling has its limits. Resources such as energy, water and other costs are involved to collect, sort and clean the waste. Recycling should only be an option when it saves more resources than it uses.

Packaging that is difficult to recycle still delivers a net environmental benefit in protecting more resources than it uses and preventing more waste than it generates.

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