The value and challenges of packaging

Rethinking the linear economy with a circular economy approach

Packaging plays an essential role in our lives today. There won’t be a world without packaging. Although, paper, glass and aluminum also have their advantages as packaging substrates, plastic has become the most popular packaging material due to its high functionality and its comparatively low production costs.

Before we look into the future, let us venture a look into the past. The first evidence of artificially produced glass packaging was found in ancient Egypt in the 15th century. And the first fully synthetic plastic was invented in 1907. 

But only during the last 50 years plastic packaging has been playing a major role in the economic growth and our society’s wellbeing. By keeping medical products sterile, creating access to safe food and water as well as reducing food waste, it has significantly helped to address major global challenges. Today, plastic is the substrate of choice for many consumer products and industry applications.

 

However, plastic packaging also comes with challenges as it enters a failing system. Our linear economy follows the principle “take-make-use-dispose” resulting in discarding about 90 percent of plastic packaging after a single use. Only 10 percent of the world’s plastic packaging has been recycled – and as such the material being used again. And even more serious: Around 30 percent (>50m tons) of the annual plastic waste is not formally disposed but leaked into the environment. 

Waste in a linear economy...

... and it will get worse

2050: more than 600 million tons of plastic packaging waste will not be recycled if we don't change our linear economic model

Due to a growing world population and rising income levels, the demand for plastic packaging will further increase and therefore intensify this problem. 

All in all, plastic packaging has a strong value proposition: it is vital to protect and preserve goods in global value chains and contribute to prosperity and wellbeing of a growing world population. But this value proposition is being challenged due to negative consequences in the linear system such as ocean littering and health concerns. This contradiction between challenges and opportunities of plastic packaging is known as the plastics paradox.


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