Packaging has been flying under the mainstream radar for many decades. Every one of us took packaging as something that simply is. Until two or maybe three decades ago, no one really gave packaging a second thought. In the past years’ media has started exposing the topic of pollution. In correlation to that people started talking about packaging a bit more often. That leads to a whole new question; What is packaging? The subject of the packaging is becoming more and more investigated area by media. Not so long ago media was more or less ignoring the issue. Packaging waste management and environmental impact of packaging have been more or less a thing of marginal hardcore eco and human rights activists groups around the globe.
Pollution and everything connected to it has become a gold mine for media. General public started to react on the topic, people react on the topic with outrage and disgust. On one side this is good because the problem is starting to get addressed more often. This part is truly important and we (as people in the packaging and environmental sphere) are really happy about it. What is disturbing here is that there are far too less real facts and information which could paint the real picture of the topic. If we extract the packaging topic out of the whole environmental one (as hard as this might be, due to its complex connection to the whole topic), which relevant information do we really get about packaging out of them?
As a packaging professional, I can say that the majority of things are not presented the way they should be. I am not blaming the media, they are just doing what their modus operand is; distributing the information (in any shape or form). True, there could be a bit more fact checking elements in place, but this part is a whole new area of discussion. Realistically, they publish their articles on the basis of the information they have (or get), and the basis of information that is out there. The simple truth is that there is almost zero information about packaging available for the general public. And if there is no information available, this means that media professionals (as they are in this case general public members as well) do not have the basic knowledge about the topic.
Again, this is neither media professionals fault, nor the fault of the general public. None of us had a basic, general packaging learning at any level of our education. True, there are certain schools (or any other educational institutions) that do promote the environmental packaging aspects, but the real question that poses is on what grounds are they running these basic courses for children. More or less these learning maps are based on recycling. In order to understand that, it is important to know where does it all come from.
At a certain point on this eco-awareness timeline, there was an important change in the perception of waste packaging management. The recycling processes were becoming more and more economical. Therefore it became an interest in the packaging industry, and not only the packaging industry. Looking at it from a packaging point of view the drive came from the industry itself. Paper, glass and metal-based packaging were the first ones that started to use recycled source materials. These three segments of the packaging industry realized that waste (recycled) resource could lead to their better below the line business results. In order for them to have enough recyclable resource available, they have started to promote the way waste should be optimized for their better use (better resource yields). The ones of you that have been around long enough can remember how schools and municipalities have started endorsing the way how we should separate paper, glass, and metals. These actions did take place a few decades ago (depending on which part of the World you are), and this is a brief overview of how it all began.
In the past, school children really took pride and were actually competing in who will gather the most waste paper. I remember how we were competing with my friends and there was an actual pride in how many kilograms (or pounds) did someone brought to the point of weighting. For those of you who are too young or maybe just don’t remember it; years ago we used to have one (usually a heavy metal) trash bin. That was it. Everything from diapers to orange peels, from bottles to newspapers was stuffed in that bin. At that time the industries mentioned above were looking for a way on how to receive as much of their source materials back (in order to recycle them), and each of them had their own way of collecting it. Metal has been extracted at waste management facilities. Glass has been handled in grocery stores where grocery stores were taking back glass packaging. Paper industry, on the other hand, had a bit more complex way on how to collect waste paper.
Newspapers, paper bags, boxes, all of these items usually roamed in that same single metal bin. That is why the paper industry launched a large paper awareness campaign in order for them to obtain as much quality old paper as possible. The paper industry decided to lean on local municipalities and education outlets (schools and kindergartens) in order to start systematically collecting the waste paper. For a certain period that has been the standard and recycling started to take first shapes. Of course, we can not talk about the level of collected materials where we stand today, but this paper system started to form the way(s) on how we are collecting the materials that can be recycled. And on these bases, the majority of educational courses (or projects) is operating on. Anyone that works in the packaging industry can tell you that, yes recycling is very important, but there is far more that people should know about prior to that.
Packaging has developed
The current situation that we have is that after the expansion of the plastics industry, plastic packaging materials, laminates and all forms of complex packaging systems pushed the recycling story into a fully different story. Here is what happened; for many years plastic (as well as many other base materials) has not been recycled, but was lost (forgotten) on the landfills. Through decades, plastic and the additives in plastic started to degrade to smaller particles. These particles slowly but firmly found their way back into our habitat. Rivers, lakes, oceans, even the soil as such started to be more and more polluted.
