• Gary Robinson

Built to Last - but really, should your packaging last forever?

Updated: Nov 21, 2018

Blog by, Gary Robinson, SYNAPTIC Packaging

December 29, 2017

The environment we live in today is built upon the leadership decisions of the previous generation. We need to take a good look at the health of our oceans and what legacy we are building for our children. There are many facets of marine health that can be studied; today, we are examining an acute topic of plastics in the ocean and how that correlates to the work we do as package developers. We will also explore pragmatic consumer actions and emerging industry innovations being tracked by SYNPATIC Packaging to address these challenges.

Some of your best childhood memories likely involve a trip to the beach - playing in the sand, swimming in the ocean, and surfing the waves. There is simply something magical and beautiful about the ocean. According to the NOAA analysis of the 2010 United States census (Link),20% of the land in America was classified as part of a coastal watershed. That coastal territory occupied 52% of the American population(11). That population rate is growing and this distribution characteristics is not unique to America. Similar population trends can be found around the world. Clearly, our oceans are a special place. They provide visual inspiration, playful recreation, a valued source of food, and a key location for commerce. The importance of our oceans simply can not be underestimated.

In December 1967 an epic movie was released called ‘The Graduate’ (Link). This movie has become an icon in the history of American pop culture. For those who are fans, you might even recite this dialogue from memory……

Joann: What are you going to do now?

Benjamin (Dustin Hoffman): I was going to go upstairs for a minute

Joann: I mean with your future, your life?

Benjamin: Well, that’s a little hard to say.

Mr. McGuire: Ben,

Benjamin (to Joann): Excuse me,

Benjamin (to Mr. McGuire) Mr. McGuire

Mr. McGuire: Ben,

Benjamin: Mr. McGuire

Mr. McGuire: Come with me a minute, I want to talk with you. Excuse us Joann.

Mr. McGuire: I just want to say one word to you. Just one word.

Benjamin: Yes, sir.

Mr. McGuire: Are you listening?

Benjamin: Yes, I am.

Mr. McGuire: Plastics.

Benjamin: Exactly how do you mean?

Mr. McGuire: There's a great future in plastics. Think about it. Will you think about it?

(Source(1): Lawerence, T, & Nichols, M, (1967), The Graduate, USA, United Artist)

What a great scene and a great quote. Mr. McGuire was right too. His insight into ‘Plastics’ as a growth industry was on-point. From the 1967 setting of this movie to today, plastics have transformed and revolutionized our world. Looking forward, plastics continue to transform our world in many ways.

Over 50 years ago when the Graduate was filmed, the topic of ‘Plastics in the Ocean’ was hardly a thought. For today’s generation of professionals, the topic is relevant, however a reference from a 1960’s movie might seem ancient. If you take a brief stroll back through pictures from 1963 as shown in by The Atlantic(2) magazine (Link), you gain insights into what the world looked like at the time this conversation between Benjamin & Mr. McGuire took place. Yes, it seems like a great distance from 1963 to today’s fast paced world with integrated technologies. Yet, it begs the humbling question - where will be in the next 50 years when it is 2068? It is staggering just to imagine.

1n 1950 the world production of plastic was at 1.5 million tons. By 2015 production was above 322 million tons of plastics/ year (3)(Link). Based on that summary, we can project from the adjacent graph that over 8 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced over the last 50 years. In business, a graph like this is commonly referred to as a “Hockey Stick” growth curve for the way it hooks up at such an accelerated rate. This is the kind of business growth that entrepreneurs dream about and aspire to achieve.

So, what happens to all the plastic that has been produced? The simple answer is unless it has been

recycled or burned, it is very likely still here and accumulating year-over-year.

By the early to mid-1970’s we started to get our first glimpse at the environmental challenge of plastic and packaging waste becoming obvious in the public eye. The challenge at the time was litter and it was common to see bottles, cans, and packaging trash on the sides of the roads, or being thrown out of car windows. Many might remember the Keep America Beautiful (Link) campaign that educated people on the importance of properly disposing of litter. One of the early videos (Link) showed an Indian paddling his canoe through the rivers of America to find packaging litter on the shores. This video still resonates with a generation.

The closing comment - “People start pollution, people can stop it”.(4) Along the time of that campaign came the emergence of trash collection bins on sidewalks, then recycling bins, and even the use of financial incentives such as deposits for recycling containers. Perhaps most importantly was the elevation of public awareness and the need to be part of the solution and not part of the problem.

Today, the core challenge with plastics in our water can be traced back to proper disposal and in many ways it is similar to the original challenge addressed in the Keep America Beautiful campaign. Only now, the challenge is global in scope and crosses over political boundaries. To use an analogy - it is no longer sufficient to keep our own house clean, we now need solutions that help keep the entire neighborhood clean.

