An industry’s response to the plastic packaging problem

In 1800 as history puts it, the first manmade plastic was unveiled by Alexander Parkes at the Great International Exhibition in London. This material, dubbed Parkesine, was derived from cellulose and could be molded when heated and retained its shape when cooled. It was however not until 1950s that commercial plastic packaging was widely adopted in various sectors including food, pharma, electronic goods, among other uses. Its success came from the simple fact that unlike many other forms of packaging, plastic is highly flexible, resists most chemicals, and is impervious to air and water. Seven decades after its introduction, plastic packaging has grown to be a menace to the environment. It’s a great eyes in many landfills, it clogs our waterways, pollutes once pristine ocean beaches, and litters oceans all over the globe impacting marine life.

An estimated 300 million tonnes of plastic are produced every year, eight million of which end up in our oceans, reports the international environmental watchdog, IUCN. Although useful to many industries from food and beverage to pharmaceutical manufacturing, plastic has long lost its glory as the solution to all packaging problems. With many alternatives still far from possessing the qualities that we all love in plastics, innovations to make plastic less injurious to the planet are becoming popular. Lightweighting is one such innovation that holds the promise of better-for-the-environment plastic packaging and it is being explored by manufacturers in various ways. 

Using less materials

The most common approach to lightweighting is to replace heavier materials with less dense and/or stronger materials and components. By moving to an alternative lighter material, such as flexible pouches, there is greater benefits in terms of saved energy and CO2 during manufacturing and transportation. For instance, Carex’s Eco pouch refills use 75% less material than 2 equivalent bottles.  Colgate Palmolive’s Sta Soft fabric Softener and Procter and Gamble’s Downy Fabric Softener are another example of brands with pouch refills that are significantly lighter compared to rigid PET bottles.  Love, Beauty, and Planet have launched concentrated shampoo and conditioners which provide the same number of uses as a regular-sized bottle and use 50% less plastic, saving resources and waste. The company is also aiming to use 25% recycled content in its packaging by 2025, supporting its bid to reduce the use of about 100,000 tonnes of virgin plastics. 


Technology is also playing a role in reducing the need for plastic. Unilever implemented injection compression technology for some food tubs in Europe in 2015, saving 21 tons of plastic in 2017 without compromising the quality of packaging. They also redesigned some of their pouches and sachets, combining a durable polymer with a thinner polyethylene layer, ultimately reducing their polymer usage by some 1,400 tons.

Through various lightweighting technologies, Coca-Cola Europacific Partners has reduced the weight of its 500ml PET bottles by 30%, from 28.9g to 19.9g since 2008. The company has further introduced a new lighter-weight neck design that will remove a further 1g of plastic per bottle, totaling 6,800 tonnes of plastic by the end of 2024.

Reducing the amount of plastic used in packaging sometimes means creating a whole new product line. PepsiCo designed a line of beverages called Drinkfinity, a direct to consumer subscription model that ships flavored pods and a reusable 20oz bottle. Instead of grabbing a drink on the go, using Drinkfinity results in using 65% less plastic.

Removing unnecessary parts

Given the economies of scale for major consumer brands, even shaving a few grams of plastic from a bottle can reduce a large amount of plastic from ever making it into supply stream and ultimately into landfills and oceans. Diageo is a perfect case study when it comes to product redesign to remove unnecessary parts. The company has redesigned its 1.75L Smirnoff bottle by removing the handle. This simple change  shaved 137g off their packaging. With 8.7 million bottles sold, the resulting savings in packaging material is the equivalent in weight of 7 Boeing 747 jets.

Nestlé has also started to remove unnecessary plastic lids, accessories, layers, and films to reduce the carbon print of its packaging. In Egypt, Nestlé has eliminated plastic bottle cap tear-off bands from Nestlé Pure Life water bottles – which means 240 tonnes less plastic every year. And the company is eliminating close to 10 times that amount of plastic by removing over-cap lids from Gerber baby food.

All these light-weighting initiatives not only reduce the amount of plastic used in packaging, but they also decrease the amount of fuel and greenhouse gases used in the distribution of products. Lighter goods weigh less, and that means less fuel to transport. If light-weighting also makes an overall product package more compact, it also lessens the number of vehicles required to ship the same amount of product.

The biggest problem with lightweighted packaging is that producers and manufacturers of these items have not designed end-of-life solutions.


