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Netflix ‘Seaspiracy’ Doc Shifts Debate on Ocean Plastics

Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of packaging’s environmental impact, and they are using this knowledge to inform their purchasing decisions. One significant development is an evolving consumer understanding of sustainability, a term that has become too vague and can feed into suspicions of “greenwashing.” The general umbrella of “sustainable” is no longer enough. Terms such as PCR, PET, or HDPE, previously simplified and kept to the packaging’s fine print, are now taking center stage as shoppers seek knowledge. As they learn more about plastics, consumers’ views can quickly shift and escalate. The recent release of Seaspiracy on Netflix is a particularly resonant example of this dynamic in action, and it certainly won’t be the last. Creating significant buzz when it premiered in April, the documentary represents an interesting pivot point for brands, as it highlights how consumer understanding of plastic waste is developing.

Produced by British filmmaker Ali Tabrizi, Seaspiracy is a great reflection on how sustainability — specifically as regards plastics — is discussed. Packaging historically has been a scapegoat in media discussions, but there is clear movement in how consumers are responding to plastics.

The documentary begins with a general goal of uncovering the extent of plastic waste in the world’s oceans and its impact on the environment. The general public is inundated with messages about the microplastics, plastic waste, and marine litter crisis unfolding in our oceans. The initial premise of the film is to investigate this.

Plastic waste is a drop in the ocean, relatively speakingThrough the first half of the documentary, however, the team uncovers that discarded plastic waste in waterways is a drop in the ocean (no pun intended) when it comes to marine litter. Plastic straws are an initial focus. After determining that straws actually constitute a minute amount of waste, despite disproportionate media coverage, Seaspiracy soon shifts to an investigation of the impact of fishing nets and equipment. For the remainder of the runtime, the documentary concludes that overfishing, and the ecological impact of fishing as a whole, is a far more damaging issue facing marine life.

The big question for brands is, can Seaspiracy and similar media move these important sustainability discussions forward? The documentary initially takes a blanket view of plastics before shifting the conversation to a much more pressing sustainability challenge, which will feel like an eerily familiar story to many in the plastics and packaging sectors.

To be clear — no one in the industry is suggesting that microplastics, plastic waste, and marine litter are not a major issue. However, context-based prioritization is important.

The technology behind today’s plastic packaging supply chain, from substrate and manufacturing techniques to global logistics, has come a long way in a short space of time. Lightweight (low carbon), reusable, recycled, recyclable, biodegradable, and compostable materials are becoming more commonplace — the rule, rather than the exception — in packaging design.

Solutions that close the loop in plastic packaging are quickly developing, but the issue of fractured and inconsistent waste streams remains. Media such as Seaspiracy underline that plastic packaging isn’t necessarily the bogeyman it’s often made out to be, and consumers are wising up.

Industry must engage consumers in a fact-based, constructive dialogueSo, what’s next for brands in a cultural landscape that takes a more balanced and realistic view of plastic packaging? It’s all about building on the fresh conversations sparked by Seaspiracy and like-minded media offerings that provide consumers with factual, in-depth information that moves the dialogue forward.

The packaging supply chain is under the microscope, as consumers delve deeper into both the role of plastics in society and their own role in helping to drive a circular economy. Consumers are understanding that packaging, in and of itself, is not the key issue in global waste, but a symptom of a take-make-waste society. It’s important that we continue to make strides in developing more sustainable plastic packaging solutions — delivering all the inherent benefits plastics bring to the protection and preservation of goods — and communicating this to enlightened consumers without oversimplification.

Seaspiracy is reigniting consumer interest in sustainable packaging, particularly when it comes to recyclability. One of the most central ways to protect the oceans from plastic waste is with a robust circular economy that reprocesses packaging rather than sending it to landfill. The UK, in particular, struggles with a fragmented recovery and recycling system that’s not equipped to deal with the majority of plastics currently in use, which is growing in consumer consciousness.

Unwrapping the commercial value of sustainable packagingSustainable flexible packaging can be a springboard for real change. Consumers want action and physical things they can do to protect the environment with their purchasing decisions. Recycling is one of the most direct ways to achieve this, which is where lightweight monopolymers shine in pack design.

To make sustainability simpler and more value-adding than ever, alongside bespoke packaging, Eco Flexibles has designed a range of “off the shelf” fully recyclable pack designs for lidding films, top web skin films, VFFS, and HFFS film-on-a-reel packaging and pouches. The aim of Eco Flexibles is to take away many of the typical roadblocks and pain points that brands experience when switching to more sustainable packaging, such as time and resource demands, with the long-term goal of creating a strong circular economy in packaging. Many brands are still seeing sustainability as an obligation rather than a true commercial benefit, and we want to change this dichotomy by creating a fundamentally better sustainable packaging supply stream. 

With an engaged audience that proactively wants to learn more about plastic packaging sustainability, we’re sitting ahead of tremendous opportunity that could change the image of packaging for good — and create a stronger and more robust industry moving forward.

About the author

Simon Buswell is Director at .

Publication date: 23/09/2021

Plastics Today

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2020-07-14