Is the Plastics Industry coming to an end? How is Consumer Behavior changing?

Plastics have become a staple of daily life in the modern world. Roughly, half of the global consumer packaging is made of plastic. Plastic provides global consumers with convenient and cost-effective packaging. It can be found in a wide range of food, beverage, home and health products used daily. Plastic packaging use, mirrors a country’s per capita income growth meaning that when economies become more affluent, they use more plastic packaging.

Packaging Applications

Plastics have revolutionized modern life. It made products safer, cheaper, and easier to handle and transport, yet plastic is also the cause of many environmental concerns. Because plastics are so durable, it takes centuries for them to degrade and because it is so cheap, it is often not economical to collect and recycle plastic. Plastics most often end up in landfills or bodies of water. Plastic contamination in bodies of water highlights the issue of microplastics. Microplastics can potentially harm humans through the consumption of seafood. Plastic packaging can also disrupt living systems in other ways. It can clog drainage systems and can be consumed by cows and farm animals.

Plastic may end up being one of the defining characteristics of a new epoch in the planet’s history. Perhaps not Earth-shattering, but Earth-trashing. Plastic may end up being one of the defining characteristics of a new era in the planet’s history. Eventually, the layer of plastic spread around the world from the 1950s onwards will form a noticeable line in the sedimentary rocks of the future. In a few decades, a blink of an eye in Earth’s 4.5-billion-year history, plastic has not only changed the fabric of life but the very rocks.

Why is Plastic so Bad?

Plastic can stay in the ground for many generations. It occupies precious space in landfills and polluting the environment. If you look around carefully, plastic is everywhere. Some types of this plastic can be used again and again for a long time. Unfortunately, many plastic products are used only for a short period (so called single-use plastics). Almost 50{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} of things from plastic, people use only once, and then they throw it into a landfill. It attracts a range of other poisons and pollutants we have spilled into the natural world. Some plastic is toxic, and it can disrupt hormones crucial for a healthy existence. It is linked to cancers, congenital disabilities, impaired immunity, endocrine disruption, and other ailments. A whole host of carcinogenic, neurotoxic, and hormone-disruptive chemicals is standard ingredients and waste products of plastic production, and they inevitably find their way into our ecology through water, land, and air pollution. Some of the more common compounds which are found in materials such as PVC and polysterene include vinyl chloride, dioxins, benzene, phthalates and other plasticizers, formaldehyde, and bisphenol-A, or BPA (in polycarbonate). Many of these are persistent organic pollutants and can be considered as damaging toxins on the planet, owing to a combination of their persistence in the environment and their high levels of toxicity.

History of the Plastic Production

The output of human-made plastics dates back to the mid-1800s. Plastic packaging for consumer applications was popular in the 1940s and 1950s. It happened when U.S. and European chemical companies changed their focus. It turned from industrial and military applications to post-war consumers. Post-war consumers were building families. Also, they were seeking an improved quality of life. By the 1940s, plastics were becoming part of everyday life. They were in the celluloid film. It made motion pictures possible, in the ubiquitous Art Deco Bakelite jewelry. It is in the cheap toothbrushes in any corner shop. The post-war period saw the popularization of products such as Tupperware. It is zipper storage bags, garbage bags, and plastic spray bottles. U.S. homemakers sold the iconic food containers door-to-door. These products revolutionized home life.

Plastics have been gaining share in consumer packaging. It happens at the expense of paper, glass, metal and other substrates over the past fifty years. By 1955 disposable and single-use plastics were celebrated. Worldwide production of plastics quadrupled from 2 million to 8 million tonnes a year in the 1950s. By 1970, it was 35 million tonnes.

What are the alternatives of plastics?

Advantages over other Packaging Materials

Plastic has several advantages over different substrates. It includes durability, weight, affordability, versatility, and energy required to produce. A typical example of plastic’s strength is its ability to hold liquids. PET bottles can weigh as little as 19 grams. It is compared to similarly sized glass containers at 170 grams. Plastic also holds advantages in durability as it is less likely to break or leak in transit. Plastic is further able to bend into multiple shapes, thus it is more efficient to ship and store. From an energy perspective, it requires 82{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} more energy to produce alternative products. It takes 1.82 kilowatt-hours to match the necessary 1 kilowatt-hour for plastic production. Plastic has several clear advantages. That will make it extremely difficult to replace across different end markets.

