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  • Writer's pictureAli Tadlaoui

Plastic Packaging Panic

The purveyors of foods and beverages packaged in plastic are more than a little concerned; you, and me, and people all over the planet are disillusioned with plastic packaging. Consumers have awoken to how environmentally unfriendly plastic packaging is, and they’re mad.

The main theme, by far, at this year’s The Packaging Conference, a gathering sponsored by PMMI, the Association for Plastics and Packaging, was sustainability. Half of the presentations addressed the concerns and challenges around sustainability for the plastics industry and the packaged goods manufacturers who count on plastics to deliver their product.

Plastic packaging has been especially vilified by environmental activists for years now. It is used more than any other material in packaging used for food - almost 40% - and the use of plastic is growing faster than that of paper and metal. Used plastic packaging is ubiquitous. You can’t get rid of it. It litters thoroughfares of every width and length. It fills landfills, degrading ever, ever so slowly like most inorganic stuff does. Spent plastic packaging clumps in massive patches across the seven seas, and breaks into microplastics that find their way into all sorts of marine life, and so we end up eating plastic too.

How could there be so much of it?

Manufacturers create 300 million metric tons of plastic feedstock every year, according to a study by McKinsey & Co., the iconic management consulting firm. That kind of number is hard to fathom. That’s just about one ton for every American. Every year…

Companies that convert this feedstock need 330 million tons of plastic polymers to meet all our plastic applications. The extra 30 million comes from recycled plastic. According to their analysis, and I’ve seen it corroborated elsewhere, this implies that we only recycle 10-12% of plastic used in things like packaging. Over 100 million tons of this plastic ends up in landfills. Over 50 million is incinerated. And 50 million tons plastic polymers are unaccounted for every year. This is the stuff we see where we don’t want to see it.

Billions and billions of tons over the years, piling up. Hidden, and in plain view.

And it’s not going away…PMMI says food packaging will grow 4 to 5% for the next several years.

It’s hard to argue that all this plastic isn’t a problem. That all this new packaging that gets distributed throughout the food chain isn’t directly and indirectly polluting our air, earth, and water. What makes it even harder to accept is that more than half of this new packaging that is manufactured every year is made from non-renewables, and the bulk of that is plastic.

Our lifestyle, for the vast majority of us in the U.S., demands the convenience of packaging. This dependence on convenient packaging is only growing as we live more of our daily lives on the go, and we look to light-weight, sturdy, sealed, hassle-free packaging (think plastic) to transport our food with us. And when we do eat at home, many of us are often too time-pressed or too tired to prepare a meal from scratch, so we turn to pre-prepared, packaged foods.

At the same time, many of us are literally feeling the effects of too much greenhouse gas in the atmosphere. We are worried, individually and collectively about the impact on our health, and, for some, even our survival as a species.

There is an uncomfortable, unrelenting tension between what we think we need, like 300 million tons of virgin plastic feedstock every year, and the price we are paying in terms of the unsustainable levels of pollution we are generating, to live the way we do.

The European Union is maybe the most strident large, governmental body trying to ease this tension by demanding sustainable packaging solutions. The EU issued a Single Use Plastics Directive last year. It calls for:

  • A significant reduction in the use of plastic containers for food and drink.

  • A minimum of 25% recycled plastic in new beverage containers by 2025.

  • Tethered beverage bottle caps by 2024.

  • A 90% collection rate of PET plastic containers by 2029.

  • Manufacturers to carry a good amount of the costs of recycling.

Consumers all over the world are demanding change too. YouTube videos posted by elementary school kids showing other kids how to turn discarded plastic into bracelets reflect the willingness to do what you can at the individual level. There are initiatives everywhere in between.

This is why the players in the plastics ecosystem are mobilizing to address sustainability. It was fourth in priority on the list of mega trends McKinsey presented at the 2019 conference, but sustainability vaulted to number one, in February 2020.

At a high level, plastic packaging makers and packaged goods companies talk about circularity as way to deliver on sustainability and reducing pollution.

Imagine a bottle mold at a plastic making factory filling with hot liquid. The liquid is composed entirely of recycled materials, mostly, but not only used plastic bottles, that have been broken down. The bottle pops out of the mold and is shipped off to be filled and distributed to your supermarket shelf. You buy it, use it, clean it (hopefully), then put it in your recycling cart. This bottle of water or salad dressing or jar of pasta sauce is collected and completely broken down to be used as the starting point for another plastic container.

