Plastic has always been a hugely popular packaging material – we don’t need to get rid of it, but change it altogether
Consumer behaviours change with any global crisis, and it seems that Covid-19 has had three major impacts on the plastic that most products are still packaged in. Firstly, people are buying more products wrapped in plastic than ever. Secondly, the huge rise in fast food and delivery services has led to similar increase in single-use plastic waste, when the European Parliament’s future ban on throwaway plastics aims for a completely different outcome. Third, home delivery of groceries has become the norm for many people. And with the majority of deliverable goods being long-life products, you can bet your life that these, too, will involve some degree of plastic packaging.
In the coming years, we’ll see which changes are here to stay – and which companies manage to balance the increased demand for packaging materials with consumer concerns about sustainable packaging, all while adhering to the new regulations governments are sure to pass to combat climate change.
Plastic is an easy target to vilify, and deservedly so. E-commerce has made fossil-based plastic waste one of the biggest ecological problems that we must solve, and plastic’s emission-intense lifecycle and its contribution to climate change is something we simply can’t ignore.
The other side of the coin is that plastic is a phenomenally useful material that makes our lives easier and safer. It has helped to solve food shortage at a global level, protected our products and kept our food fresh. That’s why it’s so prevalent. But the fact that 98 per cent of these plastics are oil-based is now forcing us to look at packaging materials in a completely new way.
Solving sustainability at brand level
The vast majority of packages are created by agencies, and the main focus is usually on the visual design of the product. But if companies make sustainable service design a prerequisite, and designers are offered platforms and tools to make sustainable material choices, we’re on the path to fossil-free packaging innovations.
Leading companies to that path is often motivated by consumer wishes. Brands listen to their customers – but the urgency to solve the plastic problem is not only motivated by ecological brand image questions, it’s also down to legislation. When regulatory forces start to take a closer look at defining terms such as “recyclable”, “green”, and “eco”, many companies may find themselves asking why they didn’t start the work sooner.
The end goal in solving the plastic crisis should be making sure that the packages we use are reusable or recyclable, and that they are made of raw materials besides oil. It should be every company’s goal to limit the amount of plastic that ends up in nature or landfill – and also to ensure that any that does doesn’t cause any harm to marine life or other ecosystems.
The good news is that the materials of the future are no longer in test tubes. They’re in the pilot phase, ready for industrial production. Take Paptic, a company producing sustainable alternatives to plastic, such as recyclable paper bags that can be used tens of times. Or Woodly, which has created plastic products entirely from softwood cellulose, without fossil-based ingredients. These are the solutions of tomorrow, already available today.
The ongoing race of the winning concepts
Demands for sustainability open doors to innovation, and packaging is the perfect canvas. In addition to protecting products and telling us what they contain, the purpose of packaging can evolve into something we’ve never seen before.
With families getting smaller and cities being awake 24/7, new demands arise for healthier, fresh food that is smartly packaged. A lot of the information that normally appears on packaging should be moved from the actual physical wrapper to digital platforms. There, consumers could get product information from global companies in their own language.
Packages are not a necessary evil, but an opportunity. No matter how hated it might be, there’s no denying that plastic has done a lot for humankind in terms of fighting food shortage. The next step can be supporting public health with fossil-free packaging materials. Smart, biodegradable packages can proactively recommend the right kind of personalised diet that supports people’s health.
Packaging holds millions of possibilities – both economic and ecologicical – that we haven’t yet discovered.
We are VTT, one of Europe’s leading R&D organisations. Through scientific and technological means, we turn large global challenges into sustainable growth for businesses and society. We believe that groundbreaking solutions are possible only in ecosystems – this is why we bring companies from all over the globe together and put our vast technical and chemical know-how at their disposal.
VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland Ltd
EVP Jussi Manninen
Forge the winning concepts of tomorrow with us at vttresearch.com
Can the solution to the plastic crisis be… plastic? https://youtu.be/0u7vS_MMqfY