One of the first steps towards living a more sustainable lifestyle is becoming aware of how our actions and consumption patterns affect the world. Making informed purchasing decisions like seeking alternatives for single use plastic products is a great start. Buying reusable stainless steel straws instead of plastic, glass containers instead of snap lock bags: these are examples of easy, sustainable substitutions for environmentally harmful plastics. But oftentimes that metal straw or that glass container bought with the best of intentions comes wrapped, boxed, and bagged in the same environmentally harmful materials you were hoping to avoid in the first place.
Isn’t it ironic, don’t you think?
Irony is sometimes hard to define, but you know it when you see it. A shipment of metal straws covered in plastic shrink wrap? That’s some “the fire station is burning down” level irony. A sustainable product is only half the battle. Packaging matters.
According to a 2019 Pew Research survey, 72 percent of Americans are actively trying to reduce their plastic waste footprint. So far so good. But all those good intentions haven’t yet resulted in a decrease in per person plastic consumption. Packaging waste is a major culprit for why even well-meaning, environmentally aware consumers haven’t been able to reduce their plastic usage. Companies like UppWell are trying to break the cycle.
Polystyrene: the non-sustainable status quo
For decades, most packaging and shipping materials have been developed from polystyrene, a petroleum derived compound used to create a variety of plastics, like Styrofoam. Millions of tonnes of these non-biodegradable plastics are produced every year. They end up in landfills, oceans, and the stomachs of our wildlife. The effects of society’s addiction to polystyrene are seen and felt all over the world, including through microplastics that have permeated our ecosystem.
Thinking outside (about what’s inside) the box
Plastic usage grew rapidly over the last 100 years because, while damaging to the planet, it’s cheap and effective. Finding alternatives isn’t easy. This is especially true when packaging wood products like many of UppWell’s offerings. Wood can shrink, expand, crack and grow mold without the proper protection. Packaging without plastic takes creativity and ingenuity to find efficient substitutes. As it turns out, many of these alternatives are derived from items found in the food pyramid.
Mushroom roots, known as mycelium, are being used to create eco-friendly molds that keep products protected during shipping, removing the need for environmentally harmful Styrofoam. They can grow into any shape and don’t even require water or light. Evocative Design grows mushroom packaging in as little as 7 days using only hemp and mycelium. It breaks down very quickly and can be composted at home.
Corn starch-based packaging is becoming increasingly popular as an alternative to polystyrene for a wide variety of uses. It can be utilized for loose-fill packaging, molded forms, bottles, and more. One downside is it takes a long time to break down compared to the other items on this list. Another consideration is that unlike mushroom packaging, which is derived from waste products, resources must be used to grow corn crops, which increases the carbon footprint. Find out more information about the environmental impact of corn crops.
The company Notpla, whose slogan is “We Make Packaging Disappear”, has gained a lot of attention recently by using seaweed extract to create an edible water bottle, called the Ooho. Seaweed can also be made into a pouch for dry goods. It can take as little as a month to biodegrade, pretty good compared to the 1,000 years it takes plastic!
Beeswax, cotton, essential oils, and tree resin combine to create an alternative to plastic wrap for food packaging and storage. The anti-microbial properties of beeswax wraps allow food to last longer, reducing food waste.
Demanding better packaging
Ultimately, it’s up to consumers to let their voices be heard through their purchasing decisions. As shopping online continues to dominate the retail space due to the COVID-19 pandemic, sustainable packaging is more important than ever. If you’re purchasing an eco-friendly product, research the packaging if possible. If you’re sold a product with wasteful packaging, give the company feedback about how they can do better. Cheap and easy just won’t cut it anymore.