The ultimate goal would be to not have to manufacture any new bottles from virgin feedstock i.e., plastic freshly manufactured from oil taken out of the ground.

They, and we, are a long way from realizing that vision. Here are some findings from The Packaging Conference that add dimension to the challenge and summarize what some key players are doing, or suggest should be done.

The largest food manufacturers in the world have set stretch 2025 targets to:

  • Use less plastic in the design of containers.

  • Substitute recycled, reusable, or compostable plastic for new plastic in the construction of containers.

BUT, there isn’t nearly enough recycled plastic to hit the targets set by these packaged goods manufacturers. The Recycling Partnership, a “national force for improving recycling”, estimates the system would need 1.6 billion pounds of recycled materials (rPET) annually, compared to a current supply of 0.5 billion pounds.

  • Suppliers are looking to alternative sources to plastic packaging for feedstock. These include some obvious manufactured items, like agricultural plastic, but also less obvious things, like carpets and rugs, textiles, field turf, composite decking, and automobile parts. Apparently, billions of pounds of carpeting and rugs get “landfilled” every year.

  • There are potentially more natural sources for feedstock like woody biomass and corn processing by-products.

  • There was talk of chemical recycling technologies, like gasification, which breaks down a mixed bag of recyclable materials, or glycolysis which breaks down polyesters into the building blocks of plastic that can be used in packaging.

This gap between recycled materials needed and what can be made available today reflects how the biggest barrier to plastics packaging circularity is the recycling system, from collection to processing:

  • We consumers aren’t consistent in our efforts to help in the collection of recyclable containers. Only 50% is collected.

  • There isn’t enough financial reward for companies to process recyclable materials. It costs $100/ton to recycle materials, but only $50/ton to put them in the landfill. And the value of a ton of recyclable materials is $35/ton vs. $90/ton to process it.

  • The recycling infrastructure isn’t robust enough to handle full-scale, all-out recycling. Only 50% of Americans have recycling.

This why we end up with only 10-12% of plastic being recycled. The Recycling Partnership, which has spent $250 million so far, highlighted its efforts to close the gap:

  • Converting recycling bins to carts.

  • Additional curbside and multi-family access.

  • Consumer education about recycling.

The American Beverage Association has launched a campaign called Every Bottle Back. Katherine Lugar of the ABA said, “Our goal is for every bottle to become a new bottle, and not end up in oceans, rivers, beaches, and landfills.” The goal is to encourage us to recycle more, through awareness and education, like a uniform message on the bottle that says “100% recyclable, please give it back.” The ABA has put $100 million towards recycling infrastructure improvements as well.

Are these efforts enough to close the plastics packaging circle? I don’t know. Charlie Schwarze, a Director at The Recycling Partnership offered that for the system to get close to being circular each American would have to recycle 100 additional bottles every year. That’s a lot to ask.

Despite the prominence of sustainability at this year’s The Packaging Conference, and phrases like “Plastic Panic,” it seems the key players in the plastics ecosystem need and could do more. Billions and billions of dollars in investment, not hundreds of millions. But even that may never be sufficient. We need to implement additional strategies if we’re going to get to a world of sustainable food and beverage packaging.

Entrepreneurs and researchers are pushing for bioplastics as an alternative to fossil fuel-based plastic, like packaging made with shellfish shells, or almonds, or hay. Scientists are working on edible packaging too! This is great, but how long will it take to scale up to the point where it helps close the circularity gap?

How about putting some of the onus on us, the American consumer? If we used fewer new containers, manufacturers wouldn’t need to make as many plastic bottles and jars to begin with. There would also be no less need to expend all these resources recycling materials and manufacturing new bottles from them.

What if we shop with our own reusable containers or ones supplied by our food store? What if we transport food and drink in reusable, convenience-minded packaging? This is the starting point for advocates of a zero waste lifestyle. To me, there is a simple elegance to this way of thinking. Zero waste gets at the root of the problem. We are a consumer society, and we consume an awful lot. I’m not sure we can afford to be or live in such a disposable society anymore.

More about “zero waste” on my Talk to Me About Food podcast: Zero Waste Shopping 2020. You can find at Apple, Google, and Spotify.

Please also check out my blog at

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