Packing a green punch

Packing a green punchIn today’s sustainably-oriented and green-conscious world, every business and industry is turning to ‘green’ its marketing appeal. While some may be blatant examples of greenwashing, there are others which hold the promise of genuineness and ingenuity. Hence, the move towards ‘biodegradable plastics’, positioned as a ‘greener’ alternative.  One of these is the move towards bioplastics for product packaging; using renewable resources to create biodegradable plastics.

At a more basic level however, it is important to understand the need to ‘green’ packaging. The association of plastic packaging with methane and greenhouse gases may appear as the most obvious reason to look for alternatives.  In our ‘consumerist’ and ‘throwaway’ society, we have come to appreciate plastics for their ease of usage, without a thought for their disposal. Mind you, an eco-conscious consumer may re-use supermarket shopping bags or better yet, carry an ‘eco-friendly’ shopping carrier bag. But what about all the product inside the bag? Food products to shampoo bottles – they all use plastic. Let’s face it – plastic is everywhere, and it’s near impossible to avoid it! Thus, industry’s bright ‘green’ idea – biodegradable plastics!

Biodegradale plastics themselves have two distinct branches – oxo-biodegradable plastics and biodegradable polymers (bioplastics). While offering the basic benefit of ‘greening’ plastics, both these models offer different benefits. Oxo-biodegradable plastics function on the simple principle of adding a chemical in the manufacture of traditional plastics, making them biodegradable. Bioplastics go two steps further, by using plants to create plastics which are compostable. In other words, a true representation of the ‘cradle-to-cradle’ approach to sustainability.

Aside from wasteful consumption and greenhouse emissions, dwindling petroleum reserves and oil price fluctuations are forcing producers to consider alternatives.  This is quite literally, the ‘deeper’ reason for the increased preference for biodegradables, particularly bioplastics. Even with the recent discovery of tar sands in Alberta, Canada, there is no doubt that the world is slowly, but surely, running out of oil. Traditional plastics, popular for their convenience, low cost and multiplicity of uses, rely on petroleum as a basic raw material. Thus, bioplastics, using plant based resources such as sugarcane molasses, potato or corn starch, seems to be a feasible way forward.

While bioplastics is a sustainable way forward, there is also a need to integrate it into each aspect of the design of product packaging. It is not enough just to use an alternative to petroleum based plastics, you also have to move. Luxury brands are often caught out in this respect, when their brand product is enveloped in layers and layers of packaging. There already exist industry strategies to reduce packaging quantity – like Marks and Spencer’s ‘Plan A’ programme or Kenco’s ‘eco-refill’ – but there is a need to go further and think about the entire life cycle of the product and its packaging.

Aside from the examples above, other major consumer goods producers have started incorporating bioplastic packaging for their products. In 2009, Coca Cola introduced its ‘Plant Bottle’, containing up to 30% plant based material. A few months ago, P&G announced its decision to revamp the packaging of its popular Pantene Pro-V hair care range, using sugarcane as raw material. Danone has also announced the subsequent use of sugarcane molasses for the manufacture of its Volvic bottle.

With the successive developments in the field of packaging, it is imperative to recognise and reward these efforts. The global GREEN AWARDS seek to do just that, and also set a high standard for other businesses to aspire to reach. In 2010, the global GREEN AWARDS feature a ‘Best Green Packaging’ category, which will be looking for examples of demonstrated sustainability efforts to curtail the negative impacts of wasteful and resource consumptive packaging. At the same time, creativity in communicating packaging sustainability will be a judging criterion. After all, it is not merely enough to practice sustainability, if it is not communicated effectively to enable mass adoption.

The strain on Earth’s resources is no doubt a result of the over-consumptive patterns of society. Traditional plastics further ushered in an era of disposability and throwaway society. It is important to address our consumption patterns, to be able to sustain Earth’s resources. Ultimately, this would reflect in a shift from consumerism to de-materialisation; towards lesser overall consumption. While this would require a change in consumer behaviour and existing culture, efforts such as the use of bioplastics are slow but steady steps in this direction.

Posted by Sveccha Kumar

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