Lightweighting is not an answer to plastic pollution

Lightweighted packaging configurations are often marketed to consumers as being more affordable, more convenient and making less of an environmental impact by taking up less volume. However, the trade-off of a lighter package is often one that is neither reusable nor recyclable, destined for landfill or incineration and the inevitable pollution of our natural ecosystems.

For example, in many cases, a lightweighted package, like a juice pouch, is multi-compositional in nature and not recyclable in the current waste management infrastructure. The multi-layer films from which most pouches are comprised are often made up of several different plastics, which are difficult to recycle because these components require separating. Further, the waste created by the various fitments that give lightweighted items high functionality (such as straws, caps and spoons) are also not recyclable through curbside collections due to their small size. These loose add-ons fall through the screeners at municipal recycling facilities and are missed for recovery.

In addition, reduction in the weight of plastic packaging does not influence the likelihood that it will end up in the ocean. If the lighter packaging enters the environment after usage, it will, in fact, break down into smaller pieces more quickly than packaging that is thicker and stronger.  Additionally, if less plastic is used per package — for example thinner PET water bottles — it does not mean that the producer will use less plastic in total.  On the contrary, as these companies strive to increase their sales, the number of packaging units is likely to increase. The biggest problem here is caused by mini-packages.

 In countries where consumers have less buying power, companies like Unilever and Danone sell small packages with a very small amount of a given product (e.g., shampoo, body wash, washing powder or coffee) inside. Whatever the product may be, there is proportionately a lot more packaging material used compared to when larger or ‘bulk’ product sizes are used, even if it is lightweight plastic.

Overall, The biggest problem with lightweighted packaging is that producers and manufacturers of these items have not designed end-of-life solutions into their packaging innovations. Where items like pouches and sachets bring down costs, we see packages with decreased recyclability in largely inefficient waste management infrastructures, compounding the issue of their pollution.

Alternative bio-based materials on the rise

Understanding that reducing overall weight of plastic doe not solve the problem, manufacturers and co-packers are now shifting towards biodegradable raw material to make new packages that have the same properties as plastics. London-based startup called Notpla, developed a range of grease and water-resistant packaging formats – with a plastic-free barrier made from seaweed. The company is making three basic products: seaweed-coated cardboard boxes for food retailers, seaweed film for wrapping food or cosmetics, and small sachets containing a drink, like water, alcohol or fruit juice. The seaweed itself has been rendered tasteless, but it’s perfectly edible, notes the company.

Seaweed isn’t the only alternative to plastic. UK-based brand, 4eco uses starch from the cassava root vegetable to produce its zero-plastic alternative. This method can be used to make plastic bags, as well as other items like cutlery and straws which are also often made from single-use plastic. Crucially, the bags are able to carry the same weight as their plastic counterparts and are dissolvable in water, leaving behind a liquid that is harmless to the environment.

Meanwhile Panda Packaging uses bamboo to do the job of single-use plastic. Using a proprietary technology, the company takes natural materials like bamboo and feeds them into a machine which can produce packaging like take-away boxes, plates and wrappers after breaking it down. The main focus of the company is customizability, with the main aim to make it just as easy as working with plastic. These are just a few examples of bio-based alternatives to plastics.

Notpla,4eco, Panda Packaging and more demonstrate there is no shortage of sustainable packaging alternatives currently being worked on and used. However, Hubbub’s Rosie Sharp says there remains a considerable uphill journey ahead. “A big struggle for these packaging companies is the behavior change needed on both sides of the debate,” she says. For manufacturers, the fact remains that plastic is by far and away the cheapest and easiest material to use when packaging food and drink. Meanwhile for consumers, sticking with what you know ensures you’re never disappointed.

Avoiding single-use plastic would be the ideal solution to preventing the material from ending up in landfills and oceans, but ultimately brands and manufacturers have to balance consumer demands, retailer considerations, and the safety of food and other products when creating a sustainability plan.

Ultimately, light-weighting is just one method for reducing the number of plastics that end up in the environment. Brands should reevaluate their packaging and task their designers and engineers with finding ways to replace or decrease the amount of plastic used in their products. Managers and marketers should be mindful that the pressure to reduce the use of plastic packaging is not just coming from environmentalists, but also from consumers and even shareholders. Moreover, the clock is ticking, and at our current rate, the plastic will eventually outweigh fish in the world’s ocean by 2050.

This feature appeared in the March 2023 issue of Sustainable Packaging Africa Magazine. You can read this and the entire magazine HERE