Product Design

That’s a Wrap

How rethinking plastic packaging can help reduce plastic waste.

MAY 7, 2020 - Your vegetables are fresh and crispy because of it. Tomatoes and berries reach your kitchen without being squashed because of it. And nearly everything you buy is sold with some type of packaging that protects what’s inside.

Packaging — the stuff that wraps necessities ranging from food to medication — isn’t something people consider very often, especially when it’s doing its job. It’s essential, but it can also contribute to plastic waste and pose a recycling challenge. That’s why enhancing plastic packaging to be more recyclable, creating new business models, and redesigning recycling infrastructure all hold such promise for helping solve the problem of plastic waste.

The importance

Plastic packaging, ranging from resealable pouches, containers and wraps to cartons and jugs, is essential in getting food and goods to us safely and efficiently. It’s regulated for food contact and is well suited for keeping perishable foods like meat and bread fresher for longer and reducing spoilage, thus helping to curb food waste. Plus, sanitary packaging can play a critical role in helping prevent foodborne illness. That’s important to everyone, but especially in developing countries where access to proper food storage isn’t always a given.

And plastic’s light weight helps make very efficient use of material. Imagine if all bottles had to be glass or metal — the weight surge in shipping alone would greatly increase fuel consumption and global greenhouse gas emissions.

The challenge

But even with all its benefits, plastic packaging isn’t perfect — yet.

Without proper recycling, a good deal of plastic packaging can end up as waste. For example, flexible plastic packaging, such as films, is harder to recycle because many recycling facilities aren’t equipped to handle it. It’s a problem that needs a solution.

Design for recycling

From improving the recycling infrastructure to accept all plastic packaging to designing new materials and packaging that can be fully recycled, many of America’s plastic makers are already hard at work developing ways for plastic packaging to stay in a circular system in which the packaging eventually is recycled and reused. 

Getting packaging design and recycling infrastructure to seamlessly work together is of the utmost importance in enhancing our future and meeting America’s plastic makers’ goals of making 100% of plastic packaging used in the U.S. recyclable or recoverable by 2030, and minimizing plastic packaging waste by 2040.

Packaging for the future 

Creating packaging that protects a product, uses as little material as possible and can be recycled is extremely complicated. Design groups like Dow Pack Studios are embracing the idea of circularity by collaborating with brands to innovate and develop sustainable packaging, like their 100% recyclable granola pouches that preserve freshness and can eventually be turned into another useful product. 

Evolving infrastructure

Efforts are underway to make this circular vision into a reality. Initiatives like Materials Recovery for the Future (MRFF) are piloting programs that are helping to upgrade recycling facilities to accept flexible plastic packaging and turn it into a new marketable raw material that can be used again to make other products.

The MRFF initiative is just one of many efforts underway to develop new infrastructure and systems to create greater circularity. Other efforts focus on innovating and improving traditional recycling operations, expanding collection and investing in advanced recycling technologies that transform used packaging into completely new plastics. 

The future of plastic packaging

With ongoing research, advances in technology and a dedicated eye on improving package design — all aligning to fit into the vision of a circular economy — there is a promising future ahead.

And From Single Use to Reuse will be regularly sharing news and stories about ways innovators are moving forward to end plastic waste. 

Glossary

Flexible plastic packaging (FPP):  Any package or part of a package whose shape can be readily changed. Flexible packaging includes, but is not limited to, bags, pouches, liners and wraps that utilize plastic or film.

Circularity:  Circularity is the ability to more efficiently use plastic (or any resource) by keeping material in use for as long as possible, getting the most we can from them during use, and then recovering them to make new products.

Advanced recycling:  Advanced plastics recycling, also called chemical recycling, refers to several different technologies that convert post-use plastics into their original building blocks, specialty polymers, feedstocks for new plastics, fuels, waxes, and other valuable products.

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Progress in action

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