The bane of plastic packaging

It’s overdone, overused, and ridiculous. We could greatly reduce our garbage output if there was less packaging, and if more of it were biodegradable. So this is a good step, that at least one gaming company is switching to cardboard packaging.

The new packaging replaces the now-standard plastic DVD case used for most game discs with a folded, reinforced cardboard sleeve made of 100% recycled fiber. The shrinkwrap surrounding that package has also been replaced with a low-density LDPE polyethylene that’s highly recyclable. Even the ink on the cardboard has been changed out for a vegetable-and-water-based version (so it’s technically vegan if you’re desperate for a snack).

I haven’t bought any games or DVDs, so this isn’t going to make any difference to my purchasing habits. What would, though, is food packaging. We’ve been having those Beyond Meat burgers* maybe once a week, and they’re ridiculous — I think they throw away any ecological advantage by the absurd packaging. They’re individually nestled in plastic wells, sealed in plastic, and then enclosed in a cardboard wrapper. Why? Are they fragile or something? Or are they just trying to make them look like a prestige item? Whatever, stop it.

*Also, on a completely different point, I’ve been noticing that there’s been significant variability in the texture, week by week. It makes me wonder how they’re made, and whether there might by some pressure on the process by their popularity.


  1. says

    100% agreed. I’ve been trying to convince my boss to switch our production line from plastic to paper for years. Kind of gives me a good idea. Small businesses like the one I work for, could use a little help moving away from the dino-fuel. Any chance that Green New Deal might have some subsidies for us? Everyone seems pretty focused on energy, but I sure wouldn’t mind 10 grand or so for a new drop packer. I’m really starting to hate plastic.

  2. royhilbinger says

    If you want to switch to paper,make sure you go for hemp paper. It doesn’t kill trees, and it creates a smaller footprint than the trees needed to make the same amount of paper.

  3. Bernard Bumner says

    The plastic packaging is probably there to keep your burgers fresh for longer, and also to ensure that they aren’t destroyed before they reach your kitchen (as well as providing a little window to whet your appetite).

    There are some good reasons to use plastics which need to be considered when we’re looking at packaging, and getting rid may require more wholesale change than simply swapping to alternative materials such a biodegradable cardboard.

    Biodegradability is fine if you can capture the carbon (and other residues), but printed cardboard packaging is not necessarily carbon neutral.

    Many biodegradable items are not home compostable, and require commercial end of life processing to achieve the required conditions for decomposition, such as municipal composting.

    Many food packaging regulations and standards prevent the use of easily recycled cardboard packaging, such as the need to create an impermeable barrier between the food and container.

    As high as the production footprint is for plastic, at end of life it is a rather good carbon sink, which reflected in its environmental persistence. Not that I’m advocating for continued unnecessary use of plastics, but instead that we need to consider why we use packaging and make sure that it is both necessary and fit for purpose.

    Also, we need good quality LCA to demonstrate that we really are cutting carbon emissions, not just moving them around. There has to be circularity. We have to make sure that we aren’t increasing food waste due to spoilage. We have to make sure we aren’t increasing packaging weight (and thereby transport emissions).

    We also need to make sure that a simple message of biodegradable = environmentally benign is not communicated.

    Imagine what those people who carelessly litter the environment with persistent garbage might do if they thought that not only could they litter with impunity, but that there was no cost at all.

    Reduce, recycle, reuse still needs to be the message.

    Still, I endorse the general theme here – there is no good reason outside of consumer appeal to design much of the packaging the way we do.

  4. says

    There are some advantages to plastic packaging: 1) it is lightweight 2) it is waterproof and can easily be made air and watertight 3) it is easy to make hygienicaly clean.

    So for goods that are perisheable and/or need to be hygienically sealed – like the above mentioned burger – plastic has advangages over other options. But the use of plastic could often be easily cut in half or more, an awful lot of food packaging contains needlessly a lot of empty space. And sometimes there exist biodegradeable equivalents.

    That being said, for goods that are not perisheable and that do not need to be hygienically sealed – like all of electronics for example, or PC games, or tools – do not need any plastic packaging at all. I despair at all the batteries, cables, chargers etc. that are packed in plastic. It is completely unnecessary waste of good material.

