Daily life 5 min
Plastic packaging: why the hate?
Some still consider packaging as mere advertising materials, or even just plain waste. This is a largely unjustified “trial of intention”, in particular with regard to primary packaging which has benefits that are too often underestimated.
Plastic packaging: why the hate?
Plastic packaging: why the hate?

Plastic packaging: the unloved that would benefit from being better known

In Europe, close to 40% of all polymers produced are used to manufacture all kinds of  packaging. Contrary to what one might believe, this is not solely the result of the manufacturers’ quest to reduce costs and increase their profits. In a context in which plastics are accused of many ecological and even hygienic evils, it is important to clear up a few misconceptions. The reason for which such a large proportion of polymers is used in packaging is because they are lightweight, practical and serve to perfectly preserve their contents. An analysis of the lifecycle of packaged goods shows that plastics’ environmental performance is often better compared to that of other materials. This may sound counter-intuitive, but it can be explained by the Co2 savings achieved thanks to the lightness of plastics throughout the lifecycle of the packaging-product content duo.

No, packaging is not simply an advertising medium and an incentive to consume!

It is easy to forget that the primary role of packaging is not seducing consumers into purchasing a product. The truth is actually far from it! Packaging’s primary function is to protect against breakage, theft, and for food and fragile products, against bacteriological contamination and preserve the products while optimising logistics. Rather than having a marketing purpose, it is first and foremost a location for placing legal information: composition, expiry date, product origin, sorting instructions, health information, etc. Although it contributes to the brand’s communication efforts, it is only by virtue of its existence and, in that respect, manufacturers deemed it useful to use its surface to make their products more attractive. Thinking otherwise disregards consumers’ ability to make informed choices. Impulse buying is an incontestable phenomenon, but consumers mainly buy products because they need or want them and know that they can trust their purchase.

In order to better understand this, it is important to know that a brand’s main priority lies in creating brand loyalty. This is what marketing teams work on, on a daily basis. They know that consumers who buy their product over and over again do so because they enjoyed the product.

However, it is undeniable that packaging also plays a major role in ensuring brand loyalty. Much like a product’s composition, its usefulness and its conservation method are important considerations: a bag that does not close properly, a complicated cork, cardboard that rips easily can all cause dissatisfaction that will lead to a customer never purchasing that product again.


Packaging undeniably contributes to a brand’s marketing policy, but it is also useful for delivering all mandatory legal information for consumer products

Plastics, the champions of fighting waste

It is not too much to say that plastics revolutionised the world of packaging. Close to fifty years ago, manufacturers in the cosmetics and agri-food industries saw in them resistant, lightweight, affordable and easy-to-manufacture materials. In short, they were ideal for increasing their margins by a few percent. However, that approach belongs to another era. Today, some plastic packaging is the result of truly advanced technology and their cost price is much higher than cardboard, for instance. So why do manufacturers still choose to use them? First of all, because they are perfect for preserving what is placed inside them for as long as possible. One of the best-known materials in this area is expanded polystyrene, a honeycomb structure containing 98% air. Converted into packaging, the air contained in the polymer is able to maintain the temperature of its contents. This means that the cold chain is never broken during transport and dozens of tonnes of foodstuffs avoid certain destruction were it not for the packaging. It has also been deemed the best solution for transporting medicine which does not tolerate the slightest variation in temperature at the risk of losing its effectiveness. Among the shock-resistant material’s other advantages are the fact that it is easily molded and is so light that it can sometimes weigh almost nothing.


Whether they are intended to hold blood or medicine, PVC medical bags are crucial for their different properties: they are lightweight, durable, easy to transport, store and use, and waterproof, all of which make them the best barriers for preventing virus and bacteria from penetrating them.

On the same topic, the medical bags used for infusions are most often made from PVC, an inert, stable, waterproof material that is very easy to seal. Some bags, most often made from polypropylene, are even designed to be sterilised with the product that they contain in an autoclave without any risk of product degradation. Besides this being quite the achievement, it is  also an additional guarantee for many patients, and particularly for blood transfusions.

Coming back to food waste, the United Nations and the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization) estimate that 1.3 billion tonnes of food are thrown out or lost each year around the world. This figure represents around a third of all food produced on the planet. This waste happens all along the chain, from the producer to the consumer. Thanks to packaging, only 3% of all products delivered to customers are damaged during the production and transport phases in Europe, compared to 40% in developing countries. In France, a 2016 study commissioned by the Ademe (Environment and Energy Management Agency) showed that the rate of loss is 4% on the producer’s end, 4.5% on the processor’s end, 3.3% on the distributor’s end and 7.3% on the consumer’s end.

Polymers remain the materials best-suited for effectively protecting food. Their transparency enables the food to be checked visually. However, their intrinsic role as a barrier to oxygen, UV rays, humidity and bacteria is what makes them particularly effective. Therefore, it can safely be said that polymers extend the life of packaged products while offering an ideal preservation method that helps to avoid any number of public health problems. It should be said that plastics have never been implicated in the major food scandals that our countries experience from time to time.

Greenhouse gases: polymers save the planet

A provocative statement? Absolutely not! It is time to set some things straight, and in particular to address the myth that plastics are endangering the planet. If there is one area in which they help to protect the environment, it is in connection with greenhouse gas emissions.


In the collective unconscious, glass and aluminium are considered more environmentally-friendly than plastics. Analyses comparing plastic’s lifecycle to that of those other materials often prove that the opposite is true!

This is particularly true for packaging, as naturalist Sir David Attenborough recently demonstrated at the last World Economic Forum in Davos. As a reminder, Sir David is an internationally-renowned British naturalist who could never be accused of colluding with the plastics industry. He is known for his reports produced for the BBC, and in particular those devoted to the oceans. He believes that accusing plastics is a mistake. According to Sir David, the images of the famous ocean of plastics had a particularly devastating effect on public opinion. Without denying the existence of plastic waste in the marine world, he rightly explained that getting rid of plastics would increase global warming. He therefore deplores the fact that some manufacturers, particularly in the agri-food and cosmetics industries, are looking to replace plastic packaging with materials such as cardboard, glass and aluminium because using such alternative materials emits, for equivalent quantities of packaging, more CO2 than that emitted in the production of plastics. Sir David therefore questions this sudden hatred for polymers given the fact that they are recyclable materials, as is the case for PET bottles, provided that they are discarded in a bin and properly collected and sorted. 

All that needs to be done is simply delve into the 2011 Denkstatt study providing an analytical comparison of plastics’ lifecycles to those of other materials used in packaging. The results are undisputable and support the use of polymers, since they show that replacing plastic packaging with other materials (aluminium, glass, etc.), would result in the mass of packaging being multiplied by 3.6; energy consumption over the lifecycle would be multiplied by 2.2, which is equivalent to heating 20 million homes, and greenhouse gases (GHG) would be multiplied by 2.7, i.e. an increase of 61 million tonnes of CO2 per year, comparable to the traffic of 21 million cars or the CO2 emissions of Denmark. There is a simple explanation for this, namely that packaging using other materials than plastics is much heavier: producing and transporting it requires more energy and emits more CO2.

Sir David also shows that plastics have a considerable advantage in that they avoid food waste. He added that the tonnes of food waste always end up degrading and emitting methane, a gas that is 20 times more responsible for global warming than CO2. He considers that were food waste a country, it would be the third largest contributor of methane emissions in the world.


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