Protective packaging, such as bubble wrap is used in e-Commerce. It is another potential battleground between plastic & paper substrates. In the U.S. plastic film is only recycled ~15{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} of the time, well below that of PET bottles or aluminium cans. The plastic film is defined as stretch wrap, poly bags, agricultural film, bubble wrap, and other PVC or PP films. Bubble mailers may need to be disassembled by the consumer before they can be recycled. An alternative to plastic protective packaging is recycled paper. This paper can also be used to fill extra space in a package. It also can prevent items from moving in transit. Some producers have begun using paper that is 100{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} recycled, recyclable, and biodegradable.

Other items contributing to marine waste include foodservice items such as cups, plates, utensils, stirrers and straws. The latter, esp. after a video of a turtle with a straw being painfully extracted from its’ nose, has recently been defined as the single most prominent “global enemy” and representation of many anti-plastic movements. But nevertheless, it Is as marine waste in general that plastic has received a great deal of scrutiny, but it’s not clear paper always provides a better alternative. The recyclability of cups has been in particular focus recently with the U.K. discussing a potential levy on disposable coffee cups. While the cups may appear to be recyclable, the plastic lining on the inside, which prevents liquid from soaking in, actually makes the cup significantly more expensive to recycle with only 3-4 locations in the U.K. equipped to do so. Limited infrastructure has also put a damper on the move to biodegradable cups. While a biodegradable cup is more sustainable than the plastic-lined alternative, the product still may be destined for a landfill given limited capacity for proper processing. Despite these concerns, the paper is even seen as the more responsible alternative to polystyrene (PS) which can sit in a landfill for centuries. Recycling PS or EPS (expanded polystyrene) isn’t economical since it’s not part of the circular economy, meaning that a recycled EPS cup cannot be processed and then turned back into another bowl.

Environmental Impact of Single-Use Plastics

Plastic is the cause of most significant concern. Widely-used consumer plastics such as bags and bottles can take anywhere from 500 to 1,000 years to degrade.

Moreover, only ~14{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} of plastic packaging sold ends up being recycled. It means ~86{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} ends up in a landfill or bodies of water. The following includes a list of channels impacting on the environment.


Sewage is an essential factor in the distribution of microplastics. In fact, between 80 percent and 90 percent of the plastic particles. They contain in wastewater, such as from garment fibers, persist in the sludge. Microplastics can be found even in tap water.

Toxic effects

Chlorinated plastic can release harmful chemicals into the surrounding soil. Soil can then seep into groundwater or other surrounding water sources and the ecosystem. This can cause a range of potentially dangerous effects on the species, that drink the water.

Microplastics get into our water

One of the primary sources is our clothing. Minuscule fibers of acrylic, nylon, spandex, and polyester are shed each time we wash our clothes. Also, they are carried off to wastewater treatment plants or discharged to the open environment.


Microbeads are solid plastic particles. Numerous governments have introduced legislation. It was created to ban the manufacture of cosmetics. Moreover, also personal care products containing microbeads.

Landfill & Marine pollution issues

Plastic is a significant source of waste in landfills. It concerns air pollution, groundwater safety, and quality of life issues. The most common waste-generating polymers include low (LDPE) and high (HDPE) density polyethylene. Also polypropylene (PP) and polyethylene terephthalate (PET). You can find them in applications such as bottles and bags. In emerging markets, plastics can disrupt agriculture, transportation, and sanitation processes. These processes are critical for human health. We estimate ~400 million tonnes of plastic are produced each year. The majority of plastic packaging is technically recyclable.

