Plastic pollution is a big concern nowadays. Not only does it break down into tiny pieces that litter our cities and end up in our food and water, but it’s also one of the most energy-intensive materials to produce. And as we start to reckon with our impact on the overall health of the planet, we have to think about how we can change habits like our addiction to disposable plastics.
A recent NPR feature pointed out that popular plastic alternatives like paper, canvas, and glass have worrisome carbon footprints of their own. The piece almost sounds like a public relations campaign for plastic companies, in fact, suggesting that plastics are commonly used to replace things that would do even more damage to the climate, so we might as well just find a way to live with it.
Of course, that analysis was completed by the American Chemistry Council, which isn’t exactly a neutral third party in the matter. It leaves out all sorts of possible alternatives with the potential for much lower environmental impacts all around, from production to the end of their lives.
Here’s one particularly cool example: liquid toiletries that are contained not by plastic or glass, but by solid soap. A designer and post-graduate student at Central Sant Martins Mi Zhou came up with this clever idea, reexamining the usefulness of packaging and what we should expect from it.
Developed for the Materials Future program and exhibited in the school’s degree show between June 19th and 23rd, 2019, “Soapack” is solid enough to safely house liquid contents like shampoo, hand soap, and body wash, looking a bit firmer than typical soap. While the designer doesn’t specify the exact shelf life of this material or whether it’s made from anything more complex than standard solid soap, it seems substantial enough to do the job it was meant to do and then some.
The resulting products also offer two-for-one functionality, allowing you to use the bottles like bars of soap when the liquid is gone. Plus, the packages are just plain beautiful, resembling vintage faceted glass perfume bottles. If there’s one caveat to the idea, it’s the potential for higher pricing, but soap doesn’t necessarily cost much more to produce than common packaging materials anyways.
The brilliance of this eco-friendly packaging concept lies not only in its extra value to the end user, but also in the fact that there’s ultimately nothing to dispose of. There’s not even anything the consumer needs to reuse or recycle, which is ultimately what we should be aiming for as much as possible. To that end, it calls to mind innovations like edible packaging made of seaweed or sugar, which could help eradicate the need for a lot of single-use plastics as well as cardboard and glass.
It’s true that traditional materials like paper and canvas aren’t necessarily better for the environment than plastic, especially if we’re producing far too much of them in the first place and failing to properly reclaim them when their usefulness to the consumer has ended. But all manner of fascinating materials are currently in various stages of development, including “liquid wood,” algae-based water bottles, and a number of mushroom-based concepts.
These breakthroughs tell us that plastic is no longer the material of the future, but rather something we should leave in the past and move beyond.