Closing the loop
Closing the Loop
A Sisyphean task for the 21st century
I first met Ian Hayes at a seminar about sustainable packaging design. Ian is a Packaging Development Director (Nutritional & Digestive Health Category) at GSK. You may not have heard of GlaxoSmithKline, but chances are you own at least one of their products.
During the seminar, Ian shared how they had progressed from three to two-layer films in multi-layer plastic packaging. At the time, I honestly wasn't that impressed. Wouldn't it be better if GSK just got rid of single-use plastic sachets? That would solve our ocean plastic problem! However, after we sat down to discuss packaging and everything in-between, I'll agree that the answer isn't nearly so simple.
Let's identify the two most important factors in packaging: product performance and consumer safety. I thought I had a pretty good understanding of what secure packaging meant till Ian (whose background is in Chemistry) started saying things like 'odour profile.' Pharmaceutical products are expected to remain good-as-new for a few years. This means texture, taste, smell, and effectiveness cannot alter over time.
Products need to be easy to transport, display, store, open, and re-open. They also need to be cost-effective and in order to sell, they also need to look good on a shelf. There isn't one type of plastic that fulfills all those requirements which is why we have multi-plastic packaging i.e. flexible sachets.
Glass and tin are still commonly used for packaging, but these traditional materials may actually use up more resources during manufacturing and distribution.
"You can put it [plastic] into a landfill, that is still more environmentally better than a glass replacement or tin. The energy going into glass and the energy required to make glass, to transport glass is inefficient because it’s already pre-made so it takes up all this space, in a truck, in a warehouse. So plastic is still a better result from a full-scale life cycle analysis than glass and cans, as long as you don’t put it in the water."
Alright, so why can't we switch from petrochemical plastic to bioplastic?
"I think the issue of biodegradable plastics is two-fold: the volumes aren’t in place, that’s the problem. We aren’t buying enough of them. So because there’s not enough volume coming through, the cost per kilogram is expensive at the moment... the reason we’re not buying them is because they’re designed to fail, which means they are probably going to impact my shelf life."
Low demand = low supply + high cost. So maybe those who were considering a more sustainable alternative are scared off by the price tag and revert to traditional plastic. Bioplastics such as PLA (Polylactic acid) are brittle and soften under heat, and no one wants to take a risk on packaging that could affect product performance or consumer safety.
The ideal material would be in-between kevlar and a banana skin — durable but not everlasting and able to withstand different conditions (a humid kitchen/the freezer).
Bioplastic packaging can work well in certain cases, and Ian offers the Keurig pod as an example. Instead of washing and segregating the various parts for recycling, simply compost the entire pod. Keurig/Nespresso rival PurPod does just that and states that their "certified 100% compostable pod is the #rightsolution." In theory, it sounds great. But if you have no home composter and no municipal composter, your biodegradable packaging is going straight to the landfill.
"We’re now getting into that total life cycle. The implication is that you’ve got lots of coffee pods and access to an industrial composter because you’re going to need serious heat and proper maintenance, it’s not going to break down in a home compost. There needs to be a balance where people understand that biodegradables aren’t the solution for everything, they are part of the solution."
One time at work, I asked my boss if we could consider cotton instead of plastic tote bags. Cotton costs more so I expected to be turned down, but thought that I should at least ask. Sure enough, my lackluster request was declined. When I recounted this to Ian he offers this advice:
"We were talking about change being difficult for people, and being empathetic is your opportunity.And the challenge in this is that there’s going to be a loser. It’s going to cost more, it’s going to run slower, it’s whatever it might be. But how do you bring those people along on that journey?"
Ian sits in R&D but collaborates with many other departments including design, marketing, procurement, sales, and even legal. Since the concerns of each department vary, you've got to do your homework and remember what matters to the person you are approaching.
"You’ve got to gear your presentation, your pitch, to that audience. It's very easy to stop something in a large company, you just have to say 'I don't know.' So you need to take away the reasons for people to be unsure."
Good advice, whether or not we are ready to pitch the next start-up unicorn.
The least-worst outcome
Much of our discussion circled back to how there isn't one simple solution. I've gone back and forth gung-ho activism (let's ban everything!) and eco-anxiety (we're doomed!). And the only thing these two have in common is that they are fueled by feelings.
"I think it’s to bring the science out, rather than the emotion. I think we are all emotional about it. We all get it and it’s not ideal. But sometimes the easy answer isn’t the right answer."
Greater transparency between companies and consumers could help prevent panic. Our intentions may be good, but as outsiders, we lack the industry knowledge to understand why some ideas won't work.
It was humbling to hear Ian's insight, and his excitement about work is genuine and infectious. I'd like to adopt his pragmatic and optimistic attitude.
"More people are looking for solutions, which I think is really encouraging. There’s a variety of things we can talk about but ultimately, I don’t think we want to be responsible for our own destruction."