Moreover, by some estimates only ~14{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a} of packaging products are recycled. PET beverage bottles are a leading type of single-use plastic. These bottles are also the fifth most common item found in ocean debris. Although plastics are part of the ‘Great Pacific Garbage terms of tonnage, the majority of the patch is abandoned fishing gear. Marine pollution is also reaching elevated levels. It averages ~13,000 pieces of plastic litter found on every square kilometer of ocean.

Global initiatives about single-use plastic bans

The first national ban on plastic bags was signed in Bangladesh in 200. Bans in several other African nations followed this. In Europe, the U.K. took a leading position on preventing plastics waste. It started with a 5 pence (5p) charge on disposable plastic bags in October 2015. The U.K. government later published a 25-year environmental plan. This plan announced intentions to eliminate all “avoidable plastics waste” by year-end 2042. Also, extend the 5p plastic bag charge to small retail shops and encourage “plastic-free aisles” at supermarkets. Taiwan announced its intention to ban single-use plastics by 2030. Also, Scotland became the first U.K. nation to ban plastic straws. It was a part of a more significant effort to cut down on single-use plastics. In December, as a significant breakthrough, the EU finally agreed to ban a wide range of “throw-away plastic items such as straws and polysterine cups by 2021 (source). In the U.S., initiatives have been more on the state and local level vs. national level, with Malibu Beach seemingly being at the forefront and implementing plastic straw bans, associated with monetary fines. However, it should be noted that with all plastic straw bans, hospitality establishments will always aim to have some form of straw available to satisfy the needs of particular handicaped guests, as not all will be able to drink from not-bendable straws. In India, a nationwide ban on single-use plastics will start in 2020. However, some cities have already adopted the bans with substantial penalties for infractions. Also, some corporates have proactively adapted to changing consumer preferences on single-use plastics, with Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan, banning plastic cups in their offices. Furthermore there is a significant number of self-motivated initiatives being started on Social and traditional Media, spearheaded by celebrities such as David Attenborough (Blue Planet Movie), Cara de Levigne (My Eco Challenge) and many others on a local level with local celebrities.

Alternatives to Single-Use Plastics

Water bottles

Drink manufacturers and consumers choose beverage containers. They may ultimately have to choose between cost and performance. It seems to favor plastic containers. Also, also, recyclability and waste impact. It would seem to favor metal containers. Experts analyzed segment sales for leading packagers relative to unit production volume. PET bottles hold a cost advantage over other beverage containers.

Moreover, global consumers have expressed a willingness to pay more for environmentally responsible. Sustainable packaging in a period of global economic growth. If economic conditions were to worsen producers and consumers might become more incentivised to prefer the lowest cost option. There is another cross-factor in the cost competitiveness of metal versus plastic containers. It is price trends in the underlying raw materials, aluminum, and resin. The costs of these commodities tend to move together over time. However, here is a sharp deviation between the two. Between sharply higher metal prices and low resin prices, or vice versa. It may also influence purchasing decisions. Here is the solution: to bottle your water. Also, whatever you are drinking if you can.

Plastic Straws

There are plenty of eco-friendly alternatives to plastic straws. You can choose it from steel and bamboo to glass and paper. However considering that many guests still complain about the sogginess of paper-straws, the most innovative alternative seems to be Pasta Straws, such as those from Stroodles, a new brand, recently established in London, UK and aiming to introduce the Pasta Straw as a standard globally. Maxim Gelmann, Chief Stroodle and Founder says” Our Stroodles don’t get soggy like paper straws and last in cold drinks for over an hour, don’t alter the taste of the drink and consisting only of water and durum wheat semolina they are vegan and fully biodegradable and thus don’t harm the environment. Above all they are fun to use and if you want you can even eat them after.

The beauty about Stroodling your drink through a pasta straw is that something so simple can make such a big impact and reduce plastic waste. Thus, while a customer doesn’t have to compromise on their drinking experience, a Stroodle has the chance to create awareness among the masses and develop a consciousness about considering the plastic waste footprint we leave, even when “just” going out for a drink.

Eating utensils

There’s nothing wrong with carrying reusable cutlery set with you even if you do have a permanent address.


