All that glittery garbage can be gold
Metallized film packaging, the one that is most popularly seen surrounding junk food — chips, biscuits and more, is the most harmful form of packaging for the environment.
These days, all that glitters anywhere in urban cities is the garbage that is full of shiny metallized film wrappers — chips packets, chocolate wrappers, biscuit wrappers and other food items. Once food packaged inside this kind of wrapping has been consumed, the wrapper is thrown away, mostly reflecting sunlight in the trash piles that line roads and often enough ending up in landfills.
Improper life management and not improper waste management is the cause of this. When discussing the subject of waste management, the three R’s become absolutely essential to discuss. While there are many more R’s beyond Reduce, Reuse, Recycle such as Refuse, Reinvent, Repurpose; the initial three are enough to form a structure around which to base our discussion and learnings.
The word ‘Reduce’ implies that unless we absolutely require something, we must not buy it because adding extra man-made items onto the planet is instant wastage. This is why it is more apt to term it as life management because we need to go back to the root question of how much is enough and is it absolutely necessary to buy yet another kind of an item. It is imperative that people learn to draw this line.
The modern-day shopper’s thirst for variety is unquenchable. He can always buy more. And often, the packaging material used is larger in volume and weight than the original product it was meant to protect. It is impossible to go out into the market and find a single item that is not engulfed in layers and layers of packaging. The nicer the packaging, the more demand for the product. The entire advertising and marketing industry thrives on packaging — they use the outer shell of the products to make it look attractive, to advertise the brand, communicate the product features, provide a manufacturing address, write the price, etc.
Majority of the packaged items in the market today are various kinds of processed foods. When people world over started demanding foods that were not available in their country, countries like India started exporting their freshest produce. As global trade increased, it gave rise to supermarkets where one can find kiwi fruit from New Zealand, avocados from Peru, Dragon fruit from China, chocolates from Switzerland, tea from Sri Lanka and the list goes on. When foods needed to be shipped even across various parts of the country, they required packaging protective packaging that would ensure that they were not exposed to extremes of temperature.
Metallized film packaging, the one that is most popularly seen surrounding junk food — chips, biscuits, namkeens, and more, is the most harmful form of packaging for the environment. This material is usually a combination of plastic film and aluminium foil fused together. Other metals like Nickel and Chromium may also be used depending on the purpose of the film. Metallized film came into being to offer the glossy metallic appearance and other properties of aluminium foil at a reduced weight and cost.
This kind of film was developed in the early 1950s by Dupont, Imperial Chemical Industries and Hoechst and is commonly manufactured using a physical vapour deposition technique. The metal is heated and vapourized, these vapours are then deposited onto a cold polymer film. Oriented Polypropylene (PP) and PET are the most common plastics used for manufacture of this kind of film. PET is usually used for decorative films — festival decorations like wrappers, ribbons, tinsel and balloons. PP is largely used for food items — snacks, candy, coffee, etc.
The reasons why this material is used in packaging are exactly the reasons why it shouldn’t be used but this is something large corporations will never tell you. They will have you believe that the healthiest food is coming to you in the safest packaging. Wrong. Let’s take potato crisps for example. They are only this tasty when they are crispy which means no air or moisture should come in contact with them, even if they are kept on store shelves for several months. Preservatives and other additives will make them last longer and of course metallized packaging will keep them crispy much longer as it acts as a barrier to moisture, sunlight and even air. In some cases, your chips bag might even contain a higher amount of nitrogen. Nitrogen flushing is a technique used commonly for various kinds of food as it helps prolong their shelf life.
Research has shown that food cooked in aluminium vessels can cause aluminium poisoning. Similarly food packaged in metallized film wrappers is also very unhealthy. Health hazards aside, having these shiny nuisances floating around dumpsters and roads in the city far from adds to aesthetics. What doesn’t remain in the city, finds its way to the landfills in the villages on the outskirts. Like all plastics, this too does not degrade naturally, like most plastics, it does not degrade with light or air and is close to impossible to recycle. Separation of layers of plastic film from metal foil has in the past proven to be very ineffective by a few organizations. We can hope that evolving technology will lead to better solutions.
Some of the existing solutions towards recycling involve converting this kind of ‘Plastic to Fuel’. The reflective properties of the material make in suitable to be used in solar cookers, roofing sheets and wall panels and other equipment. Some organizations are also trying to upcycle the material into crafty, decorative items. NGO Aarohana makes purses or pouches out of them, design firm Studio Alternatives has started making a fabric that can be used to make diary covers and many other products and The Retyrement Plan weaves chips and biscuit wrappers into a strong rope.
While many organizations have been working on reuse and recycling solutions, theses are only possible if a large scale collection of this waste can be made possible. This can be instituted through ragpickers collectives, corporate canteens, schools, hotels and residences. The key is for people to throw carefully, to ensure that the packets are not too soiled and do not have food remnants inside them.
The ideal scenario for managing foil wrapper waste would be to REDUCE one’s consumption of items that come packaged in this. The fresher your food the healthier it is. Eat fresh fruits, home-made snacks and cooked meals that are better for you and for the environment. Local consumption is another concept to harp on at this point. For all those who just must eat fried chips, support your local vendor — go over to the nearest ‘Hot Chips’ or buy from home chefs. Pune has Budhani wafers, Mumbai has Camy wafers — when travelling to another city, take the time and effort to find out which are the popular local joints — support local businesses. When taking a road trip, carry fresh food. Consumption doesn’t always boil down to the choices available, it comes down to the choice you make. When you buy, buy to consumer sooner rather than later. This will instantly weed out foods that have a shelf life of over 2 months and in turn, foods that come in metallized film packaging.
Whether all this packaging is really required is debatable, some of us might think it entirely redundant, others might attribute some functionality to it while yet others will unthinkingly support it as it feeds an entire industry. The key point to note is that once the purpose of the packaging is over, it simply gets discarded and ends up adding to the growing piles of garbage. The available solutions can be effective provided each one of us is ready to make even a slight shift in patterns.