1989 is perhaps most famous as the year in which the Berlin Wall was breached after nearly three decades of keeping East and West apart. Back then I had yet to grasp that our insatiable appetite for plastic would have serious consequences for us all, later down the line. While corporations and consumers were starting to become more aware of the impact of endless consumption on the environment, the late eighties were not a time when ‘sustainability’ was a staple of discussions in the boardroom or on the factory floor, except with one or two notable exceptions.

Back then there was virtually zero understanding that incessant plastic consumption in the economy would eventually lead to an existential crisis in the environment. Few plastic recycling facilities or indeed technologies existed, and so every piece of throwaway plastic ended up as landfill. In fact, every piece of plastic ever made in the last 60 years, still exists today.

The dawn of the nineties saw attitudes towards the environment and waste management shift across the UK and Europe. In 1991, the Töpfer Decree was signed in the newly unified Germany. It required retailers to take back packaging from consumers, manufacturers to retrieve packaging from retailers, and packaging companies to retrieve used packaging from manufacturers. The Töpfer approach failed to provide a workable solution to the question of what to do with Europe’s mounting piles of plastic waste. It did, however, force UK retailers to grapple with the prospect of tighter regulation of their waste-generating activities.

Reducing weight, not waste

With the Maastricht Treaty exposing the UK to increasing amounts of EU environmental legislation, the turn of the millennium saw packaging designers and pack technologists set to work in trying to make packaging as lightweight as possible. This approach largely failed to halt the endless deluge of plastic detritus that was beginning to fill up our oceans and blight our landscape. Plastic is already a very light material when set against alternatives such as aluminium and cardboard, and so attempts to reduce the weight of our overall waste output largely failed to hone in on plastic as a primary driver of environmental degradation.

It wasn’t until the late noughties (after the global financial crisis) that we finally began to wake up to the devastating effects of our decades-long addiction to plastic packaging. The unedifying spectacle of beaches littered with plastic detritus became an increasingly regular feature of news bulletins. International media and local social media began to report on the autopsies of beached whales that revealed their stomachs to be clogged with hundreds of pieces of plastic packaging and all sorts of other consumables.

With unprecedented levels of public and political awareness of the lunacy of throwaway plastic, we now find ourselves at a crossroads. Armed with the knowledge that our over-reliance on plastic has forced our planet to the brink of an environmental catastrophe, we have some big decisions to make.

As some of the most influential drivers of change in the design industry, it is up to packaging designers and packaging technologists to find credible alternatives to throwaway plastic. While this is no small task, it’s clear that potentially viable solutions are emerging as companies drive real change – for commercial as well as environmental reasons. Whatever can replace plastic will be worth big bucks.

Aluminium bottles and moulded pulp are just two examples of emerging non-plastic packaging solutions. A wholesale shift from single-use plastic packaging to non-plastic alternatives is not going to happen overnight. Real change is more likely to be achieved in fits and starts and from categories that can more easily make the shift. (Think dried pasta in cardboard rather than flow wrap, for instance)

A cultural shift. A Plastic-free shopping aisle.

Alongside intensive R&D in the packaging industry, it’s vital that we foster a broad plastic-free culture in which retailers and consumers make non-fossil fuel packaging their first choice wherever possible. Earlier this year, I joined forces with campaign group A Plastic Planet in its bid to find innovative solutions to the crisis of plastic packaging. One such initiative is a plastic-free shopping aisle. Giving consumers an alternative to single-use plastic packaging could focus the minds of shoppers and get them to question the need to fill their trollies with products laden with plastic. Consider how people now question why they never took sturdy bags into shops instead of the flimsy plastic ones provided; the same cultural shift needs to happen with plastic packaging.

The last thirty years has seen many cultural shifts and new consumption paradims (think Slow Food and conscious consumption), but we’ve roundly failed to shift our approach to how we package food and drink products. In fact we’re using more plastic than ever, and it is predicted that by 2050 there will be more plastic in our oceans than fish. It is incumbent on all of us that work in packaging design and the packaging supply chain to work together to find more sustainable ways forward and provide consumers with genuine alternatives.