If Plastics Are Harmful, Why Are Packaging Companies Still Selling Them?

If Plastics Are Harmful, Why Are Packaging Companies Still Selling Them?

Tommy Lai |

The ubiquity of plastics in packaging presents a seemingly paradoxical situation for packaging companies Vancouver

While the environmental consequences of plastic pollution are undeniable, with research by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation indicating that by 2050—there could be more plastic in the ocean than fish by weight, packaging companies in Canada continue to utilize them extensively.

The crux of the issue lies in the mismanagement of plastic waste. A 2017 study by Science Advances revealed that only 9% of all plastic in existence has been recycled. This low rate stems from factors like the complexity of sorting different plastic types, limited recycling infrastructure in many regions, re-packaging and the presence of non-recyclable additives.

The Two Sides of the Coin 

Innovation and Efficiency of Plastics

Plastics offer exceptional barrier properties against moisture, oxygen, and other contaminants. This extends shelf life and reduces food spoilage, a significant contributor to greenhouse gas emissions. 

A study published in the International Journal of Refrigeration estimated that food spoilage is responsible for roughly 30% of post-harvest losses globally. Plastic packaging helps mitigate this by creating a controlled environment for perishable goods for business and their services.

In contrast to traditional materials like glass or metal, plastics offer significant weight reduction. This translates to lower transportation costs and a reduced carbon footprint throughout the supply chain from different brands, and customers. A supporting study by Argonne National Laboratory found that plastic packaging in automobiles can contribute to fuel efficiency gains of up to 2.5%.

The diverse range of plastic types, from rigid High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE) used in detergent bottles to flexible Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE) for food wrapping, allows for tailored packaging solutions. This ensures optimal product protection and minimizes waste

For instance, aseptic packaging, warehousing, and utilizing multi-layered plastics with superior barrier properties allow for shelf-stable milk without refrigeration, a significant logistical advantage for brands.

Environmental Concerns of Plastics

The breakdown of plastic into smaller fragments, termed microplastics, poses a growing threat to ecosystems. Research published in Environmental Science & Technology suggests that microplastics can be ingested by various marine organisms, potentially impacting their health and bioaccumulating up the food chain. The cumulative effects of microplastics on human health are still under investigation.

Certain additives incorporated into plastics, such as bisphenol A (BPA), have raised concerns regarding potential health risks. Although BPA-free alternatives are increasingly utilized, further research is ongoing to evaluate the safety of other additives and potential leaching into food or water products.

Monomers, Polymers, and Resins

At their core, plastics are polymers – long, chain-like molecules formed by the repeated connection of smaller units called monomers. 

The specific type of monomer and the way they are linked determine the properties of the resulting plastic. For example, ethylene monomers (C2H4) linked together form polyethylene (PE), a plastic with excellent chemical resistance and electrical insulation properties.

Resins are another key concept. Resins are concentrated solutions or melts of polymers, often blended with additives to enhance specific properties. These additives can be antioxidants to improve shelf life, plasticizers to increase flexibility or colourants for aesthetics.

A Material Revolution

The versatility of plastics has fueled innovation across diverse fields:

  • High-performance polymers like polyimides are essential for spacecraft construction due to their exceptional heat resistance and low weight. These materials allow spacecraft to withstand the extreme temperatures encountered during launch and re-entry.
  • Polyethylene terephthalate (PET) is a prime example of medical advancements for plastic. Stemming from its biocompatibility and chemical resistance, it is used in intravenous (IV) bags and medical-grade tubing. Additionally, polypropylene (PP) is utilized in syringes and prosthetic limbs owing to its strength and sterilization tolerance.
  • Polycarbonate, known for its high impact resistance and optical clarity, is used in bulletproof vests and safety goggles, providing crucial protection for law enforcement and industrial workers.

The Chemistry Behind Plastics


Factors like temperature, pressure, and catalysts influence the process of linking monomers to form long polymer chains. 

Intermolecular Forces

The forces of attraction between polymer chains determine a plastic's physical properties. Stronger intermolecular forces, like hydrogen bonding, lead to rigid and high-melting-point plastics like PET. Weaker forces, like van der Waals forces, result in flexible and low-melting-point plastics like LDPE.

Plastics Types, Characteristics, and Packaging Applications

A Classification by Resin Identification Codes (RICs)

PET (Polyethylene Terephthalate - RIC 1)

PET is a clear, rigid plastic with excellent dimensional stability and chemical resistance. Due to its barrier properties against carbon dioxide and water vapour, it's widely used for beverage bottles, food containers, and blister packs.

HDPE (High-Density Polyethylene - RIC 2)

HDPE is a tough, opaque plastic with high chemical resistance. Its high strength-to-weight ratio makes it ideal for detergent bottles, milk jugs, and reusable containers. HDPE is considered one of the more recyclable plastics.

PVC (Polyvinyl Chloride - RIC 3)

PVC is a versatile plastic whose properties are modified by the addition of plasticizers. Rigid PVC is used in pipes and building materials, while flexible PVC is used for shrink wrap and blister packs. 

However, environmental concerns surrounding plasticizer leaching and chloride content have led to its declining use in packaging.

LDPE (Low-Density Polyethylene - RIC 4)

LDPE is a flexible, transparent plastic with good moisture resistance. Its low melting point makes it ideal for bread bags, cling wraps, and squeezable bottles. 

LDPE can be recycled, but contamination with food residues can pose challenges.

PP (Polypropylene - RIC 5)

PP is a lightweight, chemically resistant plastic with good heat tolerance. Hinge flexibility makes it suitable for caps and lids. 

PP is also used for microwave-safe containers and textile packaging. It is generally considered recyclable.

PS (Polystyrene - RIC 6)

PS is a rigid, brittle plastic commonly known as Styrofoam. Offers good insulation properties and is lightweight. 

However, environmental concerns regarding its non-biodegradability and limited recyclability have led to a decline in its use for packaging.


The Role in Packaging of Plastic


Optimizing Barrier Properties

Oxygen and Moisture Barriers

Polymers like ethylene vinyl alcohol offer exceptional oxygen barrier properties, making them ideal for packaging oxygen-sensitive foods like nuts or coffee. 

Polymers like oriented PET and high-density polyethylene provide good moisture barriers, suitable for packaging hygroscopic products like cereals or bakery items.

Fats and Oils

High-density polyethylene exhibits excellent chemical resistance against fats and oils, making it suitable for condiment bottles or mayonnaise containers.

Balancing Strength and Flexibility with Plastic Packaging

High-density polyethylene (HDPE) is a prime choice for heavy-duty packaging applications requiring rigidity and load-bearing capacity. Its high strength-to-weight ratio makes it ideal for detergent bottles, chemical containers, and industrial packaging. 

For applications requiring puncture resistance, multi-layer co-extrusions of nylon or EVOH can be incorporated.

Flexible packaging applications, such as pouches and wraps, demand materials that can be easily formed and maintain their shape. Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) offers good flexibility and moisture resistance, making it suitable for bread bags and cling wraps. Linear low-density polyethylene (LLDPE) provides enhanced tear strength and puncture resistance, ideal for heavy-duty pouches and shrink wrap.



The Future of Plastics in Packaging

Patek Packaging understands the complexities surrounding plastics. While their undeniable benefits in product protection and efficiency cannot be ignored, we acknowledge the environmental challenges associated with plastic waste mismanagement. 

We are disciplined to work alongside our partners to explore innovative solutions, promote responsible plastic use and raw materials, and navigate a path towards a more sustainable future for product packaging and contract packaging in British Columbia.

Frequently Asked Questions

What can the right packaging company do to be more responsible with plastics?

Packaging companies are actively exploring solutions for a more sustainable future:

  • Material Innovation: Research into biodegradable and bio-based alternatives like polylactic acid (PLA) offers promise for your packaging needs.
  • Design for Recycling: Implementing design strategies like using single-material packaging or incorporating sorting cues facilitates more efficient plastic waste sorting.
  • Collaboration: Working with waste management companies to improve sorting and recycling infrastructure is crucial for ensuring a more circular economy for plastics.

Isn't recycling plastic very energy-intensive? Wouldn't it be better to just focus on reducing plastic use altogether?

Plastic recycling does require energy, but Life Cycle Assessments (LCA) show that it is still a more environmentally friendly option compared to virgin plastic production. Virgin plastic production requires significant energy input for raw material extraction and processing.

The ideal approach is a two-pronged strategy:

  • Minimize unnecessary plastic use by optimizing packaging design and promoting consumer awareness.
  • Improve recycling infrastructure and educate consumers on proper sorting for efficient plastic recycling.

What are some innovative solutions being explored to address plastic waste?

The fight against plastic pollution is sparking several innovative approaches:

  • Chemical Recycling: This breaks down plastic waste into its basic building blocks (monomers), which then is used to create new virgin-quality plastic.
  • Biodegradation Enhancement: Additives are being explored that accelerate the natural breakdown of plastics in landfills, mitigating environmental concerns associated with plastic waste.
  • Deposit Return Systems: Programs where consumers receive a deposit for returning used plastic bottles incentivize proper collection and recycling, encouraging a more circular economy for plastic.