With a growing population and the threat which climate change poses, re-designing the way we consume and dispose of our waste will become essential to our welfare as a human society. Remember the wasteland which the Pixar robot WALL-E was left behind in? Something of the sort may become a reality all too soon if we do not change our approach to non-decomposable waste such as plastic. With an increased awareness that our future lies within our own hands, a number of young people are concerning themselves with new measures to enable the environment to recover from humanity’s mindless destruction.
To gain insight into what is being done in the field, we met with the student Julie Schack Petersen who focussed her master’s project at the Glasgow School of Art on imagining a future without food packaging. To develop her project, Julie organised a workshop in which she invited participants to explore the means by which a plastic-free future may come about. As a result of the workshop, Julie and those involved had imagined 4 different scenarios which could describe a future without plastic. Scenario 1 proposes depositable packaging, Scenario 2 suggests food delivery systems, Scenario 3 was named ‘pick your own’ and Scenario 4 puts forth edible food packaging. In our interview, Julie goes into more detail on what these entail and what the most plausible scenario may be.
VC: Julie, tell us about how you began your research.
Julie: I turned to the big 4 supermarkets to try and understand their use of packaging
I was directed to those in charge of decisions around packaging and purchasing
VC: Were they quite open?
Julie: Yeah. The main reason supermarkets give for using packaging is that it’s what consumers want due to convenience. Furthermore, it helps to reduce food waste, particularly in-store.
VC: Was it interesting comparing the commercial side of things with the responses you got from the consumers?
Julie: I suppose so, although I see a disparity in the consumer’s stance on food packaging. Having plastic packaging is simply so convenient. Many people simply aren’t aware of the negative implications.
VC: So, are we faced with an issue of awareness rather than reluctance?
Julie: There is certainly a lack of awareness of one’s own consumer behaviour and the effects this has. In the U.K. there is a LOT of food packaging which other European countries don’t have. In fact, I discovered that one in 3 meals eaten in the UK are ready made meals and that’s not including eating out or takeaways!
VC: What inspired you to focus your masters project on plastic packaging rather than other forms of environmental impact?
Julie: Well, I wanted to look into sustainability as I was inspired by one of my last courses in my undergrad which was about sustainable innovation. I was talking to my supervisor and he said food is always an interesting topic, but I didn’t want to go into food-waste as it’s so vast and has been discussed so thoroughly. I found there was a lack of discussion on what encases that food. Looking further into it I found that food packaging only produces 10% of the CO2 impact of the entire food production all the way up to consumption. BUT that’s just CO2 and nobody talks about all the other environmental issues which it implies and there is no way of comparing all the other impacts.
VC: So, what is the underlying issue which you wish to address through your project?
Julie: Currently the UK only recycles 44% of its waste and the rest goes into landfills! So, I thought how do we rethink this? Not how do we reduce it in the existing system, such as by not buying apples in bags. I wanted to come up with a whole new sustainable system for containing food, thinking about what packaging actually means. I used a method which is commonly used for making big changes and trying to figure out how we should live in the future.
VC: Tell us more about this method.
Julie: The method is called ‘Back-casting’ and it’s different from forecasting. Forecasting looks at today’s trends and predicts what the future will be, meanwhile back-casting creates a vision of how you want the future to be and then you figure out how you get there. My premise was: a future in which we don’t use disposable plastic for food packaging.
VC: How did you put this method into practice?
Julie: I organised a workshop where I gathered a group of people and presented them with the premise to help me assess what this future may look like and how we would design the path to reach this.
VC: Why do a workshop?
Julie: Well I obviously had my own ideas but I wanted to create a conversation. I wanted to work together to explore how we can live in a different way and create the system around it which enables this different approach.
VC: How was the event and was anyone present who was in opposition, who thought we shouldn’t change anything?
Julie: We started by looking at the pros and cons of packaging and then moved into a fluent discussion. Nobody was really in opposition, I think the discussion was very much designed for people who everyone had an interest in changing some way or another.
VC: What pros did you come up with?
Julie: What everyone agreed on was that it’s convenient to store food in packaging, it helps to extend its shelf life and keeps things clean.
VC: What scenarios did you come up with during the discussion?
Julie: Many different ideas came up, but I chose two different concepts for my dissertation.
The first was a pooling system with a deposit scheme. Basically, what already happens in many European countries with bottles. (Which will be implemented in Britain next year.)