  5. blf says

    I tend to do almost all my food shopping at the village’s weekly outdoors markets where the plastics problem is almost non-existent. Meat / fish / cheese is wrapped in wax paper, fruits and veggies are loose, the glass bottle some stuff comes in (like olive oil) can be reused / recycled, and I carry a rucksack so have very little need of carrying bags — and when I do need a bag for some reason, there’s a collection in the rucksack (mostly of the heavy reusable kind, now that those are basically required here in France). The main exceptions are things like olives and sundried tomatoes, which are put in lightweight one-time-use bags by the stallholders, or (in a variant) small one-time-use lidded tubs for fresh pasta and sauces.

    But it’s a different story when I go into (most) shops. Whilst I do use a reusable bag from my rucksack’s collection, stuff like milk and fruit juices are in plastic bottles (which, fortunately, can be recycled), and too much other stuff is — like the product in the OP — excessively packaged, with not all of the packaging being recyclable. Sadly, this is also the case on one of the local organic shops, albeit the others are a bit better.

    Transport to the shops / markets is also largely Ok, I can (and do) walk, and in the few cases I cannot, I’m currently using the (sadly, diesel) bus. I could bicycle, but the bike needs repairs… Of course, I do have an advantage in that it never gets as cold as some places, and snow is extremely rare. Oh the other hand, it can (and does) get quite hot during the summer…

  6. methuseus says

    Games and DVDs can be delivered over the internet; all you need to do is email a code to the purchaser.

    I live in a rural area with only satellite or cell phone for internet access. Both time wise and by amount of data, using the internet to download games or movies is prohibitively expensive.

  7. anat says

    blf @6:

    fruits and veggies are loose

    Don’t you need to contain the ones you want to buy in something until you have them weighed, before you can pay for them and carry them in your rucksack? Here both farmers’ markets and supermarkets that sell unpackaged fruits and vegetables have rolls of plastic bags for this purpose. Even while the city made single-use plastic bags illegal for packing the merchandise at the cashiers.

  8. anat says

    The worst case of unnecessary use of plastic packaging we saw recently was when Costco was selling individual bananas that had been taken out of their peels and tightly wrapped in plastic.

  9. pilgham says

    I haven’t bought a physical copy of games or music (or books for that matter) in years. Don’t know why, it just happened that way. Of course all the things I bought are from companies that are still around. If they go belly up, chaos. But I use wi-fi to my laptop to download, is that slower than satellite internet? I don’t really have any complaints, anyway. Now the packaging on my mouse (they keep dying on me) and my external hard drives (they keep filling up) is another matter. And video cards? Oy.

  10. blf says

    anat@9, Yes, they are called baskets (or en Français, paniers). Whilst (usually) made of plastic, they are rather sturdy and (presumably) last for some time (years). The fruit & veg stallholders have a pile of paniers (they stack easily); you take one, fill it with your purchases, take it to the stallholder, who unpacks and weighs the items. The panier is then returned to the pile.

    Some items, such as MUSHROOMS!, whilst selected loose, are (usually) put in a paper bag by you or the stallholder. Some items, such as strawberries, are (usually) supplied in small baskets, but those are very rarely plastic (except in the shops). In the markets, they are either made of very thin wood, or increasingly, cardboard. The cardboard ones are recyclable. Sometimes the basket is covered (by, yes, plastic), but again, that’s more often the case in shops than in the outdoors markets.

    Here is a fairly typical image of a fruit & veg stall at the sort of outdoor market I’m talking about. Those brightly-color round plastic baskets are the paniers. The image also reminds me the crates the fruits & vegs are often displayed in are also plastic, but clearly quite sturdy with a long lifetime.

    The bag-it-yourself system you describe is used by a few shops, but often with paper bags. At least two (small) shops in the centre of the village use the panier system.

  11. wzrd1 says

    Humorously, as I was reading your objections to plastic, my wife took four tries to reinstall her insulin needle into its sheath.
    Gotta get rid of plastic and her insulin, right?

  12. blf says

    Addendum to my @12: I just returned from this morning’s market, where I noticed that, contrary to the image in @12, all the fruit & veg stallholders were using wooden or cardboard crates, not those sturdy plastic ones. (That’s perhaps why I’d forgotten about them?) Some other vendors were using them, however.

