Under Paris – and plastic’s image problem

Is plastic packaging still swimming against the current?

Debuting with an astonishing 40.9 million views in its first week, Netflix’s latest sensation Under Paris has instantly become one of the streaming service’s most watched non-English language films.

Notably, the film opens in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a notorious gyre of marine debris in the North Pacific. The artistic shots of floating waste and debris paint a stark picture, but also serve as a fantastic reminder of the common misconceptions around plastic.

Over the course of many years, plastic has been villainised in media. Like the sharks stalking the Under Paris protagonists, the plastic packaging industry has been followed by outdated ideas of what is and is not ‘sustainable’. The reality is that few industries are working as diligently to improve sustainability as the printing and packaging industries. Although packaging has been the central focus in marine pollution drives and media campaigns, those who remember another Netflix hit, Seaspiracy, will recall findings that the vast majority of marine plastic actually comes from fishing nets – a far cry from the packaging-based picture that is typically portrayed.

Is plastic packaging still swimming against the current, or are we in a position to move public discourse forwards?

In just over two decades, the technology surrounding packaging materials, particularly plastic, has undergone nothing short of a revolution. What was once seen as a simple, single-use material destined only for landfill or incinerators, has evolved into a sophisticated range of specifications and applications. Turnkey innovations in polymer chemistry have led to the development of high-performance plastics that offer superior strength, flexibility, and barrier properties. These advancements have not only extended the shelf life of packaged goods but have also reduced material use through lightweighting, making packaging more resource-efficient than ever before.

Not only that, but the advent of smart packaging technologies has also transformed how we interact with products. From intelligent sensors that monitor freshness and temperature to active packaging incorporating antimicrobial agents, plastics have become integral to enhancing safety and consumer convenience. These technologies not only ensure product integrity throughout supply chains but also contribute to sustainability efforts by minimising food waste and improving logistics efficiency. So, when it comes to sustainability and the planet, it’s never as cut and dried as it might appear.

The narrative surrounding plastic often overlooks its significant benefits in areas such as reducing food waste, focusing instead on its disposal challenges.

This skewed perspective has led to reactions of switching away from plastic without considering the broader implications. Plastic often bears the brunt of environmental criticism, yet its alternatives aren’t always the unequivocal solution they seem.

Take the case of drinking straws: swapping plastic for paper may seem ‘eco-friendly’ at first glance due to paper’s recyclability. However, paper straws still take energy and resources to produce, and for many of us, lack the durability required for use. Those of us that have become accustomed to paper straws quickly becoming soggy and ineffective will know this all too well. This results in consumers discarding them prematurely, contributing to post-consumer waste streams without even fulfilling their intended function.

Moreover, the lifecycle assessment (LCA) of paper products reveals that recycling paper consumes substantial energy and resources, including water and chemicals, during processing. This underlines the complexity of sustainability choices, highlighting that effective solutions must balance environmental impacts across the entire lifecycle of packaging materials. Paper of course has a key role to play in the future of packaging, but to paint plastic as unequivocally bad is not just wrong, it’s potentially doing more harm than good.

We also need to recognise that today’s plastic is worlds apart in terms of innovation and circularity. Just five years ago, recycling flexible packaging was unheard of. Mixed layers of multiple materials combined with adhesives made separating the layers into their composite substrates a costly task. However, today we’re seeing incredible monopolymer technologies that provide all the benefits of flexible packaging but are fully recyclable.

Waste infrastructure has historically been a sticking point in plastic packaging, but again, improvements are being made. While still very much fractured from one region to another, growing sustainability legislation around the globe is bringing more into line, and greater investment in waste infrastructure will be key to tackling challenges such as marine waste.

Another example of plastic’s evolution can be seen in the PET market which is highly recyclable and boasts impressive post-consumer recycled content rates.

This material not only reduces the carbon footprint of packaging by reducing reliance on the production of virgin material but also contributes significantly to the circular economy – a concept integral to sustainable packaging solutions. Yet, public perception remains fixated on images of oceanic plastic gyres and wildlife entanglement, largely ignoring the much more nuanced reality.

So, how do we address the common misconceptions that still linger around plastic?

It’s crucial to distinguish between types of plastics and their respective impacts. Light weight and durable plastics have revolutionised sectors like medical and food packaging, enhancing safety, performance, and extending shelf life. These innovations highlight the indispensable role plastics play in preserving product integrity and reducing food waste – a critical consideration in sustainable development goals. Furthermore, advancements in biodegradable plastics offer promising alternatives, though their efficacy varies depending on application and environmental conditions. While these innovations address end-of-life concerns, they don’t discount the value of traditional plastics in our daily lives.

At PHD Marketing, we work with some of the largest and most innovative packaging businesses around the world, using all manner of substrates to create the next generation of sustainability-led innovation, whether it’s paper-based or plastic. As a result, we get to see the incredible progress being made first-hand, as we guide our clients through the intricacies of today’s complex B2B marketing world.

We believe there’s never going to be a ‘one-size-fits-all’ packaging substrate solution, and the product and application need should dictate the material. We proudly advocate for a balanced approach to packaging sustainability, one that embraces forward thinking, while respecting environmental imperatives. Educating consumers about the lifecycle impacts of different materials is paramount to reshaping perceptions and fostering more informed choices. Initiatives promoting responsible plastic use and enhancing recycling infrastructure are pivotal steps towards achieving this goal.

While the sight of plastic litter in our oceans, and reminders in media such as Under Paris, is a sobering reminder of environmental challenges, it’s vital that we recognise that not all plastics are adversaries. By championing transparency, innovation, and responsible stewardship, we can reframe the narrative around plastic packaging.

For more insights on navigating the complexities of packaging communications, connect with PHD Marketing today. Together, let’s reshape perceptions and build a robust and sustainable future for the packaging industry

Posted by: Admin