According to Ocean Conservancy (Link) seven of the top 10 litter items found in the ocean are plastic packaging

containers including food wrappers, beverage bottles, bottle caps, straws, plastic bags, cups and plates. The other two items are packaging as well - glass and metal cans. With the only non-packaging item being cigarette butts(5).

When you look at the source of ocean plastic, according to Science Magazine and BBC reporting (Link) the leading polluters are China, Indonesia, and the Philippines(6). While they might be the leading polluters, it is not appropriate to point a finger. There is much work to be done to build solutions in our own back yard and on a global scale. The challenge is growing rapidly and accumulating at an

unprecedented rate. According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation study on The New Plastics Economy, by 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish(7) (Link). That is a very disturbing projection and a trajectory that we need to address. Let’s take a forward lean and have a top-line look at some of the leading thoughts to address this challenge along with some pragmatic solutions you can apply at home today.

Forward Lean//

Let’s start with exploring some simple, pragmatic actions you can take in your home as a consumer to make a difference. Keeping in mind the saying ‘You need to be the change that you want to see in the world’. Here is a list of some simple actions for your consideration:

1. Don’t litter - especially items such as cigarette butts and wrappers.

2. Reduce - Use less, and where possible utilize reusable containers.

3. Recycle your plastics at home and on-the go.

4. Put the caps back on your plastic containers when you recycle them.

5. Reduce consumption - Specifically, seek to avoid the use of straws and thin plastic bags.

6. Seek to purchase and use products made of natural and renewable materials.

7. Get involved - Spend a few hours each month picking up trash along the roads, in the woods, around your neighborhood, and especially near the water.

8. Partner with your local municipal recycling center and seek to build collection solutions for your neighborhood. This is especially important in urban areas with multi-unit residences.

9. Talk about the issue, do independent research, formulate your opinion and explore those perspectives with friends, family members, community leadership, and regional political representatives.

10. Innovate & collaborate! The challenges today are the growth opportunity of tomorrow. We need to connect our best minds and our best team builders to tackle this challenge.

For larger brands and the more technically engaged audience, let’s take a brief look at some of the emerging technologies we are tracking at SYNAPTIC Packaging (Link).

1. Natural & Renewable Materials:

Consumer research will tell you (and you know it to be true in your own life) - people are overstimulated. Information is coming at them in so many ways they are finding it increasingly difficult to discern and authenticate. The result is a feeling of anxiety, distrust, and confusion. People are seeking things that are simpler, authentic, and easily identifiable as real & genuine. Further, they want to make decisions that are good for both their family and for the environment. This directionally points to an increased consumer preference for natural and renewable materials. If you look at market research done by Smithers Pira(9) (Link), they list the top five consumer insights in packaging through 2027 as: 1) Sustainability, 2) Healthy Living, 3) Convenience, 4) Authenticity and Trust, and 5) Cost Effective Shopping. Natural and renewable materials are strategically positioned to satisfy this need and allow brands to draw closer to the emotional aspirations of their consumers. Further to the consumer preference is the extended supply chain risk of non-renewable products, and the growing risk of end-of-life challenges presented by of these materials.

At SYNAPTIC Packaging; we are bullish on innovation with natural and renewable materials. This is inclusive of innovation with emerging raw materials, specialty coatings, and novel forming techniques.

2. Pyrolysis:

First off, the pronunciation - it’s [Pie-Rol-i-Sis]. Pyrolysis is an emerging technology that can convert plastic back to crude oil. For one ton of plastics, pyrolysis can generate 200 to 240 gallons of synthetic crude oil(8) (Link). This technology has tremendous market potential, most especially in regards to addressing the challenges of multi-layer laminates and multi-polymer materials. These thin laminates account for three of the top ten ocean plastics. Currently, thin multi-material laminates have no known value-add solution for recycling, and they represent one of the fastest growing segments in consumer packaging. Pyrolysis offers the potential for an end-of-life solution for this fast growing laminate packaging segment. Further, pyrolysis has been technically and commercially validated by a company called Agilyx - and it works. The challenge is economics. At lower crude oil prices, Pyrolysis is not economically sustainable as a stand-alone business. At SYNAPTIC Packaging, we are seeking to stay engaged in this technology and explore ways to help increase commercial acceptance.

3. Compostable Solutions:

Composting is often thought in the context of a niche group of consumers. At SYNAPTIC Packaging we are looking to the future and believe that industrial composting brings a value-add offering that is ripe for expansion, automation, and innovation. Composting is not without challenges. We will explore this topic more in future blogs. For today, a few simple thoughts for your consideration and reflection ….