The trusty flip-flop is a favorite with many people. They also pose a massive hazard to ocean life. It’s better to find an eco-friendly sandal.

Plastic Shopping Bags

There is a growing number of countries that have banned plastic bags. The question “Paper or Plastic” is well known to U.S. shoppers. There are both their advantages and disadvantages. Paper bags have higher recycling rates and decompose significantly faster. However, it can require more than twice the energy to produce. They also carry a higher price point and are generally less durable than plastic bags. They also have greater mass and weight than plastic. They are more costly to transport. In the United States ~30 billion plastic bags are used each year. It is compared to only ~10 billion paper bags. Paper bags are made from kraft paper. Kraft paper is made from renewable softwood chemical pulp. Other than paper grocery bags, kraft paper is commonly used for multiwall sacks. For things like concrete, fertilizer, and flour. It is also cheap lining for things like particleboard, tiles, and countertops. We estimate the North American kraft paper market is ~2 million tonnes. The vast majority being unbleached grades. Bleached grades are primarily used in some fast-food takeout bags. However, bleached bags have been in decline in recent years.

The solution is Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastics or polymers have been in production since the late 1990s. It was produced in small commercial quantities. Biodegradable plastics are made from sustainable resources. It can decompose at the same rate as other compostables.

Also, they can decompose at the same rate as other compostables — ~180 days. There are also polymers that can decompose in domestic and seawater environments. The total global installed capacity of biodegradable polymers is around 1 million tonnes per year. Biodegradable plastics have benefits. However, the consumption volumes are very modest. It happens in the context of the conventional single-use plastics in circulation today. Historically biodegradable polymers are more complicated to produce. Also, they more expensive. Products need to be competitively priced. Also, they need available in sufficient quantities to minimize supply chain risks. Consumers and retailers demand more environmentally sustainable and innovative products. One potential impact of regulatory scrutiny of single-use plastics could be to accelerate consolidation. It could happen among plastic packages. Large-scale consolidation among plastic packagers has picked up in recent years. Australian Packaging giant Amcor agreed in August to acquire leading U.S. flexible packager Bemis in a ~$6.5 billion deal. It’s creating a leading global plastic packager. Also, it has a significant market share in every major region. Amcor management discussed the strategic rationale of the agreement. They indicated the combination wasn’t defensive in nature. It aimed at capturing new opportunities. It’s becoming better positioned to address sustainability concerns.

Future of plastic

The planet doesn’t have to become a toxic rubbish dump. In the short term, this will need some government action to encourage bio-derived, recyclable and biodegradable plastics to allow them to compete with petroleum-based products. This highlights the need for more research into controlling biodegradability, taking into account different applications and the need for infrastructure to deal with biodegradable plastics at the end of their life. We don’t want our planes biodegrading during their 20 years of service, but one-use water bottles should break down within a short time after use.

Plastic Pollution

Recycling plastics is another essential step towards reducing the environmental load. Let’s face it: it is people who are doing the littering, not the plastics themselves. More effort could go into waste collection, and a carrot/stick approach should include disincentives for littering and a plastic tax which would exclude recycled plastics. There are signs of improvement: increasing awareness of the harm plastics cause and a willingness of consumers to pay for plastic bags or to ban them. We need to stop dumping in our backyard and remember that the environment is where we live. We ignore it at our peril.{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}3Bfilename{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}3D{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}22Keane{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}20Presentation.pdf{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}22&response-content-type=application{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}2Fpdf&AWSAccessKeyId=AKIAJC6CRYNXDRDHQCUQ&Expires=1544798156&Signature=hjmQd64NDN2dXzKd2CujwcPPHxA{3fbfd6f1e6b19884051837dbbbebf333964dd5fac151615ffbd47b80e5ecc87a}3D

Author: Alexej Pikovsky

Passionate about investing in private and public companies and a successful track record across different industries and geographies. German Academic Foundation Scholar and Research Affiliate at the Centre for Global Finance and Technology at Imperial College London. Addicted to reading and sharing industry deep dives. Enjoy!