A Dutch Engineer has found an Eco Friendly Alternative to Plastic Packaging

Mario HonrubiaSustainabilityengineers

Plastic production poses a great risk to the environment

Have you ever wondered how much plastic is produced around the world and the impact of this? Look around you, in your house or in your office. How many plastic containers do you see and how many are made of other materials? Do you believe there is a real alternative to plastics or is there just a plain disinterest in cost-efficiently substituting it for a greener material? Plastic has been industrially produced since 1950. A study published in 2017 in Science Advances magazine concluded that, up to 2015, 8300 million tons of plastic had been generated. This is the equivalent weight of a million Eiffel Towers. Regarding the destination of all this production, the study says that out of the 8300 million tons of plastic produced, 30% is still being used. As a result, the remaining 70%, around 6000 million tons, are just waste. Out of all the plastic waste, only 9% has been recycled, 12% incinerated and 79% ended up in dumping sites or damaging the environment. The majority of plastics do not degrade in any way, so the waste generated will be with us for hundreds or thousands of years. 

Plastic is overly used in the Packaging Industry

The use of plastics is in direct relation with the development of the world countries, as shows the use of plastics per capita in the US (150 Kg/year), Europe (140 kg/year), Japan (116 Kg/year) and Latin America (only 31Kg/year) according to data by BASF AG. Even though this plastic is used for different purposes like household items, in the construction, mining or agriculture industry. However, the destination that really stands out (around 50% of the plastic produced) is the packaging industry.  For instance, a million water bottles are bought every minute around the world, and this number will sky-rocket by 20% in 2021. Another number: in 2016, 480,000 million water bottles were sold, which placed one on top of the other, would get halfway to the sun. 

Consequences of unrecycled plastic waste

What are the direct consequences of this enormous use of plastic and low recycling percentage? Let's take a look at some data.  Scientists at Ghent University have calculated recently that people that eat seafood intakes at least 11,000 small plastic parts a year. Researchers at Plymouth University found plastic in a third of the fish in the United Kingdom. One of the remotest places on Earth, Henderson island, is located on Southeast Pacific and it has the highest density of human waste in the world. It is covered by 18 tons of plastic.

Some initiatives try to reduce the environmental impact of plastics

Is there anything being done about it or are we just looking away?  For instance, following the example of the water bottles, the 6 main world beverage companies use an average 6.6% polyethylene terephthalate (highly recyclable) in their products, according to Greenpeace. What is more, a third of them does not have clear goals concerning the use of more recycled plastic and none of them aims to achieve the 100% polyethylene terephthalate. Nevertheless, there are also initiatives like “Packaging-Free Supermarket”, which is no more than the idea of returning to grocery shopping like the old days, with no pre-packaged products.   Another successful effort towards a more sustainable packaging is the winning solution brought by Mark Copal to one of the ennomotive challenges. He created a real eco friendly alternative to plastic packaging of the water bottle six-packs.

Meet Mark Copal, the solver who found an eco-friendly alternative to plastic packaging for water bottles

• Can you introduce yourself briefly? What is your more relevant working experience?

My name is Mark Copal, I live in Eindhoven, a Dutch city rooted in the tech industry (Hometown of Philips, NXP, and ASML) and design (Design Academy and host of the yearly Dutch Design Week).
I am a Graphic Designer by origin, studied Commercial Design at Saint Lucas and became proficient in web design and front-end development as well.
I ran a web- and graphic design agency which got acquired a year ago. It was then that I got interested in doing some actual design work again. I remembered the Ennomotive platform from an old client of mine who participated in some challenges as well.

• What challenges have you participated in? How well did you do in them?

 Believe it or not but this is the first time I participated in a crowdsourcing design challenge. I did, of course, get a lot of design challenges at my design studio.

• What kind of challenge do you like most? Why?

  I have always had an affection for sustainable design. I have worked with sustainable companies and industries before.
I always liked to contribute to the greater good, have an influence on what or how something is being produced in a better way. Not necessarily with regards to environmental-friendliness alone, but optimising workflows or adding efficiency as well.
When I saw the Water Bottle Packaging Challenge, I immediately knew this would be a great challenge as I love designing smart packaging solutions.

• What is your motivation for participating?

After having run my own agency for almost 14 years and getting lost in the day-to-day routines of sales, managing staff, administration and the stress that came with it, I wanted to do some good old hands-on design work again. Participating in a serious design challenge felt great!

• Did you have any experience with this kind of challenges? Have you solved a similar challenge in the past?

I have a background in graphic design at Communication Agencies where I designed for print and packaging as well. In that period I designed die cuts and unique packaging solutions before.
Later on, I got to design out of the box promo materials which used a tailor-made folding or sliding mechanisms. So I have never participated in this kind of challenges in a crowdsource way, and I do believe my professional experience came in handy.

• How did you come up with this solution? What was your inspiration?

 I don’t know how inspiration works exactly but it came at the oddest moments. While having an early morning shower an idea pops up or I’m about to fall asleep while not even actively pondering about a solution and idea’s just float by.
Having a notebook on hand to capture these blurbs of inspiration was of the essence though! Other than that, finding this solution was a process of trial and error, trying out materials and keep finding ways to improve the design.

• What is your point of view regarding the use of plastics in the packaging industry?

I think the use of plastics if mostly driven by marketing and cost reduction rather than consumer needs or logic thinking.
I am happy to see there is a change in awareness from the consumer side so at least from a marketing perspective it becomes more apparent to use eco-friendly packaging solutions.

•Where is the packaging industry heading to in the future? How are eco-friendly trends affecting this industry?

I think eco-friendly packaging, especially in the food sector, will be used primarily by biologically manufactured products for the next couple of years. Such products are still marketed as “the healthier choice” and their steeper sales price justifies an eco-friendly packaging. I believe that there’ll be higher demand for eco-friendly packaging for standard products (without biological alternatives) as well. As people are becoming more and more aware of the damaging effects of plastics.
The momentum is here already and I believe that the first packaging manufacturer to use smart marketing for their eco-friendly packaging (also for non-eco friendly produced goods) will have a headstart as eco-friendliness is becoming the norm. We already see CocaCola and PepsiCo start shifting to eco friendly alternatives.
The ultimate goal should be to close the loop and produce packaging which consists either out of of nutrients or fully reusable materials.
To quote Michael Braungar (Cradle to Cradle initiative): “Sustainability is boring, it’s just the minimum. If I were to ask ‘How is your relationship with your wife?' Would you say: ‘Sustainable’?".

•Are there real green alternatives to the use of plastics?

Sure there are and some have been around for ages.
if you take a look at the plastic nozzle in juice boxes which I consider to be marketing inventions rather than necessary. Some 30 years ago you used to lift one ends of the top of the milk or juice carton and cut the corner off. Later on there used to be perforated versions where you could simple tear them off. Suddenly there where plastic nozzles and (almost) everyone applauded them.
It’s a matter of time before some marketing guru reinvents a tear of corner as being an eco-friendly solutions to a problem created by themselves.
I also believe that compostable plastics should and could be used more often in packaging.

•What is your opinion on alternatives that use materials based on agricultural waste?

I applaud all alternatives based on closing a lifecycle loop. With creating packaging out of agricultural waste we close one loop: packaging becomes food for the environment, perfect! Ideally we’d think a bit further and see how to collect and reuse all packaging materials. In a sense the packaging industry should think about it’s own Cradle 2 Cradle loops.