Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Here's What Single-Use Plastic Really Does

While there certainly are people who seem to think that ALL plastic is bad, others are coming to the realization that it is really "single use" plastic that is the problem - plastic that is used to hold drinking water, for instance, or juices, yogurt,...The overwhelming perception is that the container's only purpose is to hold the food/drink item until the item is consumed, and then the plastic is thrown away.

As a product developer, I can tell you that life is not that simple. No manager or client company has ever approached me or any other product developer and said " I need something to put the food and drink in. That's it, nothing else matters." Such a situation is so far removed from reality that you can't even call it a pipe-dream.

While it is true that as far as the consumer is concerned, once the product is consumed, the container is waste, that is only looking at the last step in a long chain of events. The truth is that even a single-use disposable plastic item has to perform a wide range of tasks long before the consumer even sees it.

Let's consider just consider the object of scorn de jour, the PET water bottle. Here's what I think the requirements are and why the requirements exist:
  • It needs to seal the water in and all other contaminants out. That's pretty obvious, that's on the top of everyone's list, but for some people, they think the list stops there. It doesn't.
  • It needs to be made from materials that will not leach unsafe levels of chemicals into the water, or react with the water. The FDA monitors this, but some people are still not happy with the results.
  • It needs to not have any structural failure:
    • during shipment from the bottles' manufacturer (who is often someone different than the company filling the bottle) to the filling plant
    • while it is in the filling equipment
    • while the bottle is put into
      • the secondary packaging (often shrinkwrap)
      • into the tertiary packaging (a cardboard box)
      • additional packaging (such as to secure it to a pallet)
    • or during shipment via (multiple) trucks or boats
    • while on the shelf or rack, particularly when multiple layers of filled bottles are stacked on top of it
    • during the "normal" lifespan that the consumer has it
    Keep in mind that during shipment and in the hands of the consumer, the bottle can see temperature extremes from below freezing temperatures to 140 oF or more, as well as UV light which can degrade polymers. If there is structural failure, the water will leak from the bottle, requiring that at the very least, that bottle be thrown away or recycled. Keep in mind that that bottle's contents are then also wasted. Depending on the extent and location of the leaker, the cardboard packaging may be weakened so that handling the other bottles or even the pallet with a forklift may be a problem, and therefore many more bottles may end up being trashed.
  • The bottle needs to cost as little as possible. While you may think that this is so that the company can pocket the difference, that is not the case. With companies like Wal-Mart and others constantly asking for price concessions so that they can have a steady stream of markdowns, consumers are the only ones who can really pocket the difference. Similarly, when the price of petroleum increases, the price of the plastic increases as well, but passing such increases along is very difficult, leaving the manufacturer to pay the higher price.
  • The water can only diffuse very slowly through the bottle's walls. Once too much water has evaporated, the bottle no longer holds the volume stated on the label, say 500 ml. Now it's mislabeled, and cannot be sold, so into the wastestream it goes.
Those are the strictly technical requirements that are off the top of my head. There are still more semi-technical requirements that are related to the labeling, branding and selling - the label needs to adhere to the bottle, the bottle needs to be clear and free of visual defects, it may need to have a certain shape (for branding),.... While many consumers will shout "I don't care about that", research on consumer behavior proves otherwise, and so there are additional requirements that the bottle needs to meet.

If some of these requirements didn't exist, the bottles could be made of less durable materials or construction and the job of a product developer would be much easier, but that is not the reality of the situation. Beyond the PET bottle, a long of list of requirements exists for any product made of plastic [*], with most of these requirements completely overlooked by consumers who often only see the end result of the effort of making the bottle, filling it, and delivering it to the store. To look only at the act of buying/consuming/seeing waste and complain is to fail to see the larger issues involved.

[*] or metal, wood, fabric...

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