Since the mid-20th-century, most of our beverages have been packaged in plastic bottles; and it can be difficult to imagine a different future for beverage packaging, given how plastic has transformed our world in many positive ways. However, the permeation of plastic packaging in human lives comes at a deadly cost for nature and the environment. In this article, Evergreen Labs will revisit the history of plastic in the beverage industry and highlight our zero-plastic way out that – hopefully – will take place from now on.
A brief history of plastic in beverage packaging
Historically, water and other beverages had been stored in different containers, from primitive options like gourds and ostrich egg shells to more sophisticated containers made from clay, minerals, paper, glass, and metal. Beverage bottling only began over a century ago, with drinks being kept in glass bottles, then steel and aluminum cans. Although there are many environmental perks of the mentioned materials, they also showcase certain drawbacks – such as glass’s fragility and heavy weight, metal’s lack of dent-resistance, or high manufacturing costs.
Plastic came around in the early 1900s but was mainly reserved for military purposes. Early plastic bottles showed some potential since they were lighter than their counterparts, but they could not hold carbonated drinks and leached chemicals to the products. It was not until 1973 that Nathaniel Wyeth, a Du Pont scientist, invented and patented PET bottles, which have resolved all issues of other materials. They are lightweight, durable, safe, cheap, recyclable, and generally convenient – the perfect solution for beverage companies that were looking into centralizing production and scaling up globally at the time.
Fast forward approximately 50 years to 2021, the world is experiencing a plastic waste crisis and starting to view plastic bottles as a curse rather than a blessing. This is because most plastic bottles do not get recycled, mainly due to poor collection systems and then end up leaching into the environment and staying for at least 400 years before breaking down into micro-plastics (the plastic never really “goes away”). However, with all the convenience that plastics offer to the beverage industry, it seems that these companies will not give up plastic packaging any time soon; and it is unlikely that they would support any policies that incentivize consumers to recycle used beverage bottles on a global scale.
All seems to be lost. The pervasion of plastic bottles appears to be an issue with virtually no way out, until the big polluters take matters in their own hands to make innovative and impactful changes in beverage packaging.
But is relying completely on corporations the only way out? We do not think so.
Our zero-plastic way out
Evergreen Labs do not single out anyone as the only responsible party in this fight against plastic packaging. Instead, we believe in influencing, disrupting market forces to drive plastic bottles out of the economy, and that process involves consumers, local suppliers, and governments, amongst other stakeholders.
Consumers will play a key role in influencing the beverage industry. In our past article on upstream innovations on Sustainable Vietnam, we have highlighted case studies where different companies, including multinational conglomerates like Coca-Cola and Nestlé and local enterprises, are innovating to reduce or remove plastic packaging throughout their production line. Such innovations, we believe, are driven by consumers’ changes in behaviors and attitudes towards plastic bottles and plastic waste in general. Specifically, consumers worldwide have become more eco-conscious, and more willing to pay for similar products packaged in more eco-friendly options; and this is likely the case going forward. Therefore, hypothetically speaking, if all consumers turn a cold shoulder towards plastic packaged beverages, beverage suppliers will have no choice but to find substitutes for plastic bottles.
However, the burden also lies upon small and medium beverage suppliers that aspire to make a change, to shift to glass bottles, metal cans, or aseptic cartons for beverages, yet create products that are competitive and maintain a viable, profitable business. Speaking from our own experience with Glassia, our Danang-based water bottling facility that uses refillable and recyclable glass bottles, this is not an easy feat; but our general advice is to firstly decentralize production and focus on local markets. This keeps the environmental footprint low while also ensuring affordable prices for businesses and consumers.
But what would happen to the plastic bottles already disposed of? We propose that this is when the government should come in. Policymakers could consider incentivizing collection of plastic bottles, such as through container-deposit legislation that demands support from the beverage industry, which upholds the polluter pays principle, or by investment to projects that attend to downstream solutions to plastic waste, including plastic bottles. Formal education programs on plastic waste, including source separation and recycling, should also be encouraged and will be started to be implemented in Vietnam in 2022. Additionally, in countries with an existing informal waste sector like Vietnam, local governments should integrate waste workers in municipal collection schemes and recycling operations, to offer them more formalized opportunities and benefits while further incentivizing their day-to-day recycling jobs.
Even though plastic packaging has only existed for less than 50 years in the beverage industry, its impact could be overwhelming and even insurmountable to some. However, with the right upstream and downstream approaches, involvement of key stakeholders, and overall community efforts, Evergreen Labs believes that the issue could be greatly mitigated and a low-plastic future realized.