The issues with ‘sustainable’ packaging



Our society has become conditioned to a daily reliance on single-use packaging. As a result, there is a growing interest, from both consumers and producers, in alternative sustainable packaging.

Many of these environmentally-friendly alternatives are made from recycled or natural materials, such as plants, which have a significantly smaller carbon footprint than plastic packaging (whose production requires vast amounts of fossil fuels). So yes, the ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable’ packaging options are a step in the right direction. Yet, as explained by Olivia Preston, Operations Sustainability Manager here at King’s College London, this is not the end solution to the plastic packaging issue…

Biodegradable packaging often acts as a “barrier to recycling” as they are “preventing efficient recycling”, Olivia Preston states. This is due to the fact that biodegradable packaging behaves like plastics in the environment as it requires high-temperature conditions, similar to that of industrial composting, to actually break down and biodegrade. Therefore, biodegradable packaging cannot be recycled with other recyclable materials like cardboard, glass and metal, but instead needs to be composted in order to complete its full sustainable potential. In this way, a biodegradable cup will have the same impact on the environment as a plastic one when dumped in a landfill (whilst also costing businesses more money and effort to stock).

It is hard as a consumer to know when a company is ‘greenwashing’ their product in the hopes of attracting conscious customers. As Preston explained, companies use sustainability as a marketing tool which consequently distorts the true effects of the so-called sustainable product and thus confuses customers. Still, there are new innovations which aim to overcome the current issues with ‘sustainable’ packaging, such as seaweed plastic.

This material has been in development for some years now in Indonesia and the UK. Using seaweed, scientists have developed a membrane which can store liquids. This membrane is edible but can also be thrown away without causing much damage to the environment – it is definitely one to look out for.

The Skipping Rocks Lab, based in London, has developed the Ooho pods which have been tested in Selfridges Food Hall as well as at marathons and festivals, places where single-use plastic arguably causes the most damage. The Ooho material, constructed from seaweed-extract, ‘degrades in a natural environment in 6 weeks on average’, whereas plastic will take 700 years.

I asked Olivia Preston about this innovation and she believed that this is a unique product and could be a positive solution to single-use plastic consumption, unlike many of the biodegradable products already on the market. The material is still fairly new and being developed to meet the high demand, so it may take some time before we see this product on the shelves. But innovations like the Ooho pods help to uphold a positive view on the future, particularly when it comes to tackling the daunting environmental issues that face us.

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