Does limited-lifespan packaging have a future?

The Future Laboratory
Avery Dennison

With bans on objects such as straws and cotton buds and levies on plastic bags discouraging their use, single-use plastics are under heavy scrutiny. As the plastics industry contemplates its collective future, The Future Laboratory examines whether bioplastics – an oft-feted material alternative – are as promising as they seem.

We often hear in the media that the world has a plastic problem: that we are producing too much and that it is piled up in landfill sites and strangling marine life. But the problem lies not with plastics per se but with non-recyclable and single-use plastics derived from petroleum, which do not break down and often end up in our air and waterways. Even recyclable petroleum-based plastics are problematic when not recycled properly. Indeed, while the infrastructure for recycling is there, only 9% of the world’s plastic is recycled. In Europe, 70% of recyclable plastic ends up in landfill and in the US that figure rises to 91% (sources: The Economist/Bloomberg).

But plastics are an integral part of our modern consumption habits, especially food and drink packaging. ‘I can’t envisage a world in which we don’t use plastics. It is too useful, too embedded in the developed cultures we live in,’ says Paul Mines, CEO of Biome Bioplastics.

While some are focused on fixing the recycling problem – making it clearer to consumers what can be recycled and how – others are looking to alternative forms of plastic that some believe are less detrimental to the environment. Biobased plastics – plastics derived from natural biomass with lower CO2 emissions during their lifecycle -  and biodegradable plastics which can act as transient, temporary containers that degrade faster than traditional plastic that ends up in landfill -  are two examples.  

Some start-up brands are investing in fully biomass-based containers that can be composted. In the UK, Earlybirds is a plant-based drinks brand with a fully compostable bottle made from sugar cane. The brand’s advertising claims that, under the right conditions, the bottle will break down in 12 weeks. It can be thrown into a food waste bin and then composted at an industrial composter, reducing it back to soil.

But the caveat, that it is compostable under the right conditions, is an important one. The current dilemma with biodegradable plastics entering the market is that although they are compostable, that does not mean that they biodegrade rapidly or in any condition. In fact, recent research by the University of Plymouth’s International Marine Litter Research Unit found that carrier bags labelled as biodegradable were still fully intact after three years being buried in soil. As Paul Jackson, director of the National Resource Consortium, writes in Recycling & Waste World: ‘Biobased (biodegradable) plastics are placating customers with a guilt-free quick fix while increasing general waste volume and costs. It’s sidestepping the urgent issue: the 9bn tonnes of plastic already in existence.’

At present, the infrastructure simply is not there to support mass-compostability to bring biodegradable plastics to the level of traditional plastics in everyday usage. But there are signs that in the future, biodegradable plastics could be more easily composted, and therefore more likely to be adopted by consumers.

In Los Angeles, new brand Cove is working on producing the first single-use, compostable water bottle. What makes the bottle unique is that it is made from PHA, a biopolymer that is not only biodegradable, but doesn’t need to be put through an industrial composting process to break down. This means that if someone buys a Cove bottle, cannot find a compost bin and throws it in the rubbish instead, it will still eventually decompose – after about five years. ‘PHA is the only polymer that’s fully biodegradable in all conditions,’ Alex Totterman, founder of Cove, tells Fast Company. For Totterman, this aspect means people can treat Cove as they might any other bottle, but without the negative ramifications. ‘We’re just trying to give people something real that they can do without seeming like it’s a big deal.’    

Although in the short term the focus must be on the infrastructure of recycling for traditional plastics and the compostability of bioplastics, designers are imagining a future of home-grown plastics that could also be composted by individuals rather than industrially.

Four designers at the Royal College of Art and Imperial College have created prototype machines for extracting and using chitosan, the commercial variation of chitin, the second-most abundant biopolymer in the world after cellulose. Ed Jones, Insiya Jafferjee, Amir Afshar, and Andrew Edwards created a series of machines that take crustacean shells and turn them into food-safe carrier bags, blister packaging, and biodegradable plant pots. ‘By designing scalable manufacturing processes, applications tailored to the material and eco-positive waste streams, we believe we can demonstrate how chitosan bioplastic could become a viable alternative for many of the plastic products we use today,’ they said.

Polish graduate student Roza Janusz also offers a biological alternative to plastic packaging using Scoby, the yeast and bacteria disc that is formed during the fermentation process of making kombucha. The intriguing element of Janusz’s packaging, which is also edible and can be used for dry food storage, is that it can be grown by anyone. ‘The farmer is more and more an engineer and the farm becomes a factory,’ she says. ‘Growing materials has become more and more popular in design, so maybe growing things is closer and easier than we think.’

Mines believes that, although these innovations are very niche, they force brands to think about their future packaging. With the lack of current consumer understanding and composting infrastructure, bioplastics are not the panacea that they seem – but continuing innovations show their promise for a future of limited-lifespan packaging. Either way, whether it is bioplastic or recyclable plastic, an important step for brands will be to educate consumers not only about the composition of a plastic product but how to dispose of it. ‘The public will no longer allow such low levels of plastic recycling,’ says Mines. ‘And brands, regulators and NGOs will have to figure out a way to deliver that.’

Avery Dennison M_use Notes by Amy White

1. Avery Dennison is concerned about the urgent threat that irresponsible waste, especially plastic waste, poses to the health of the planet. So across our company, we’re helping to build a circular economy – one that eliminates waste and keeps existing materials in use. 

2. We are increasing the amount of recycled content we use in our products; improving the recyclability of consumer goods, by working closely within our value chain to consider the full recyclability of packaging; and building a global system for recycling used labeling materials (be they from biodegradable or non- biodegradable plastics).

3. Our ClearIntent™ products include product labels made with paper certified by the Forest Stewardship Council®, label adhesives that make PET plastic bottles recyclable and labels made from renewable resources and manufactured in factories that meet the industry’s most stringent standards for worker safety and health, and more. To read more about the portfolio, please click here.

4. We believe that technology also provides sustainable advantages – as an example – by offering much greater visibility into inventories, intelligent labels enable companies to avoid overproduction and reduce waste. In the food segment, specifically, they allow producers and retailers to avoid spoilage and sell more product by its expiration date – also reducing waste. Intelligent labels can provide detailed information on where a product comes from and how it was made. And they can inform the owner of a product about how to best recycle the item at the end of its useful life.

5. As part of our ongoing research and development, Avery Dennison continues to be connected in the larger ecosystem and is exploring all options for the future, including future plastics and chemical recycling. We are always looking to collaborate with others who are trying to build a more sustainable future so if you have ideas, feedback or wish to get in touch please click here


The Future Laboratory
is a world-leading strategic foresight consultancy specializing in trends intelligence, strategic research, and innovation strategy. They make businesses fit for the future by empowering clients to make the right decisions, mitigate risk, and reduce uncertainty. The Future Laboratory is interested in the bigger picture, connecting the dots between culture shifts and design movements, and exploring the intersections between technology, politics, and consumer mindset.

Amy White is the global vice president of brand and communications at Avery Dennison. She has spent 20 years working in the labelling and packaging industry—working in several leadership roles, including product innovation, sustainability, and marketing, and working with many leading, global apparel, footwear, and consumer goods brands. In her role at Avery Dennison, Amy is responsible for the strategy and management of brand experience, digital communication, content strategy, media relations, and employee engagement.


Content and imagery on M_use are proprietary and subject to copyright protection; they may not be reproduced without prior express permission from Avery Dennison.