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More Packaging, More Problems

There are roughly 50 billion PET bottles produced and consumed each year in the US. Over 70% of these will land in a dump, on a roadside, in a waterway, or somewhere else they do not belong. While single stream recycling has been established in many communities around the  US, only about 40% of the population has consistent access to recycling.

Packaging makes purchasing goods easy and convenient. But its long lasting impacts on the environment and human health can’t be ignored.

Millions of new products hit the shelves every year. The advent of new packaging technologies has made consumption easy and streamlined. It extends the useful life of food, prevents damage to products, and reduces health and safety risks in transit.

  • While packaging has created benefits and made convenience a cornerstone of modern life, the proliferation of packaging brings forth new challenges.
  • Consumers are facing health and safety implications associated with packaging buildup in the environment, and specific chemicals used in packaging.
  • Terrestrial and aquatic environments are being inundated with packaging waste such as microplastics, styrofoam, and coated food wrappers. These materials make their way into our waterways and soil, wreaking havoc on living organisms.
  • Retailers and manufacturers are receiving pressure from consumers and stakeholders to produce and use more sustainable packaging. 
  • Plus, the regulatory floodgates are beginning to open, and companies must comply with a plethora of new laws and regulations related to tracking packaging quantities, reporting, and offering safer and more environmentally friendly packaging alternatives.

Packaging is clearly a complex and nuanced topic with far reaching effects on the environment, human health, and everyday life for consumers. To gain a better understanding of the challenges and opportunities, we sat down with an independent packaging expert, Dr. Michael Washburn, for an in depth Q&A session.

What are some common misconceptions around packaging and its environmental impact? 

People often associate packaging with waste, and this is fair, but it is incomplete.  The right packaging can prevent damage to a product, extend the useful life of food, and reduce health and safety risks in transit.  Keeping food fresh and reducing food waste is a major plus from a climate standpoint, as the emissions from food waste can dwarf the footprint of the packaging itself.  So, keeping the role packaging can play in context is key to understanding its real impact.  While we need to address what happens to packaging after its use, we should also acknowledge that choosing the right packaging can have these other benefits. 

What are some shocking statistics about plastic packaging?

Over 10 million tons of plastic enter waterways and oceans annually and that number is only increasing.  While recycling will help, we need to:

  • Improve solid waste management around the world
  • Reduce source inputs of unnecessary plastic
  • Find alternatives to applications where plastic may not be the best or only answer
  • Help consumers and policy makers understand that continued pollution from plastic represents a human health and ecosystem crisis.  

Micro-plastics have now been found, in one study, in the lungs of living people. It has previously been found at the bottom of the ocean. I think reasonable people can agree that we are not okay with plastic being in either place.

What toxic chemicals exist in common packaging that most consumers come into contact with on a day-to-day basis?

The most common toxins in packaging are the chemicals that make up things like moisture barriers. PFAS, also known as “forever chemicals”, are of great concern. While it is unknown exactly how they affect human health when properly applied on food packaging, they are a threat to health when that packaging breaks down and they are released into the environment.  They are also used in non-packaging applications as fire retardant and in other applications which is how they typically make their way into the environment. State and the federal governments are considering banning these and their use is already highly regulated. 

Additionally, chemicals including heavy metals like mercury, chromium, cadmium and lead have been found in packaging. Again, while they may be stable in their respective applications, they can be released into the environment and their concentrations can be increased when the materials go through typical recycling systems. Addressing these issues has become a key element of new packaging regulations including extended producer responsibility policies and in some cases standalone legislation.

 What are some exciting alternatives to plastic packaging that you are seeing today? 

Paper, metal and glass are all still in play in the packaging market, and some companies are moving away from plastics toward these options in certain applications.  Innovation is bringing forward biodegradable, compostable, and also reusable options to reduce waste.  However, some biodegradable or compostable options can contaminate recycling streams, so substitution can create a new challenge.  As this evolves, new sorting technology including on-package identifiers are racing to catch up.  This is a place where Smarter Sorting’s packaging solution can add value, as it enables tracking of how much substitution is happening, and we will ultimately tie that back to recycling rates and recyclability claims. 

Why is Smarter Sorting part of the solution to tackle the greater packaging problem?

Before a company, either a retailer or a supplier, can reduce their packaging or change the packaging they use, they first need to know what is being used and how much. Smarter Sorting’s solutions for packaging gives companies the tools they need to accurately measure and document what is there now.  Once those baselines are set, companies can identify areas where they want to reduce and/or change material types, container types, shapes, and quantities. Decision-support in this space, along with reliable measurements adds value in the context of meeting sustainability claims, reporting on progress in ESG content, and ultimately complying with EPR and other requirements that hold companies accountable for meeting certain goals. This can include reduction of chemicals of concern, inclusion of post-consumer recycled content, phasing out of certain materials, and compliance with EPR reporting.

 

Smarter packaging for a better world

As regulations mature and consumer demand shifts towards upholding greater sustainable behaviors, packaging will continue to evolve. 

We’ve already seen Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) legislation recently enacted in a handful of states. This type of legislation is key for gaining baseline values of packaging use and disposal, and ensuring producers provide funding and/or services to properly manage covered materials.

Once we establish baseline data and ensure waste management solutions are adequately funded, we can prioritize challenges and begin innovating in constructive ways. For example - extending the life of existing packaging, reducing amounts of input materials, replacing hazardous or unsustainable packaging with “greener” options, and developing our infrastructure for properly handling and treating end-of-life packaging.

Smarter Sorting is using product intelligence to help retailers and suppliers make better decisions for consumer products and packaging. The tools are specifically designed to help organizations track packaging materials in their supply chain and comply with emerging EPR regulations. 

With these insights, organizations can be confident that they are in compliance with applicable regulations. Most importantly, they can make sustainable decisions that have a ripple effect on people and the planet. Smarter packaging, better world.