Can we have our plastic and ‘eat’ it too?

Backlash against conventional plastic and growing consumer demand for solutions to the plastic waste crisis is forcing industry stakeholders to change the way they operate. Daphna Nissenbaum welcomes an increase in regulations aimed at solving this global crisis and discusses the pressing need for alternative packaging solutions

Over the past few years, the extent to which plastic pollution is harming the planet has been pushed dramatically to the forefront of consumer consciousness, concurrent with the rise in global food waste, which has reached epidemic levels. In 2019, more than 2.1 billion metric tons of municipal waste was generated, and the accumulation of discarded food is predicted to rise by a third by 2030.

Widespread concern among the public has placed governments, retailers, and manufacturers under increasing pressure to act and implement solutions to protect the future of our planet from waste.

Since almost half (40%) of Europe’s plastic is being used for packaging, the EU Commission is working to create a healthy roadmap out of these harmful single-use plastics. Unfortunately, single-use plastic remains one of the world’s most flexible, inexpensive, lightweight, and storage-compact packaging solutions available. It is still the most popular material used to protect delicate produce, as well as other products from damage. So, what is the responsible alternative?

The challenge of reducing plastic waste lies in the fact that plastic packaging plays a significant role in reducing food waste–especially fresh food and perishable grocery items. Earlier this year, Iceland’s trials involving paper bags to package bananas failed due to a 20% shrinkage in the size of the fruit and faster rotting, among other complications. Non-plastic packaging can’t compete with plastic when it comes to protecting food from damage during its journey from farm to aisle and aisle to home. Plastic also offers manufacturers unrivalled flexibility when printing, cutting and assembling packaging for products where a significant shelf-life is necessary.

Currently, the recycling infrastructure is not effective enough. Not all single-use plastics are eligible to be recycled. Flexible packaging, for example, often contain additives that make them stronger and more durable, but are impossible to recycle and very slow to break down. Over the last few decades, flexible packaging has grown exponentially in popularity because of its elasticity, durability, and attractive pricing, but have a dismal end-of-life cycle.

Of the plastics that can be recycled, only 9% are; that means 91% of plastics are left to be incinerated, sent to a landfill, or dumped into natural environments.

The world has produced an estimated 8,300 million mega tons of plastic since 1950, almost none of which has been successfully recycled. More importantly, recycling plastic only delays its eventual disposal or incineration. If 9% of plastics are recycled, even less are recycled a second time, and virgin plastics are still needed to create new products with the recycled material.

Turning crisis into opportunity

The current market economy limits how many businesses are able to offer the option of reusable plastics, and the practicality of single-use packaging makes it unavoidable, but maybe single-use plastics are. The EU government has been taking a lead in tackling plastic waste with more sustainable materials, aiming to turn the current crisis into an opportunity.

The result is new technologies that are looking for packaging solutions with a healthy end-of-life cycle made from viable materials that, when returned to the Earth, will not damage its ecosystems, but benefit them. Compostable packaging technology has already has success in the fashion and food packaging industry, and is being developed in a way that helps mend this unstable waste routine by introducing material that acts like regular plastic, but with a polymeric structure that is deemed suitable for organic waste streams.

One of the primary obstacles encountered in waste management and recycling is when damaged or inedible food is discarded along with conventional plastic packaging. The result is that different types of refuse wind up in inappropriate waste streams: organic matter can be found in landfills and plastic packaging sluffs off to contaminate organic waste streams. This new generation of packaging has the same end-of-life cycle as the food it is designed to protect, and it can be composted along with organic leftovers before safely returning to the biosphere, enriching it with nutrients, helping to replenish our soil and reducing dependency on fertilizers.

Compostable materials are an ideal beginning-to-end solution. They are derived from bio-based materials and have the same mechanical and optical properties as most conventional plastics, with the capability to break down fully into soil in a matter of months, just like an orange peel. They work on the same machines food manufacturers use for standard flexible plastic packaging, proof that an eco-friendly approach doesn’t have to be a compromise, for either businesses or consumers. This material offers a solution in direct response to retailers’ requirements; for product lines, it allows manufacturers to proactively adapt to consumer pressure and abide by legislation from government organisations. For businesses, it provides the opportunity to reduce ‘avoidable plastic waste’ as pledged by the EU and, along with their consumers, transform food packaging into soil which can introduce natural resources back into the environment.

Ensuring the right infrastructure is in place

The EU has taken large strides in battling single-use plastic pollution and has become a global leader in the undertaking, but municipal infrastructure must also transition out of our current waste system to catch up with increasing awareness and provide more useful means for proper separation, collection, and processing of waste.

One of the benefits of compostable packaging is that it encourages municipalities to move closer to a true circular economy. The technology serves as a model for systemic changes that respect the consumer, business, and environment, nurturing a responsible ecosystem that serves the needs of all three. Municipalities can responsibly separate and dispose of waste in a way that serves the environment, working in tandem with reducing harmful packaging where they can, and recycling materials eligible for recycling.

Daphna Nissenbaum CEO and Co-Founder of TIPA, which manufactures compostable packaging solutions, designed to break down within months under compost conditions just like any organic matter, such as orange peels.

TIPA® packaging provides solutions for the food and fashion industries and is built to fit existing machinery and supply chains. The company’s packaging solutions are currently being implemented worldwide by leading global brands in Europe, Australia, and the US.

It has been named a ‘Technology Pioneer’ by the World Economic Forum, joining a prestigious list of companies from around the world involved in the design, development, and deployment of new technologies and innovations who are poised to have a significant impact on business and society.

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