To date, more than 60 countries have introduced legislation to reduce the use of single-use plastics – including bags, straws, cups, and other products. This is causing a serious shift in the global plastics market which by 2020 was projected to be worth $654.38 billion. The largest segment of this market, plastic packaging, is arguably the segment that will be most impacted and experience the most visible change. In 2017, the plastic packaging market alone was valued at $321.40 billion and was expected to reach $452.24 billion by 2024.

Can you imagine what our food environment would look like without plastic packaging? Today, single-use plastics and plastic packaging can be found in almost every single aisle of the grocery store. More than one third of food sold in the European Union is packaged in plastic.

It is nearly impossible to go a day without using some form of single-use plastic, our environment was designed this way. Plastic is cheaper and more adaptable than almost any other material allowing it to gain the deep market penetration it holds today. Most consumer markets and products were designed with plastics in mind and heavily rely on them. As markets move away from single-use plastics, including packaging, fundamental shifts in the design of our food environments and innovations with in the packaging sector will be required.

We are starting to see this shift happen in small increments around the world. Iceland, a discount supermarket chain in the UK, has pledged to remove plastic from packaging on all of the store-branded products within five years. Last year, the non-profit A Plastic Planet, launched its “Plastic-Free Aisle” campaign to help consumers and stores see and experience the feasibility of plastic-free packaging. In these plastic-free aisles customers can buy almost 700 items – including meats, sauces, produce, yogurt, snacks, cereal, drinks – none of which is packaged in plastic.

But what is replacing plastic? Everything in the “Plastic-Free Aisle” is packaged in aluminum, glass, paper, or bioplastics that are biodegradable. Alternative materials are being made using everything from sugarcane to mushrooms to agave fibers to food waste. Bio-plastics (plastics made from starch or plant protein, some of which are biodegradable or compostable) in particular are becoming more and more popular – the Global Bio-Plastics market is projected to grow and is estimated to reach $35.47 billion by 2022. While this is just a fraction of the size of the plastics market, it represents a shift in mind-set of producers and businesses.

While innovations in plastic alternatives are exciting, many are extremely expensive. Few materials existence today that are as cost efficient and as widely available as plastic. However, as the policy program director at the University of Cambridge’s Institute for Sustainability Leadership illustrated, the real core of the problem is not simply that “plastic is bad so let’s use something else”.  Solving the world’s plastic problem “will require a complete change in the way we use product packaging at the moment. Most packaging is now used just once and thrown away. We need to move away from that.”

In the end the issue isn’t the type of materials we are using but the convenience/throw-away culture that has developed – replacing plastics with bioplastics or plant-based plastics is only part of the solution.


Further Reading:

What’s the real price of getting rid of plastic packaging?

Throwaway culture has spread packaging waste worldwide: Here’s what to do about it

Innovative Alternatives to Traditional Plastic

A Plastic Free Aisle

Thanks for sharing !

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