This week’s blog features the reflections of Paul Foulkes-Arellano. Paul is Head of Retail Solutions at A Plastic Planet and Precipice Design Head of Client Programmes.
1989 is perhaps most famous as the year in which the Berlin Wall was breached after nearly three decades of keeping East and West Berliners apart. Heralded by Francis Fukuyama as ‘the end of history’, it felt like a seminal moment in global politics, and the start of a new world order. Unsurprisingly, as a time of profound political turmoil and change, stories about the environment were not exactly high up on the news agenda.
As a young twenty-something embarking on a career in the packaging design industry in mid 1989, I had yet to grasp that our insatiable appetite for plastic would have serious consequences for us all later down the line. While firms and consumers were starting to become more aware of the impact of endless consumption on the environment, the late eighties were not a time when ‘sustainability’ was a staple of discussions in the boardroom or on the factory floor, except with one or two notable exceptions.
Back then there was virtually zero understanding that incessant plastic consumption in the economy would eventually lead to an existential crisis in the environment. No plastic recycling facilities or indeed technology existed, and so every piece of throwaway plastic ended up in landfill. Landfill was seen as a viable, long term waste management solution, with rubbish dumps considered a necessary evil in the context of an increasingly consumerist society.
The dawn of the nineties saw attitudes towards the environment and waste shift a little across the UK and Europe. In 1991, the Toepfer Decree was signed in the newly unified Germany. It required retailers to take back packaging from consumers, manufacturers to retrieve packaging from retailers, and packaging companies to retrieve used packaging from manufacturers. The Toepfer approach failed to provide a workable solution to the question of what to do with Europe’s mounting piles of plastic waste. It did, however, force UK retailers to grapple with the prospect of tighter regulation of their waste-generating activities.
With the Maastricht Treaty exposing UK plc to increasing amounts of EU environmental legislation, the turn of the millennium saw packaging designers set to work in trying to make packaging as lightweight as possible. This approach largely failed to halt the endless deluge of plastic detritus that was beginning to fill up our oceans and blight our landscape. Plastic is already a very light material when set against alternatives such as aluminium and cardboard, and so attempts to reduce the weight of our overall waste output largely failed to hone in on plastic as the primary driver of environmental degradation.
After years of procrastination by both industry and government, it wasn’t until the late noughties that we finally began to wake up to the devastating effects of our decades-long addiction to plastic packaging. The unedifying spectacle of beaches littered with plastic detritus became an increasingly regular feature of news bulletins. National newspapers began to report on the autopsies of beached whales that revealed their stomachs to be clogged with hundreds of pieces of plastic – packaging and all other sorts of consumables.
With unprecedented levels of public and political awareness of the lunacy of throwaway plastic, we now find ourselves at a crossroads. Armed with the knowledge that plastic’s conquering of the world has forced our planet to the brink of an environmental catastrophe, we have big decisions to make.
As some of the most influential drivers of change in the design industry, it is up to packaging technologists to find credible alternatives to throwaway plastic. While this is no small task, it’s clear that potentially viable solutions are emerging as companies provide the financial muscle required to drive real change. Plastic-free Tetra Pak and moulded pulp are just two of countless examples of emerging packaging supplier solutions.
A wholesale shift from throwaway plastic packaging to non-plastic alternatives is not going to happen overnight. Real change is more likely to be achieved in fits and starts. Products like dried pasta can easily be packaged in cardboard boxes rather than flowwrap, while viable alternatives to plastic packaging of meat and fish may take longer to become proven commercially.
Alongside intensive R&D in the packaging industry, it’s vital that we foster a broad plastic-free culture in which retailers and consumers choose non-fossil fuel packaging wherever possible. That is where a Plastic Free Aisle comes in. Earlier this year, I joined forces with campaign group A Plastic Planet in a bid to find innovative solutions to the crisis of throwaway packaging. An aisle free from throwaway plastic would focus the minds of shoppers used to filling their trollies with products laden with unwanted plastic packaging. People now question why they never took sturdy bags into shops instead of picking up flimsy plastic ones each time; the same change in mindset needs to happen with primary plastic packaging.
The world has undergone seismic change over the past thirty years, but we’ve roundly failed to shift our approach to how we package the food and drink products that are ever-present in our day-to-day lives. With pollution reaching crisis levels, it is incumbent on all of us in packaging and retail design to work together to find a more sustainable way forward without plastic.