The Future of Plastic Packaging

The Future of Plastic Packaging

The World is becoming more and more aware of the plastics pollution problem.

The word plastics has become abused, and in a mix of confusion and oversimplification it may seem that all plastic types and all plastic sources are the same. Notwithstanding, plastics is such a vast world that to better understand the problem a minimum of education is necessary.

The key question should be: when and why plastics is bad?

The answer is that plastics is bad when dispersed without control into the environment, because it can enter the food chain and harm the health of the living creatures.

Starting from this statement all plastics goods can be split into two main categories: the plastics that is subject to enter the environment, and the plastics that can be kept outside of it.

Everyone can be more or less sensitive to the types and quantities of plastics we use: for instance, we may buy sneaker shoes quite easily but then feel afraid for the plastic packaging that comes with food at the grocery store. Yet, for the environment the use of sneaker shoes can be worse that the use of plastic packaging.

In fact the real problem is due to the plastics that enters the environment for:

  1. A lack of collection services, especially in the developing countries
  2. A lack of awareness

While it is widely known that many Asian rivers convey tons of plastic garbage into the oceans for a lack of collection structures, some will be surprised to know that the top sources of microplastic pollution in the world oceans are:

  1. Synthetic textiles (yes, your new Zara sweater!), that are subject to abrasion during laundry (35% of total microplastic releases to the oceans)
  2. Tyre dust, produced by the wear of the tyre tread which gets spread by the wind or washed by the rain (28%)
  3. City dust, or all the plastics that enters the environment due to abrasion of daily goods like shoe soles, cooking utensils, artificial turfs, blasting of abrasives, etc. (24%)

If we look at the global problem with these eyes, today the priority is to identify the main sources of plastic pollution country by country, and to take local actions. In the developing world, where the problem is caused by the lack of collection structures, ideally all non-biodegradable plastics should be replaced immediately. Vice-versa, where the collection of plastic waste has become the norm, the efforts should focus on the replacement of the microplastic sources that we cannot control.

Sooner or later most non-biodegradable polymers will likely be replaced by more environment friendly ones, but in the meanwhile we should feel quite comfortable with the use of consumer and industrial plastic packaging and goods that can be properly recycled and disposed, and that we can easily keep outside of the environment.

Because plastics in itself is not the problem, but its mismanagement is.

Nicola Principato