Should your packaging last forever?

What if we had an infrastructure for industrial composting that was on scale with the current infrastructure for recycling?

What if you can grow the raw materials used in your packaging and then compost them to become the soil for your next harvest?

What if vertical farming and robotic automation converged to harvest our renewable raw materials?

Certainly, some of these ideas might seem a little far off for the pragmatist. However, the technologies of tomorrow are being invented today. Compostable solutions have the potential to go beyond the niche segment and can offer broader value-add innovation for many businesses; especially those tied to food production.

4. Micro-Legislation:

Micro-legislation is the development of very localized rules to drive behavioral change with the intent of making environmental improvements. An example of micro-legislation would be bans on thin plastic bags, expanded poly-styrene (i.e. foam cups), or a requirement for all packaging to be compostable on a college campus. Generally speaking, micro-legislation is a thorn in the side for major national brands. It is the antithesis of high speed manufacturing and automation as it disrupts a ‘standardized offering’ and temporarily requires localized solutions. Further, it can be life threatening to incumbent packaging businesses who have not evolved to respond to the environmental challenges. For many of our customers, micro-legislation triggers ‘special projects’ to build small scale solutions.

Micro-legislation can however, be a highly effective technique to drive change. Once the alternative solution is developed and implemented to comply with the micro-legislation, than it can demonstrate commercial effectiveness and consumer acceptance. If the new technology performs, then the only thing to inhibit a broader roll-out is economic considerations. For many emerging technologies, they need this base-line production volume to achieve competitive positioning with less sustainable technologies. For the brand, once they have a sustainable solution available in the portfolio, and they have metrics on performance, than a broader roll-out becomes a lower risk. These novel and sustainable packaging solutions often provide what is referred to as a ‘halo’ benefit for the brand allowing them to draw closer to the aspirations of their consumers. In short; micro-legislation can be a tough pill to swallow, however, could be just the medicine that is needed for a healthy future.

5. Recycling Advances:

Recycling works well - however, it requires consumer participation to be effective. In 2016 we saw a slip in consumer recycle rates for plastic bottles down 2.4% from 31.1% in 2015 to 29.7% in 2016(10) (Link). The slip is not overly concerning in itself, however, the underly challenge is how to drive more consumer recycling and how to improve the quality of the Post Consumer Recycle (PCR) stream. Recycling technologies and automation are an interest to SYNAPTIC Packaging. We see opportunities to further accelerate these developments with novel innovation.

For 2018 the big news story with recycling will likely be the implementation of China’s new NATIONAL SWORD policies. China is currently enforcing country wide policies to restrict the import of recycled plastics, paper, and other materials. The surface justification is to eliminate trash being imported to China. The challenge is that much of the PCR material can look like trash to an inspector. This sudden restriction of trade looks to be highly disruptive for the PCR markets on a global basis. The disruption will likely have immediate financial impacts on global commodity pricing, availability for recycled materials, create a short term demand increase for virgin materials, and increase demand from PCR producers that clean the material before exporting to China. Purchasing and supply chain managers around the world should be watching these developments carefully.

Closing Statements:

At SYNAPTIC Packaging, we use a fundamental approach to examine emerging technologies. It is the concept of understanding adjacencies and seeking strategic convergence. These blogs are a helpful way for us to share with you top-line insights into some of the adjacencies we study for our customers. We welcome your input and we look forward to working with you to build sustainable and novel innovations.

SYNAPTIC Packaging - Connecting Novel Ideas and Execution


1. Lawerence, T, & Nichols, M, The Graduate, USA, United Artist, (1967)

2. The Atlantic, 50 Years Ago: The World in 1963, by Alan Taylor, February 15, 2013

3. Plastics Europe Market Research Group, Global Plastic Production from 1950 to 2015, 2015

4. Keep America Beautiful, KAB.ORG

5. Ocean Conservancy, Top Ten Items Collected, May 2017

6. Ron Harrabin, UN Commits to Stop Ocean Plastic Waste, BBC News, December 2017

7. Ellen MacArthur Foundation, The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the future of plastics, January 2016

8. Jim Lane, Waste Plastics to Crude Oil Pyrolysis, Biofuels Digest, April, 2011

9. Smithers Pira, “Ten-Year Forecast of Disruptive Forces in Packaging to 2027”, May 2017

10. Association of Plastic Recyclers, Plastic Bottle Recycling Dips in 2016; Longterm Outlook Still Strong, November 2017

11. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Coastal Population Report, Population Trends from 1970 to 2020, March 2013