Packaging has an impact on our environment not only during its production and distribution but also when it becomes waste.

In order to make a responsible choice of packaging, it is necessary to take into account different aspects, in particular:

  • The type of use
  • The environmental impact of equipment or materials during production, distribution and end of life
  • The life expectancy
  • Reuse of material
  • Recyclability
  • The cost

We can currently find different types of materials on the market and the choice is vast (plastic, paper, glass, aluminium, biodegradable materials, composites, etc.).

So how to choose the best material? What is its environmental impact? What is its lifetime? Is it reusable, recyclable? Is it appropriate in terms of use and cost?

We will review these aspects for the main groups of materials on our next publications. Each publication will be dedicated to one type of material.

Before starting this study, we must remember that the best material is the one that is not used. It is therefore imperative to first study the real need for a material before buying it.

Actions à privilégier du haut en bas

Preferred actions from top to bottom (1)

Part 1: Plastics

Plastic is everywhere these days. We have passed from a world production of 2 million tons in 1950 to 400 million tons in 2015 (2). Plastics are grouped into 7 categories (PET/PE, HDPE, PVC, LDPE, PP, PS, and others). Approximately 40% of the plastic used in Europe is dedicated to packaging (3), in Switzerland this share represents 37% (4).

Ecological impact

Impact on ecosystems

Cumulative plastic waste in the world from 1950 to 2015 amounts to 6300 million tonnes. Of this total, only 9% has been recycled, 12% has been incinerated and 79% has been landfilled or disposed of in nature (2).

During its degradation, plastic waste releases its constituent products (microplastics, dyes, heavy metals, plasticizers, etc.) into the environment. These pollutants are present in the air, water and soil and can be ingested by organisms and introduced into the food web (5).

About 14,000 tonnes of plastic waste are discharged into soil and water in Switzerland every year. Most of it comes from tyre abrasion and littering or improper disposal of plastic waste (6).

Impact on climate

Plastics emit greenhouse gases at every stage of its life cycle: during the extraction of hydrocarbons, during refining and manufacturing (emissions from combustion and energy consumption) and during disposal (landfilling, incineration or recycling). If the production and use of plastics in the world continues at the current rate, cumulative greenhouse gas emissions could reach 56 billion tonnes by 2050 according to a study by CIEL (7).

Impact on health

The effects of microplastics on human health have not yet been well studied. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) considers that particles < 150 μm can pass through the intestinal wall, but that less than 0.3% of them are actually absorbed. Only very small particles (< 1.5 μm) can enter the organs. Especially under certain heat conditions, plastics can release monomers or oligomers that can cause toxic effects. Bisphenol A (the building block of polycarbonate) or styrene (the building block of polystyrene) are endocrine disruptors (molecules with chemical properties similar to those of hormones, capable of disrupting the hormonal system of living beings and affecting their reproduction, growth, development, etc.). Similarly, additives such as phthalates can potentially be released and cause undesirable effects (e.g. altered embryonic development) (8).

Degradability and recyclability

In terms of degradability, plastic materials are very persistent. Their lifespan in nature is from 20 to more than 500 years depending on their composition (9).

Durée de vie de certains déchets en plastique

Lifetime of certain plastic waste (9)

In terms of recyclability, only PET beverage bottles and plastic bottles can be recycled. A large proportion of plastic products and packaging such as trays, cups and plastic film cannot be recovered because of its poor quality, often due to the presence of composites and additives (10).

In Switzerland, only 10% of plastic waste is recycled and 80% is incinerated. The recycling rate for PET is 83% (11) (60% of which is reused to make new bottles (12)). This is part of the 10% of recycled plastics. Incinerated plastic waste is part of energy recovery (13).

Traitement des déchets en plastique en Suisse

Plastic waste treatment in Switzerland (12)

Advantages and disadvantages of plastic

Plastic still has some significant advantages, some of which are listed below. When choosing plastic, one must consider the type of plastic, its potential for reuse and recycling.

Advantages:

  • Different types (flexible to rigid)
  • No risk of breakage
  • Lightness
  • Transparency
  • In the context of a pandemic, ideal for single use
  • Low cost
  • Some reusable (depending on the type of plastic, some can be washed and reused 50 to 150 times (14) and even 200 times for initiatives such as reCIRCLE with packaging made from a mixture of plastic and glass)

  • Some are recyclable:

    • PET beverage bottles
    • some plastic bottles (15)

Disadvantages:

  • Significant environmental impact
  • Non-renewable raw materials
  • Low degradability and recyclability
  • Most PET materials are made from recycled materials but also require a smaller or larger proportion of raw material (oil) (16)
  • Low heat resistance for some plastics
  • Single use for most plastics

Bibliography: