Plastic packaging serves several important functions in our modern lives, which are the primary reasons we rely on it:
Protection: protects vulnerable products from damage whilst in transit and from contamination or damage by moisture, humidity, gases, microorganisms, insects and light.
Preservation: preserves products for longer, which reduces waste by giving people more time to use or consume them before it is no longer suitable to do so.
Prevents waste: products kept together and spillages avoided.
Transportation: Allows transport over great distances, so that we have access to a wide variety of non-local produce that, in turn, encourages trade. It also saves space through stacking objects which make transporting more eﬃcient.
Displays information: important information about the product, such as nutritional content or allergy advice, is displayed on packaging.
Plastic packaging is one of the most important contributors to protecting food from spoiling. Food waste has a significantly higher environmental impact, particularly in the form of its carbon footprint, than packaging waste.
Plastic packaging allows food to travel further distances, stay longer on the shelves, and ensures that large amounts of food do not go to waste. Because it takes considerably more resources to create the food itself, it often makes environmental sense to protect it for as long as possible so the resources invested in its growth are not invested in vain.
As well as helping to deliver food around our global economy, liquids, gels, powders, out-of-season fruit, and other specialist items are all safely protected by the material.
There are many types of plastic that have different functional properties such as being safe for food, flexible, transparent, opaque, and chemical and heat resistant. Plastics thus are the ideal packaging material for a variety of modern requirements. Without plastic packaging to serve all these needs, it becomes very difficult (and often impossible) to transport and utilise a wide range of products people rely on every day.
Source: Prepared by the Advisory Committee on Packaging. Packaging in Perspective.
Generally speaking, packaging is used where it makes economic, environmental, and safety sense to do so. Of course, not every product is optimally packaged, and there is important room for improvement where each of these three factors is concerned.
The amount of material used in packaging has been in decline for years: between 2004 to 2014 the average plastic packaging weight fell by 28%. This has happened as a consequence of improved technologies and design that enable a similar product or package to be produced with less amounts of material. There are regulations in place that require all packaging specifiers to reduce the amount of packaging used without compromising it’s functionality: The Packaging (Essential Requirements) Regulations 2015 (SI 2015/1640).
Government Guidance Notes
Voluntary industry agreements also help to reduce the amount of material used in packaging, as well as reduce waste. The Courtauld Commitment to reduce packaging and waste is an example. Click the image below for more information (click the 'back' button to return to the page).
Plastic packaging is also an important component to keeping the lifecycle environmental impact of a product down. Due to the resource efficiency involved in the creation of plastic packaging, environmental costs are saved by using this material compared to replacing it with others. Environmental costs in this case include damage to the environment such as carbon and greenhouse gases released into the atmosphere. However, it is also important to consider the plastic packaging items that are littered, which can end up in our rivers and seas. These damaging environmental consequences also require significant focus from governments around the world, to ensure these items do not end up in these environments, and that they are collected for recovery and recycling in every possible case.
To be fit for purpose, packaging must protect and preserve. Plastic packaging performs this function particularly well and provides many other advantages for consumers, suppliers and society. Plastic is:
Resource efficient: plastic packaging saves packaging mass, energy and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Without it, we would use 2-3 times more resources.
Source: The impact of plastic packaging on life cycle energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions in Europe: Executive Summary July 2011, Bernd Brandt and Harald Pilz
Safe: plastic is shatter resistant, containers do not break when they are dropped or knocked over, this makes them particularly useful for certain environments, such as the bathroom, around children, at the pool, by the beach or on the go.
Hygienic: plastic keeps products free from contamination. This is particularly useful for medical packaging as packaging can be filled and sealed hygienically without any human
intervention. (e.g. sterile syringes).
Light weight: plastic packaging is lightweight and can take up less space than alternatives, which means lighter loads for planes and trucks and lower emissions.
Secure: plastic can be sealed shut or moulded into a safety mechanism (e.g. child proof locks on medication)
Durable: because plastic packaging is so durable, plastic packaging can be very thin. This means it uses fewer resources and takes up less space for transport which means fewer trucks, trains or planes are needed to transport it.
Versatile: plastics can be transformed in many different ways. They can be blown, injected or thermomoulded. This means it can be used to package pastes and sauces. A variety of decorative effects and colours are also available.
Recyclable: plastic packaging can be recycled many times to create new products, the rates of recycling and the number of different plastics that are recycled in the UK ave been increasing.