When we unwrap a birthday present, open a box of cereal, crack the pop top of a can of soda, or unravel a fresh cut of meat, we interact with different forms of packaging. Some of those may be single-use packaging, while others can be reused dozens of times. Of those single-use items, some can be recycled, some can be composted, and some need to go straight to the trash. Despite these differences, all types of packaging have some environmental impact.
Companies and consumers alike are highly tuned into the sustainability emphasis that marks this generation, and they are doing their part to decrease their environmental impact. For consumers, this often means focusing on the three “Rs” of sustainability: reduce, reuse, and recycle. Meanwhile, companies may be involved in reducing waste by means of swapping out old materials for eco-friendly ones or using different shapes to redesign their single-use materials. All this boils down to an effort to create more sustainable packaging.
Sustainable packaging sounds like a good thing, right?
The short answer is: yes and no. While making efforts to change materials and product design can have a positive impact on the environment, all packaging in general has the potential to negate those effects to some degree. This is due simply to the inherent nature of packaging—specifically, that it is considered waste after the product it contained is consumed.
Recyclables, eco-design packaging, and “smart” packaging are all designed with the environment in mind, but they do have faults, just as many innovations do. This doesn’t mean companies are going to switch back to glass and aluminum instead of plastics—oftentimes, that’s not feasible for the production volume of some products. But it does mean there’s a bit more learning required on our part as the consumer. Knowing how to dispose of these products—whether that be by recycling, compost, or trash—is essential to being a smart, sustainability minded consumer. Another piece of this challenge is knowing what is available in your specific area with regard to waste removal. For example, some cities offer curbside composting, but in other places consumers may need to start their own backyard compost to have the same impact.
Recyclables are probably the most familiar and widespread form of sustainable packaging. Paper, plastic, metal, and glass are among the most common recyclable items. They are used once, brought to a recycling facility, and remade into new items, whether that be another soda bottle or an article of clothing. As of 2017, the majority of U.S. residents have access to a recycling program, but recycling rates aren’t nearly as high as they should or could be. While we interact with recyclable materials frequently, it can be confusing discerning what is indeed recyclable. Even though something has the recycle symbol on it, does that mean it will be recycled? This, too, may depend on your area. Certain municipalities can handle only some kinds of recyclable materials, which are designated by the identification number that’s found near the recycle symbol on the packaging. While we as consumers can do our part by increasing the amount we recycle, knowing what and how to recycle appropriately is also essential. Contamination can occur if non-recyclables are included in the same bag or bin as recyclables, or if products remain unwashed with food residue remaining.
Some companies have redesigned their products to use less plastic while still maintaining the integrity of the original product. This process is called lightweighting, and it involves reducing the amount of material needed for the packaging while maintaining its original strength and capacity. That’s why you may see fewer water bottles with perfectly straight sides and more with some curvature. This design holds the same amount of water but uses less plastic.
Another form of eco-packaging is the use of materials such as bioplastics or other biodegradable materials, which are often made from organic sources such as corn or vegetable oils. These materials often take less time to degrade when thrown away, thus releasing fewer greenhouse gases. As a bonus, in some areas, these materials may be eligible for composting programs. However, there are concerns about some biodegradable materials mixing with recyclable materials. If the biodegradable materials are not recyclable when mixed with conventional packaging, the recycling stream can be negatively impacted.
A new innovation in packaging are adaptable, “smart” materials, which can have both a positive and negative environmental impact. The primary purpose of this packaging is for perishable food items. By means of chemicals or biosensors, smart packaging can detect qualities like freshness, temperature, moisture, and carbon dioxide and oxygen levels. By maintaining an optimal environment within the packaging, food stays fresher longer in an attempt to increase shelf life and reduce food waste. A major issue with this type of packaging is the excess non-recyclable materials that may be necessary for this level of monitoring. However, a team in Europe is trying to design smart food packaging that can reduce both food waste and packaging waste by making adaptive materials that are also biodegradable. In conjunction with other types of eco-friendly packaging, smart packaging can have a positive impact on reducing overall waste.
When faced with options…
Always choose the first “R” of sustainability—reduce—as that has the highest impact on the environment. This may mean using a reusable coffee cup at your favorite coffee shop or bringing your own glass or plastic containers from home to carry leftovers when you go out to eat. When this isn’t an option, reusing plastic containers from takeaway meals and recycling or composting where available are also helpful tools for reducing strain on the environment.
This article was written by Courtney Schupp, MS, RD