Thursday, 18 July 2024

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Packaging Waste

Packaging is an essential part of almost every industry. When you consider the different industries and the products they provide to consumers, it is apparent that different companies utilize packaging for every single product they have. Packaging comes in all shapes, sizes, and colors and is made of a wide variety of materials such as plastic, glass, and paper. Packaging can be the box that holds your cereal, the plastic wrap around the pack of paper you just bought, the aluminum foil around your burger, or even the glass or plastic bottle that holds your drink. Every time a consumer buys a product from a company, the product comes to them in a package of some sort, whether the consumer realizes it or not. The question is, what happens to all that packaging? For the most part, packaging can result in a tremendous amount of waste, but there are multiple things that companies can do and are doing to minimize the waste that comes from packaging.

First, it is important to look at how much waste is created from packaging. According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency, or EPA for short, it was found that “Containers and packaging make up a major portion of municipal solid waste (MSW), amounting to 80.1 million tons of generation in 2017 (29.9 percent of total generation)”. To put it simply, that is a lot of waste. Not only that, but that number only encompasses the amount of waste in the United States, it does not include the waste created from other nations. To make matters worse, an enormous amount of this waste that does not end up in landfills actually litters our oceans and our planet, which can be a huge problem. According to Plastic Pollution, it was found that “every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic end up in our oceans” (par. 5), which is a considerable amount. A dreadful amount of this plastic is a result of packaging that comes from things like plastic bottles and containers.

The problem that arises from packaging waste goes beyond the fact that there is so much waste and that the waste can end up littering the environment. The issue is not the packaging itself, but the handling of the packaging once it serves its purpose. A good portion of packaging is made of recyclable or biodegradable material. There is a principle of packaging that is known as the “Four Rs of Sustainability.” These four Rs include reduce, reuse, recycle, and recovery, all of which are intended to promote the sustainability of a product’s packaging in hopes of causing less damage to the environment. Unfortunately, even though a lot of this waste can be recycled, they are not. According to a study conducted by the EPA, “In 2017, the recycling rate of generated packaging and containers was 50.1 percent.” This seems like a sizable percentage, but it is not good enough because there is still an ample amount of packaging waste that can be recycled but is not. Below is a chart from that showcases the material of the packaging waste, how much waste the material generated, and how much was recovered. According to the chart, it can be seen that glass and paper have the highest recovery rates, while materials such as plastic, which take a considerable amount of time to biodegrade and can be more damaging to the environment, have lower recovery rates.

There are different things that can be done to minimize the amount of waste that ends in landfills and the environment and increase the amount of the waste that is recovered for processes such as recycling. There are two different systems that people tend to follow when it comes to material usage and waste management. One system is known as “cradle-to-grave.” This approach involves designing a product, taking, and using the resources needed to create the product, manufacturing the product, transporting it, using it, and disposal of the product. This approach is an open-loop approach and problems can arise because it is unsustainable and does not provide the most adequate use of resources. A better approach of waste management would be the “cradle-to-cradle” approach, which is a closed-loop approach. This approach allows for products to be reused or recycled rather than disposed of. It considers how materials can be used and repurposed to promote a more sustainable industry of packaging.

There are different things that companies can adopt to minimize the amount of waste that is caused by their products’ packaging. As mentioned earlier, the best thing companies can do to minimize waste is to create packaging out of materials that are recyclable or reusable. Materials such as cardboard, paper, glass, and plastic are all recyclable and reusable. Using cardboard allows for people to use it for something else such as storing other products. Similarly, people can reuse and repurpose glass containers. People can use a glass container as a cup or to store other things. Another thing that companies can do to minimize waste is use minimal packaging. A lot of the items that go into packaging serve no purpose other than making the package more appealing to the eyes. Companies can adopt the idea of using a packaging design that does not require excess or large amounts of packaging material. Adopting this method of minimal packaging not only helps reduce material usage, which helps reduce material waste, but it also can benefit the company by resulting in reduced product costs.

Sometimes cutting out materials used in packaging is not an option for some companies. Some companies may use a lot of packaging to protect their products from breaking or from different conditions that can cause damage to the product. Although some companies may not be able to minimize the material usage, this does not mean that there are not any other options that they can choose that can help them reduce their waste. Another thing that companies can do to minimize waste is to use sustainable raw materials. Sustainable raw material is material that comes from natural, renewable resources such as trees and plants. Companies can use things such as biodegradable packing peanuts rather than the traditional styrofoam packing peanuts that take years to biodegrade. Companies can replace bubble wrap, which is made from plastic and not the most eco-friendly material, with corrugated bubble wrap. This type of wrap is made from corrugated cardboard, which not only biodegrades faster, but is made from recycled material. Companies can utilize eco-friendly plastics and recycled plastics or use organic fabrics rather than plastic bags. There is a wide range of things that companies can do to minimize the waste and create more sustainable packaging for their products.

Taking steps towards more sustainable and eco-friendly packaging is not something that is far-fetched or impossible to achieve. There are many companies who have taken this approach to a more sustainable packaging design. Big companies and small companies alike have been taking steps to improving the way they approach packaging. ASOS, a retail company, has moved towards using plastic bags that are made from recycled materials. By doing this, they were able to produce 60% less greenhouse gas emissions. Not only that, but according to Take It Personel-ly, “By recycling, rather than manufacturing plastic from scratch, ASOS have managed to reduce virgin plastic usage by 160 tonnes annually. Already, ASOS have started to become more sustainable, but their long-term goal is to send zero waste to landfills.” Other companies, such as Calvin Klein, aims to make their packaging 100% sustainable and use materials that are recyclable. Kellogg’s, which is known for their cereal, uses recycled material for their cereal boxes that can be recycled again. Lush, which is a cosmetics brand, uses sustainable and recycled material for almost all their products. They have come up with innovative ways to provide their products with the most eco-friendly packaging. Not only that, but they also provide products with minimal to no packaging. These companies along with others have proved that it is possible to have sustainable packaging that can benefit the environment and still protect the product.

Taking steps to minimize waste caused by packaging is not only important for the current generation, but for the future ones as well. The United Nations’ Brundtland Commission gave the following definition of sustainability in 1987: “Meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” By creating industries that promote sustainability and by doing as much as we can to minimize waste, we are not only considering ourselves and creating a better world for ourselves, but also for the future generations to come.


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