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Green Packaging- I Love Plastic?

“Plastic and climate change, name a more iconic duo. Go on, I’ll wait”
Plastic has done immeasurable damage to our planet but the unpopular opinion you won’t hear many people talk about is that Plastic is an amazing material.

In fact, even just referring to it as Plastic doesn’t do it justice because plastic is a name for a staggeringly large number of exceptionally different materials with vastly different properties. They just happen to all be hydrocarbon-based materials that get their name from their high Plasticity. Plasticity occurs to such a degree that their actual name derives from this specific ability.

As an engineering material, there really is nothing else in the world quite like it. It’s relatively cheap to produce as raw material and can be produced at a considerable scale, it’s properties can be fine and meticulously tuned to fit even the most challenging engineering requirements, it can be exceptionally strong, and lightweight, and it can be extremely flexible and soft. It can be water soluble and some plastics can be used to contain highly volatile chemicals due to their non-reactive nature.

 

Now it may sound like I’m harping on about how amazing plastic is but there is a reason why it was called “the miracle material” when it was first invented. This is what makes plastic so problematic. How do you replace a miracle? How do you even replicate a miracle?

This is the main problem with plastics. When it comes to alternatives the rest falls far short; and is the main reason that plastics have permeated so widely through our everyday lives. So really the problem with plastics is less what the material is, and rather, how we use it. Susan Freinkel put it best in her article for the New York Times titled Plastic: Too Good to Throw Away

“Plastic has become synonymous with cheap and worthless, when in fact those chains of hydrocarbons ought to be regarded as among the most valuable substances on the planet. If we understood plastic’s true worth, we would stop wasting it on trivial throwaways and take better advantage of what this versatile material can do for us.”

This here is the core of the point I hope to make in this article. Plastic in and of itself is not the enemy, but rather how we choose to use it, especially when it comes to “trivial throwaways” and there is no more trivial a throwaway than packaging.

 

So now the question comes, what can we do about plastic packaging? Do we just replace it? But I thought you said plastics are hard to replace? Okay so yes this is where things get tricky.

For many applications, plastic packaging can be replaced by cardboard or some other biodegradable solution which is fantastic and where possible I would absolutely encourage and advocate for that to be used instead. In the times where plastic really is the only option then designers could consider a change in the paradigm. That is, how can you make your packaging less trivial? Can you make your packaging more valuable so that people are less likely to throw it away?

I wrote previously articles exploring the world of wearables well a new revolutionary wearable is the Continuous Glucose Monitor or CGM for short.

A CGM is a small wearable device that tracks your glucose throughout the day and night, notifying you of highs and lows so you can take control of your blood sugar levels. The continuous glucose monitor automatically checks your blood sugar every 5.0 minutes and displays your “numbers” on a screen. It also features a convenient application that is accessible to iPhone (iOS) and Android users. For diabetics, this is a HUGE breakthrough technology that means they no longer have to manually measure their blood sugar and can get a continuous understanding of how their foods are affecting their blood sugar levels.

 

What if we could take this technology one step further? A key measure of how your body digests and uptakes glucose from food is known as the Glycemic Index or GI. Foods that have a low GI may have a lot of sugar in them but are difficult for the body to access and therefore will raise your blood glucose level slower.

A great example of this is Maple Syrup. Maple syrup is about 2/3 sucrose or table sugar — 1/3 cup (80 ml) supplies around 60 grams of sugar. Despite having so much sugar the glycemic index of maple syrup is around 54. In comparison, table sugar has a glycemic index of around 65. This implies that maple syrup raises blood sugar slower than regular sugar as the body has to work harder to digest maple sugar than it does for refined table sugar.

So simply looking at the nutritional values on the packaging isn’t enough to tell you the full story about how your food is going to respond when you eat it.

In fact, even calculating the GI of food from its nutritional information as everyone responds to glucose differently. In fact, the GI of a food is measured by giving a group of 10 people a food and measuring their blood sugar levels over 2 hours, then giving them an equal-carbohydrate portion of the sugar glucose (as a control) and observing their blood sugar levels over 2 hours. A GI value for the test food is then calculated for each person by dividing their glucose AUC (an incremental area under the two-hour blood glucose response curve) for the test food by their glucose AUC for the reference food. The final GI value for the test food is the average GI value for the 10 people. I know right? Crazy complicated!!

So what does this have to do with packaging? Well, what if we could combine these two technologies to create smart food packaging? That is packaging that can “talk” to your CGM. It could take the nutritional information of the food it contains including the Glucose AUC. It could then compare this to your baseline Glucose AUC and display an accurate GI for the food contained in the packaging. This would mean that foods that your body responds poorly to could be intelligently calculated and the products could warn you if they could be damaging to you or more importantly could advertise that they are highly compatible with your digestion. It’s a little bit black mirror I know but could have a revolutionary impact on diabetes and the obesity epidemic that is growing throughout the developed world.

Another way you can make your packaging more valuable is if it is literally edible. This may sound crazy but it’s something you are going to see become more commonplace. Thanks to the development of Algae and seaweed-based containers we are starting to see more products being developed made from packaging that is entirely edible. The most high profile use of edible packaging was this year at the London Marathon where instead of handing out plastic water bottles, the runners were instead given edible water pods. Made by Skipping Rocks Lab the water pods as made using a seaweed membrane that is edible, vegan and entirely biodegradable. This is meant there was a drastic reduction in plastic waste caused by the water stations at the marathon which in previous years has caused a monumental amount of waste.

Evoware is another company leading the charge with edible packaging. They too are using Algae-based packaging and developed an edible packaging solution for Bruxelwaffle a purveyor of fine Belgium waffles. One surprising advantage of using Algae-based packaging is especially eco-friendly in that Algae doesn’t need fertiliser or costly or damaging resources to produce, in fact, during its growth Algae actually absorbs CO2. Evoware tags themselves as a socially responsible enterprise that elevates an environmentally friendly lifestyle and provides innovative value to urban society. Fortunately, companies like Evoware and Skipping rocks labs are leading the charge and developing fantastic alternatives to plastic packaging.

Here at Detekt, we’re all about blue sky thinking and more importantly, we’re all about going green (yes, we are going green). There are many alternatives to using plastic packaging and we’d love to talk to you about how you too could reduce your impact on the environment. Get in contact with us today and talk to us about how you could reduce your impact on the environment.