Plastic Packages: Myths, methods and more.

Our current adventures are limited. Instead of experiencing the big blue, we sit in front of our computers and focus on work. Grocery shopping and buying equipment for our circumnavigation is the only excitements. “My eyes hurt”, T.A. says, rubbing his eyes, while we are walking down the aisle of a store. He has said it before, and found an explanation for it too: It is because of all the plastic everywhere.

Plastic. It seems like a repetitive topic in our lives. Not only since we moved to the boat, we have tried to reduce the amount of plastic we surround ourselves with.

New Zealand Marine Species. A poster that was produced several years ago but the sad reality more than ever.
New Zealand Marine Species. A poster that was produced several years ago but the sad reality more than ever.

As it is known that prevention is the best approach, we exchanged our plastic cutlery, drink our coffees out of stainless cups and eat out of stainless steel plates. We don´t do take outs but rather take the time to sit down in a coffee shop. We don´t get plastic bags, but fill up my handbag to the fullest (call it a magic handbag) and get carton boxes. We try to buy food in cans and glass jars. We switched to glass water bottles. And we rather give preference to producers and companies who try to work environmentally friendly such as Patagonia.

As much as we try though, becoming plastic-free seems an unachievable goal. Especially when living on a boat, coming to new shores and new surroundings every time. Even more concerning is that with every shopping trip to the supermarket, we seem to collect more plastic (our admiration goes to all those who work on zero waste). If the product isn´t made out of plastic or plastic particles, then it is certainly wrapped in plastic.

When will this packaging madness come to an end? we keep on asking ourselves. Not anytime soon is the answer, the study “The Future of Global Packaging to 2020″ gave recently: It estimates an average yearly growth of the worldwide packaging industry of 3,5 percent, despite the growing numbers of unpacked supermarkets.

And this is not necessarily a bad thing, experts say:

“Economical and ecological costs of packaging are less than the costs of packed food. In food, 90 percent of the negative ecological effect is caused by the food itself, only 10 percent by packaging.”

and

“With more and optimized packaging, food production could be made more efficient and C02-emissions could be reduced immensely” (Manfred Tacker, FH Campus Vienna, Österr. Verpackungstag 2016)

I stumbled upon these statements during research about packaging trends for a magazine (it is but a coincidence that I got this job in a time, plastic and packaging is on my mind so much). They took me by surprise. So food wrapped in three layers of plastic (when one seems sufficient), certainly adds up to the pile of plastic but might be an environmentally friendly decision? And: To avoid packaging in order to reduce the waste in our ocean, might have a negative effect on our environment on another level? I did not necessarily like these thoughts. They were once more proof, that doing the “right thing” is hardly ever a matter of black and white but more an act of balance.

Biodegradable is not better for the environment

Alright, if a future with less (plastic) packaging is nowhere in sight, it is for us to choose the right material for the environment. One might think, but that´s also easier said than done.

“Consumers always judge by the material of the packaging”, says Volker Lange of the renowned Frauenhofer Institute in Germany, “sometimes though, plastic wrapping is the better choice for the environment.” If you might wonder: No, he is not necessarily talking about biodegradable plastic though. As a matter of fact, according to a European Strategy Green Paper on Plastic Waste published by the European Commission, the term “biodegradable” itself may be misunderstood by customers. A large majority of biodegradable plastics can only biodegrade under very specific conditions of constantly high temperature and humidity in industrial composting installations and are neither fit for home composting nor do they decompose in a reasonable time when littered. A big open question is also the extent to which biodegradable plastic can be a solution to plastic marine pollution. Many biodegradable plastics may not degrade in the intestines of marine species and injury is likely to remain an issue.

That biodegradable plastic is less than an ideal solution was confirmed on another level: After studying the effects of the biodegradable and bioactive PLA made of lactic acid and degradable polyester, “Federal Environment Agency – Umweltbundesamt” in Germany summarized: “The ecological effects of biodegradable plastic are overall not better than the ones of plastic made from petroleum.” They confirmed there might be less CO2 emissions in the production, usage and disposal of this material and less petroleum is used. But the negative effects on water and earth due to over-acidification and over fertilization increased. “From the environmental standpoint, there are no biodegradable plastic-packages which are better for the environment than usual packaging”, so the result.

Re-Usage is the key

When we look at the packaging, it is not sufficient to judge by the material, we need to consider the overall life cycle of the packaging, Volker Lange from Germany argues. The goal is cradle-to-cradle, where all the used material can flow back into the system and can be used again.
Here, the European Union diagnosed another issue with biodegradable plastic: Waste treatment systems already in place are not yet capable of separating sufficiently biodegradable plastic from conventional plastic which can jeopardize recycling processes, the multitude of additives used in plastic production can be a major obstacle for plastic recycling or lead to more “down-cycling” than cradle-to-cradle recycling. The consequence: “normal plastic” can be the better choice for the environment – as long as you dispose and recycle it properly.

Repair. Reuse. Recycle. That´s the goal.
Repair. Reuse. Recycle. That´s the goal.

When you take all this into consideration, to eliminate single-use plastics and re-use the plastic that´s out there as often as possible seems to be the key once more.

As simple as it might seem, it´s not an easy task – but it´s part of the real adventure of life!

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