Dealing with a sea of plastic

Polymer packaging makes up most of the world’s marine debris. New biodegradable or edible containers could offer a better solution.

Dead albatrosses are strewn across the Midway Atoll in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. What will remain after their bodies decompose? Some bones. A few feathers. And plastic. Sea birds such as the albatross often mistake bottle caps and other packaging for food; they ingest these bits of plastic and then gradually suffocate. A study published in 2015 by British and Australian biologists predicts that nearly all sea birds will be contaminated with plastic debris by 2050.

Meanwhile, plastic production is booming. The environmental research organisation Worldwatch Institute estimates that 299 million tonnes of plastic were manufactured in 2013. And about 40% of total plastic production goes to make packaging, according to industry organisation PlasticsEurope. Due to its very long shelf life, plastic – made from a base substance called polymer – is a preferred material in the food industry, where it is used in preserving and transporting food.

But the overuse of plastic has its consequences. Immense islands of debris are floating in the North Pacific, covering an area of 3.4 million square kilometres – an area nearly 10 times the size of Germany. The UK-based Ellen MacArthur Foundation estimates that the weight of plastic in the world’s oceans will surpass the weight of fish by 2050. “Single-use packaging is probably the largest category of marine litter, even though the exact amount of debris that goes into the oceans is not known,” says Peter Kershaw, author of the annual report from the United Nations Environment Programme on marine plastic debris.

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Edible packaging

A variety of solutions are available to limit the impact of these containers on the environment. One of them is to develop more eco-friendly packaging. The London-based start-up Skipping Rocks Lab is doing its part by focusing on plastic bottles, which take several hundreds of years to break down in nature. According to Petcore, a European organisation that represents the plastics recycling industry, only about 57% of plastic bottles were recycled in 2014. Skipping Rocks’ solution is to package water in an algae-based gel instead – an alternative packaging they claim is cheap, strong, hygienic, and can even be eaten. In 2015, the start-up received a grant from the European Union to implement its concept on a large scale.

Another option is biodegradable packaging. Since 1998, the German chemical company BASF has been developing plastic that can decompose in just a few weeks. The material is used to manufacture products like bags for organic waste and fast food and yoghurt containers. BASF says that its product works as well as conventional plastic. Horst-Christian Langowski, director of the Food Packaging Technology department at the Technical University of Munich, studies various bioplastics production methods. “There are many options,” he says. “But each use requires its own material.” For example, the mechanical properties of plastic are preferred over the advantage of biodegradability for vacuum-packaged meat. “For optimal preservation, the container should offer low water vapour permeability and high resistance to perforation.” Bioplastics are inappropriate in this case. Their permeability is too high and resistance to perforation too low. “However, they can be very useful for preserving fresh fruit and vegetables, which need high permeability to keep them from perishing,” Langowski says. “And their packaging doesn’t have to be very sturdy.”

Banning plastic bags

Political solutions are also emerging. In 2013, the European Union adopted a new law that set a target for reducing plastic bag consumption by 80% within 15 years. Some Member States have also taken their own measures. France recently banned single-use plastic bags to reduce what the French government estimates as five billion units in circulation per year. The plastics industry itself is also making efforts to reduce pollution; the Danish Plastics Federation, for example, is working with NGOs to reduce marine debris.

And plastic is not the only material used to package what we eat and drink. Some bottles are made of glass, which also has an environmental impact. One bottle of glass produces 345 grams of CO2, compared with 143 grams for a plastic bottle, according to Tetra Pak, a Swedish processing and packaging company. “There is no single solution,” says Langowski. “I’m sure that we can solve the problem, not by implementing a single measure or developing a new packaging material, but by combining initiatives.”

Perfecting the package

To prevent waste and cut costs, many companies are looking for ways to streamline the packaging production process. Designers at IKEA use software that calculates the optimal size and shape for a package’s contents. That means that the Swedish home furnishings giant does not have to alter designs or abandon ideas that would otherwise be too costly to ship.

In partnership with the Technical University of Denmark (DTU), Tetra Pak uses X-rays to analyse packaging and recreate 3D images of its composition. “Using simulations, we get a better picture of how the material behaves,” says Carsten Gundlach, an engineer from the Department of Physics at DTU. “The goal is to make products with a better design that will therefore be more likely to sell in stores.” But the system won’t be completely operational until 2020.

Peter Kershaw (author of the annual report from the United Nations Environment Programme on marine plastic debris), Horst-Christian Langowski (director of the Food Packaging Technology department at TUM)