The most dramatic effects of “plastic” pollution are seen within Earth’s ocean gyres and on oceans’ (as well as large rivers’) shores. I am trying not to expose only plastic as such; the reality is that, yes plastic is a very visible thing which we can spot easier, but there are lots of more aspects to it. First of all, we are more or less never talking about one material, but in almost in all cases, we are talking about multilayered materials, that are combined in one packaging unit. These include also paper and metal films that are within these structures.
Aside to all of the plastic materials, I am mentioning, problematic components are carried also by other packaging base materials. Even paper, which has a very fast degradable rate, usually has some “extras” that carry environmentally problematic components. Might this be glue, ink, or lamination film, there are many aspects of paper processing and paper converting where certain elements are added to the paper (virgin or recycled) in order to increase characteristics of paper (might this be converting or end product ones). These do not make paper necessarily more environmental than plastics. The point is that packaging and management of waste packaging is a complex topic, where there is not one clear answer.
On what basis to start educating
Applying this fact to the point of education leads us to the question on what are children actually learning, and what are they getting accustomed to in correlation to packaging, and packaging related environmental topics. Of course, it is very good to see that the packaging topic is slowly penetrating into the usual, traditional courses, yet it is very important that we (as packaging industry in general) start to give relative, non-bias, knowledge, and information to the general public. As an example, let’s take the example of ocean pollution topic. We are all aware of the pollution, but do we really have enough information on it, and if yes, are these clear facts being transferred to the public.
Oceanographers have been gathering data for years, and the technology helped to start collecting, monitoring and interpenetrating data easier and faster. The results are clear. The negative results of the human way of life started to show in places where no one could really imagine. Marine life (and not only marine life) suffers in ways we could never imagine. Marine life specialists found plastic parts in animals stomachs, where animals mistook plastic particles for food. Since their bodies are not able to digest the plastic (human body has the same issue for that matter), the plastic stays in their body for the remainder of their lives (yes it does slowly degrade) and are even too often the main reason for their deaths. When they have been digging deeper into the subject, they have realized that the visible plastic is not the only plastic in our environment. Plastics and other pollution materials degrade to small particles, which are not visible to the human eye.
The pollution effect
Might I point it out one more time, that yes, the majority of particles are coming out from oil based, but that does not apply to plastics alone? That is why I will be using the term artificial components; it covers plastics, inks, paints, oils, and all possible chemical compounds that have been modified from oil or any other natural derivates. These components are so small that we cannot see them with the naked eye, but they are present all around us. They have been first discovered in the oceans when oceanographers were examining the patches of garbage floating in the ocean. What they have noticed was that there was slime like layers surrounding the larger waste parts. After examining the slime they have noticed that this is a mix of organic and artificial particles.
At that time they have realized that ocean pollution extends the boundaries of what has been describing ocean waste pollution until that point. The fact that there countless particles floating in the ocean raised the alarm. One thing is to see the waste, the other thing is to deal with degraded waste that you can not see, and not only that; if it is relatively easy to pick an item, it is far harder to collect micro and nano-sized particles, and even harder if you can’t even see them. To make things worst, it has been discovered that these small particles actually don’t stay on the surface for unlimited duration, but they sink to the bottom of the oceans, where they form a layer over the ocean floors.
The same discoveries have been made in all waters around the planet, not only oceans. To make things worst, these particles are also slowly deposited in the firm soil through water movement around the globe. That leads to one conclusion; we have managed to push artificial particles in the basic natural flow. These particles are present in each and every aspect of today’s environment. It is true that packaging is not the sole contributor to these particles, it is an important part of it, plus it is one aspect of our way of life which we actually can change.
Getting the real point of the packaging
It just might be my bias opinion (since I am in packaging for two decades now), but we all need to get on board as far as packaging management is concerned. We cannot blame me it only on one party or parts of the industry, the reality is that we all need to start thinking about what real awareness is. Packaging has been, it is and will continue to be an important part of our progress. It is wrong to think that packaging is the result of this progress. Packaging is actually one of the key components that have enabled us as mankind to develop the civilization as we know it today.
Observing the media, as well as following certain educational approaches, I can not help but think that we need to start considering packaging in a whole new way, and taking it as an important part of our lives. This step(s) need to be done on firm and solid grounds and we need to move away from cheap blockbuster punchlines. We have all seen so many marketing punchlines over how certain packaging is recyclable, biodegradable, sustainable, or any other of the new eco-marketing-terms. Practically everyone is advertising it; brands, retailers, packaging industry. The question that is shouting at this point is: why is there so much pollution if everything we use is all bio and eco-friendly?
Now, let’s make a step on the side, a step away from the pollution aspect, and let me ask you a question: What is the point of packaging?