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Packaging's Effect on the Environment: Is Plastic the Only Demon?

Hygiene, reducing food waste, and simple distribution The abundance of packaged goods on supermarket shelves is justified for a number of reasons.

However, the quantity of packaging waste that is still lying around poses a significant risk to our ecosystem.

When the plastic bag charge was implemented across Europe, we rejoiced. We welcome the ban on certain plastics and are thrilled to see zero trash shops growing in popularity.

We, however, as well as the media, are far too ready to decry the usage of all plastic packaging. Should we pass judgement so quickly without taking into account the detrimental impact of other packaging?

Let's examine the true effects of packing on the environment from a more comprehensive angle.

Drip, Drip, Drip: The Long Term Impact of Packaging on the Environment

We throw away tonnes of packaging each year as consumers. These don't just vanish into nothing. We transport a lot of our rubbish to landfills. Plastic, paper, tin, and glass packing materials take hundreds of years to degrade here. if they even do.

That's presuming that these things were dutifully thrown away in a trash can. If not, the wrapper from yesterday's meal can wind up contaminating the ocean and rivers.

New single-use packaging is created in order to satisfy customer demand while our waste is being dumped in landfills. In order to obtain raw materials, the earth is mined and quarried. which are then disposed of, leaving the first batch to continue to rot.

It doesn't take long to realise how absurd this linear economy is compared to circular economies. Or the effect this endless cycle of packaging has on the environment.

Sadly, packaging has harmful consequences on the environment beyond trash and littering.

The UK recycles about 70% of its packaging waste. which is fantastic! Recycling uses less energy and causes less destruction than acquiring raw materials. However, it's still a process that uses fossil fuels and produces greenhouse gas emissions.

Larger trash trucks are required to transport more home waste, recyclable or not. Additionally, more regular collections to maintain clean streets. Both require more fuel, which raises the costs to the environment.

Is Plastic Really the Biggest Culprit?

Plastics, including non-single-use plastics, are a significant contributor to our present environmental problems. Plastic packaging has a significant negative influence on the environment. Ocean Conservancy discovered that plastic was present in seven of the top 10 items collected during the 2018 Coastal Clean Up.

Unexpectedly, plastic packaging was not the most prevalent type of garbage in our oceans. However, discarded cigarette butts carelessly.

Plastic packaging does have a place, according to British Plastics Federation research. Plastic can aid in lowering energy use, greenhouse gas emissions, and the overall mass of packing.

By preserving food's freshness for a longer period of time, plastic also helps to reduce food waste. The amount of food that spoils increases when packing is inadequate. Before it reaches the stores, 30 to 50 percent of perishable food in underdeveloped nations goes bad.

What Are Our Alternatives to Plastic Packaging?

Paper, glass, and metal are the three most popular alternatives to plastic. However, using these materials exclusively instead of plastic is not the best option. In some ways, it would have far more damaging consequences on the ecosystem.

The environmental effects of each material are unique.

Think about this

You need to get some chopped tomatoes, so you head to the store. A paper bag is out because we already know how messy it would be.

Your chopped tomatoes may be contained in a tin, a glass jar, or a cardboard Tetra Pak container. Tetra Pak containers have a difficult recycling process and are coated with polyethylene. Since they are not easily reusable at home, they will most likely wind up in a landfill.

Before being recycled, a glass jar or tin might be used hundreds of times. This sounds wonderful. However, producing and recycling glass and tin is expensive due to high water and energy costs. They are exceedingly pricey and useless as single-use packing materials.

We should also think about how far the thing has travelled. Let's imagine that a Sicilian farmer packaged your chopped tomatoes in glass jars. They were then driven to the UK in a truck.

Your go-to spaghetti sauce will be transported with a lot of energy and CO2 emissions.

Plastic bottles can be transported using up to 40% less fuel than glass bottles. We might say the same about our cheap jars of chopped tomatoes.

So is the plastic-lined Tetra Pak the worst solution?

Taking a Closer Look at Supposedly ‘Green’ Packaging Alternatives

Plastic is very adaptable, lightweight, and strong enough to be used repeatedly. Paper, metal, and glass, on the other hand, cannot make such claim. Let's take a closer look at this.


an envelope. It's recyclable and a great solution for packing, right?

They could be utilised repeatedly. However, producing a paper bag requires four times as much energy as a plastic one.

Paper recycling requires substantially more energy than recycling the same amount of plastic does. That is, if our "green" paper bag makes it to a recycling facility. If not, it will occupy more room in the landfill next to the plastic.


Glass is entirely recyclable and, in theory, can be recycled indefinitely. But to produce glass, a large-scale furnace needs to be fuelled and a quarry must be dug.

Additionally, food contamination of glass makes recycling more difficult. This suggests that the downsides can outweigh the upsides. Instead of being recycled, tainted glass is frequently utilised in cement or concrete.


Metals like steel and aluminium may be recycled indefinitely, just like glass. Aluminum cans can be filled, recycled, and returned to your neighbourhood supermarket in the UK in as little as 60 days!

However, metal cans must first be transported to the recycling facility. Only 25% of steel and 50% of aluminium packaging is actually recycled.

What About the Impact of Environmentally Friendly Packaging Materials?

Some eco-conscious companies, such as Snact, have made the switch from plastic to compostable food packaging. Compostable and biodegradable packaging breaks down typically within a year.

Compostable materials additionally break down into a substance which benefits the soil. This could be on a home compost heap or an industrial composting facility.

Industrial composting plants still consume water and energy. And they still contribute to greenhouse gas emissions. Compostable materials can’t be processed by a standard recycling plant so specialist facilities are needed.

In the long term though, biodegradable and compostable packaging could be a solution. The materials won’t clog up landfill sites and may even be reused as plant fertiliser.

A Holistic Approach to Reducing the Negative Effects of Packaging on the Environment

We’ve seen great progress towards a future of limited packaging in the UK. Many of us are now ready to bring our own containers or pay more for eco-friendly packaging.

We shouldn’t forget though, that plastic-free packaging is not always guilt-free packaging.

Whichever material we choose to wrap and pack our products, we need to think about its impact on the environment.

Switching to glass, metal or paper packaging is not enough. Wishful recycling is not the environmental solution we’ve been led to believe. Compostable and biodegradable packaging is a step in the right direction but the UK is not yet equipped for large scale composting.

To minimise the negative effects of packaging on the environment, we need to reduce packaging waste. Recycling should be our last resort.

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