  13. Jazzlet says

    I use fine mesh bags with a drawstring for loose fruit and vegetables, they are washable and when not in use compress into a very small bag that clips to the handle of my reuseable carrier bag ready whenever I need them. They are better than either plastic or paper bags, as they are mesh the produce doesn’t sweat, they don’t lose strength when wet, I store vegetables in them too, they kee them reasonbly moist without rotting in fact with something like mushrooms if you don’t get round to using them you end up with dried mushrooms that can still be used rather than mouldy ones that can’t. Oh and they are made from recycled PET bottles, I honestly can’t recommend them highly enough.

  14. blf says

    Jazzlet@15 touches on a point which bothers me — the relatively low number of products which claim to be made from recycled plastic. I myself have a travel coffee mug (one of those which has a securely-fitting cap &tc) claimed to be made from 100% recycled plastic, but… that’s it? (My insulated water bottle is also, I think, made in part from recycled plastic.)

    Some products — e.g., the ink cartridges for my (metal) fountain pen — could trivially(?) be made from recycled plastic, but, as far as I am aware, are not… Admittedly, that’s not the best example, since quality fountain pens can be refilled from (recyclable) ink bottles, no reason to use cartridges per se, especially as they would seem to present no(?) serious recycling difficulties themselves… However, if you consider, e.g., ball point pens, then could not the plastic ink reservoir be made from recycled plastic? (Admittedly, the metallic ball point end might present a problem in then recycling the reservoir?)

  15. Jazzlet says

    Blf@16 As far as I can work out from their website all of Onya’s (the manufacturers of my wonderful bags) products are made from recycled plastic. I know you can make fleece for clothing or blankets from PET too, and the ‘bags for life’ you can get from British supermarkets are made of varying amounts of recycled plastic up to 100%, but I agree that there seems to be a lot less ‘made from recycled plastic’ than ‘recyclable’ out there and the two need to be a lot closer.

    As for your pens go back to a reservoir ink pens! They last for decades, especially if the body and nib are made from steel like mine which I have been using since I was in school, with one nib replacement in thirty-five years.

  16. blf says

    Jazzlet@17, Your experience with fountain pens sounds very similar to mine. I did literally wear out the metal barrel of one pen after twenty-something years, but have never had to replace a nib. (Actually, it was the electroplated(?) metallic coating on the metal barrel which wore away. That pen was an appreciated gift, not one I selected.)

    One pen is strictly reservoir-only, the others are cartridge, but I have “cartridges” which are actually refillable reservoirs. I tend to carry a few cartridges with me for various reasons — when the reservoir runs out (I don’t like traveling with an ink bottle), or different colours / shades. My current favorite pen is, like yours, steel body and nib; I deliberately chose the steel body over the equivalent plastic body (despite being more expensive) mostly for its “feel” and slightly heavier weight (less “skittish” in my opinion), and partly due to the sorts of concerns raised in this thread about plastic.

    All the pens I’m discussing are “quality” models, not at all cheap. The inexpensive fountain pens (I’ve tested one or three) drive me up the wall; to me, they feel horrible and the nibs seem “rough” or “sticky” (plus the cartridge issue).

  17. says

    I would propose a single rule that could safe a lot of plastic without even losing any convenience: Plastic packing must not be larger than technically needed. When I buy Gouda, the packing is about 5mm larger that the cheese at the sides to allow sealing. Salami, otoh, is often packed so you can see every single fucking slice. Or t6ake the burgers in the OP: stack them on top of each other with some wax paper in between, make around container. You still have a hygienic wrapping but less than half the plastic.
    Sadly, not everybody has a nice local market and the leisure to buy there. For me, shopping must be quick and efficient, just like cooking. Because we created a world where we are constantly running. I wrote about it in more detail here

  18. brain says

    There is one very simple and cheap usage of plastic that could solve 99% of our environmental issues, including global warming.
    It is called “condom”. Use more of those, make less new human beings, reduce population to an acceptable level.
    7.5 billions(and growing) humans on our Earth are just too much. If everyone on Earth had an average of one child, in ten years we would already start seeing the benefits.

  19. rydan says

    It is 2019. Everything media should be download only. Hopefully CA will pass a law in the next few years making physical media illegal. Making download media tax free doesn’t go far enough.

  20. John Morales says


    Everything media should be download only.

    You imagine electronic media-playing devices use no resources?
    Or that the distribution medium likewise uses no resources?

    But fine, actual books printed on paper are to be verboten, in your estimation.

    (How do you feel about, say, Bitcoin? No actual coins are minted)