Packaging Matters

Is Packaging Evil?

Is Packaging Evil?

Plastic pollution in the oceans

Ok, I hope that got your attention. Before you decide dismissing reading this article and doom this blog before it has started the title was meant to be ironic.

I’d like to review the uncomfortable relationship that packaging has with the environment, and its negative public perception.

Plastic packaging is even more evil

It must, be, after all we live in a world where there is a Great Pacific Garbage Patch

Most of it is made of by plastic (from sources of land based and marine debris), so it’s clearly a justifiable cause for concern and the perfect example of the consequences of ignoring the environmental effects of industrial activity. It’s the sort of phenomenon that makes people think that plastic packaging is much worse than let’s say paper or cardboard packaging, and it should be reduced or eliminated.

“For every complex problem there is an answer that is clear, simple, and wrong.”

―H. L. Mencken

There’s no doubt that plastic packaging waste management plays an important role but before thinking of adopting drastic and obvious measures, let’s look at one of the

Plastic shopping bags

Just analyzing the shopping plastic bags issue, one can find opposite theories. Taking into account merely the amount of material, one could think this problem is negligible, even more so, when plastic shopping bags are used multiple times (as grocery or garbage bags).

It is possible to consider also the amount of energy and resources needed to produce plastic bag compared to a paper bag or a reusable cotton fiber bag.

However, I can remember during a visit to a waste management plant, witnessing a nightmare of floating bags clogging the machine’s gears.

That was just an example of the need to see the whole picture. For instance carbon footprint or more lately GHG (greenhouse gas) footprint (you can google it, but here’s an interesting link) has been used to compare the sustainability. However in most occasions the wrong conclusion will be get if one does not consider the whole process (the energy an materials used to manufacture the product, the emissions a residues it leaves, and the function it performs). To do so a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is needed.

Several LCAs ( here’s three, in case you want to get a taste:1, 2, 3) compare single use plastic bags with other alternatives, and the results may not seem obvious. Of course, being such a ubiquitous product, mainstream media has also covered this issue (4, 5, 6).

 Public perception. Packaging and food

Form a sustainability point of view, the content usually requires much higher amount of energy and resources to be produced than the packaging, and food is a perfect example of this (you can check this presentation).

There has been a growing concern about food waste in industrialized societies and in the Third World. The cause of world hunger lies not in food production but in food distribution, and proper packaging  and better distribution technologies can be the hero here (for instance see these articles: 7, 8, 9).

However in the relation between food and packaging the latter packaging is often perceived as a dangerous villain.

For instance for  people concerned with a healthy diet, processed food  is the enemy due to the amounts  of sugars, unhealthy fats, and refined flours, and packaged food is a synonym of processed food.  Also several cases of substance migration form the packaging to the food have –both deservingly and undeservingly alarmed the public.

Again there is a scale of greys in these issues, good natural products can be  better preserved with proper packaging, and a packed fruit picked later can have better nutritional value and be more sustainable than a non-packed fruit picked earlier (to withstand longer transportation time).

Also consumer trends such as reduced servings and on the go products have increased the ratio of packaging material and content, and contribute to increase the total amounts. This is just a reflection off changes in the society (for instance the decreasing of number of people per household).

Update 25/06/2018: Mintel packaging predictions highlight food waste and circular economy


Packaging waste is a real problem, and the different actors involved in producing and managing it should to minimize its impact and to increase its value, after all -and I think I’m quoting here – a pollutant is a resource in the wrong place.

Packaging companies can continue to develop more sustainable products whether focusing on energy and material reduction, facilitating recycling, use renewable energy and raw materials. FMCG companies should commit to sustainability beyond using it as a selling point and going beyond the traditional measures that focus mainly on savings (such as weight reduction).

Both can help the public understand the advantages of more environmentally friendly packaging. Finally, the public as voters can pressure their elected officials to make more evidence based laws to preserve our environment, beyond additional taxation. As consumers they have to know that they are constantly voting with their money, and be willing to pay a bit extra for more sustainable, but temporarily more expensive packaged products.

May 2018, Bruno Rey-  The Packaging Blog-

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