VC: Do you think its feasible to use this system in major supply chains or the big supermarkets? Or would we have to start shopping in smaller shops/co-ops?
Julie: To be honest I didn’t delve into this in my project I just kinda imagined what the future could be and stopped there [laughs, bring on the product designers!] What I concluded is that if you introduced it as a national system it would be much easier to implement as companies would be forced to do it/work with it and consumers would no longer have the choice. It would further mean that the smaller players would have a chance to take part. The whole supermarket industry is extremely price competitive.
VC: So, would you have to come up with a system that is attractive to the supermarkets?
Julie: Yes, and for the producers and growers.
VC: What was the second method you came up with?
Julie: The second one is more radical and different, it would mean the whole industry would have to change. It’s based on the idea of indoor farming. Due to population increase and the degradation of the earth, in the future we will have to start producing food in the cities. Predictions propose we’ll have to produce at least 10% urbanely. In our group discussion, we figured that we should probably take this factor into account.
VC: Then how does that affect packaging?
Julie: Well if you’re producing the food in the cities there is a shorter distance of transport and it is really fresh so the container doesn’t have to ensure the freshness.
VC: What do you see as the winning or more plausible scenario?
Julie: I see the two ideas merging together, when you start implementing one, the other comes more easily and you start mixing them. For example: if you are buying your raspberries, they would have been grown in the city and you would purchase them in a Tupperware-style box which you would return to be washed and reused.
We need to find solutions together rather than simply telling someone: you shouldn’t use food packaging. The consumer is not aware of the packaging food comes in until they throw it out.
VC: Does that mean you think we should raise awareness first and then facilitate change?
Julie: No, I don’t think so
VC: Do you think the government should take action or will change essentially come from smaller, pro-active groups?
Julie: I think it’s going to have to be a mixture. Someone is going to have to convince the government that this is the right way to build our future so that they will implement it on a larger scale which has a larger effect.
VC: What do you think would happen if we don’t make these changes?
Julie: Well I think that we are changing, not enough but we are. You can see the trend of bulk food shopping but who knows how long it’ll last. I’m just hoping there won’t be another financial crisis in the next few years and then the changes may actually persist.
VC: It seems like you have quite a positive outlook on our future?
Julie: Yeah, I do because there are huge scientific and design advances such as in biodegradability. Having said that, people don’t know that biodegradable plastics aren’t necessarily better. They are better in the sense that they don’t use oil but if you put a biodegradable bag in a landfill it won’t degrade. If you put it in the ocean, it won’t degrade either. It will require heat to degrade. There is currently no waste system for it. Where do you put it?
VC: That brings us back to your idea of a pooling system. Our current waste system will have to undergo major changes, how do you reckon this system will look?
Julie: There are different ways to work the pooling system. In the case of the existing bottle system, the bottles are melted down and new ones are made. However, you could make a system where the same one is washed and reused. That then is a true pooling system. Supermarkets already do it with the crates and boxes which they use.
VC: Do you reckon people would be opposed to this as they would imagine that somebody else has had this packaging before and be grossed out by it.
Julie: Maybe, but that’s down to consumer behaviour. I believe it’ll take time so we’d have to move into this system slowly.
VC: Would you say this change must be a process rather than abrupt?
Julie: Yeah, but it needs to be one that re-understands what packaging is so that it’s not the same bottle you used yesterday. I believe it’s all about a change of system, new products and new systems and infrastructure for them which also entails user-learning.
VC: What industries will this change affect the most?
Julie: The packaging production industry – they’ll lose jobs!
That’s where companies must be ahead. If companies move on to make packaging which can be reused they’ll become an expert – they’ll be ahead of their field.
The supermarket pooling system IFCO are the experts on pooling systems because they were the first. Individual companies such as supermarkets will have a pool of crates which go through a loop from production to supermarket through cleaning and back to production. They’re used until they are too worn, then they are molten down and reused.
VC: Could you imagine the same system for a punnet or a bag of apples?
Julie: Yes, and consumers will get used to it. Perhaps they’ll bring the packaging back once a week when they do their big shop. If we don’t have a choice, if its implemented by the government then we’ll learn to work with this.
VC: Thank you Julie for giving us an insight into your work and helping us imagine what a future without plastic packaging may look like.