Packing Alternatives to Plastic needs to begin with the real cost of Plastic.

Beyond the fact that we all need to bring our own bags to go shopping and reduce the amount of one-time-use garbage out there, Logistics Managers are challenged these days with the challenge of protecting cargo and products that ultimately wind up in your shopping bag.

“Good” packaging is needed in the world. We can not hope to keep the nearly 8 billion people alive and healthy without means to ship and safely stored different foods. There is already tremendous waste of food in the world, but that waste level would be much much more without the packaging being used today. These lengthen, transport, storage and shelf lifes of products before they rot.  

If you look at your shopping bag full of what you purchased – you will no doubt see a lot of plastic and plastic composite materials. Can Material Scientists improve packaging to the point where there is no plastic used and instead only reusable, easily combustible or safely biodegradable materials are used?

Like most things, cost is the largest driver here for most firms. Companies involved with packaging want to provide the best product at the lowest cost. That said are the costs for the packaging companies based on reality?

Plastics are being chosen over other materials because they are inexpensive compared to alternatives. But one reason it is inexpensive is because it is subsidised by tax payers. American and Chinese Governments in particular love to pay money to companies that extract fossil fuels (an example on how much the US spends was written about in detail in this Forbes article:  https://www.forbes.com/sites/jamesellsmoor/2019/06/15/united-states-spend-ten-times-more-on-fossil-fuel-subsidies-than-education/#70e1918b4473).

Another factor can be the lack of consideration for the disposal cost disparity. Even when plastics can be incinerated safely, there are higher costs to be paid by municipal governments because they need to pay for and maintain the machines used to do this. If they don’t pay for the special incinerator “scrubbers” – then the resulting pollution can affect health (yet another cost on society but this time via health costs and lower productivity). Again, the tax payer is topping up for this – but why shouldn’t the petroleum industry?

These tax payer contributions on both the front end and waste disposal side needs to end. I was taught in school about the advantages of the “free market”, but our governments are not letting that market work. If it did work properly, then the input costs for packaging would reflect a more real cost and that would open up some opportunities for materials science innovation.

Climate Change mitigation has recently been the main driver for getting rid of subsidy payments to fossil fuel companies. Fossil fuels currently receive the lion’s share of government subsidies as compared to renewable energy firms. The International Institute of Sustainable Development has some good information on this topic and what actions are happening (https://www.iisd.org/gsi/what-we-do/focus-areas/renewable-energy-subsidies-fossil-fuel-phase-out).

Let us all hope to expect that as subsidies are removed the true cost of plastic will will spur innovation for other materials that are less environmentally damaging. I’ll be keeping an eye out for it at the grocery store as well as my own work.

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