Why Recyclable Packaging is Less Sustainable Than You Think

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Do you ever open up a package you’ve been waiting for, and then die a little inside when you see how much plastic packaging the company used? Or are you that company? Personally, there is nothing more annoying than tearing open a package and seeing unnecessary plastic waste. But unfortunately, plastic is a part of almost every item we buy, from online delivery to grocery shopping. In fact, packaging has become such an integral part of commerce that about 40% of all plastic produced globally is just for packaging materials (Plastic Oceans). Packaging does play an important role in keeping products undamaged and transportable, but it can also have negative impacts. This is especially true if the packaging is made of plastic, even if that plastic is recyclable.

In 2018, packaging and container waste made up just under 30% of all generated waste in the US. That’s  82.2 million tons of waste in the US alone, just for containers and packaging! And about 5% of this waste comes from plastic packaging like cartons, bottles, bags, and films (EPA). That’s the same weight as 39 Empire State Buildings. And this is just looking at the US! Globally it is even higher, but the US is a major contributor.

There is so much waste in the Pacific ocean that there is an area known as the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, pictured below. It is composed mostly of microplastics. Microplastics occur when plastics break down into smaller particles. Tiny microplastics get absorbed by organisms like plankton, which sends a ripple effect through the food chain. In addition to plastics entering at the bottom of the food chain, larger microplastics also get consumed by fish, sea birds, and humans. This negatively affects the health of sea ecosystems as well as humans who rely on them for food and/or job security. For more details on this, check out National Geographic’s encyclopedic entry: Great Pacific Garbage Patch. As plastic production continues to increase, more negative impacts are expected. Even if the plastic being produced is recyclable, it could still end up contributing to this waste problem.

Note this is only one example of a negative downstream impact of plastic. There are many more examples both up and down the supply chain.

Photo by NOAA from National Geographic’s Encyclopedic Entry: Great Pacific Garbage Patch

There is a multitude of reasons why recyclable packaging will never actually be reused into another product. A big reason is that not all consumers have access to recycling. According to the Recycling Partnership’s 2020 State of Curbside Recycling Report, only half of Americans have access to curbside recycling programs. While there are other options for recycling, they are much less convenient. Some may have access to community recycling drop-off centers, or they might have to pay extra for a 3rd party service. As a company, it is important to understand these statistics and realize the high likelihood of consumers not having access to basic curbside recycling. But this is just talking about accessibility. Of those who have access, 72% participate in curbside recycling. And even people who participate do not always participate perfectly. It’s estimated that curbside recycling only captures about 32% of available recyclables in American family homes (Recycling Partnership Curbside Report).

Even though end consumers are left with the job of recycling, the packaging was created and shipped by a company. Companies have a responsibility to choose sustainable materials and instruct consumers on how to properly dispose of the product. Packaging, product use, and disposal are all a part of a company’s Scope 3 emissions and overall impact. With access to and participation in recycling programs being low, companies who use plastic packaging have to expect that the majority of consumers will not recycle it.

While I think the best solution is to remove as much plastic from packaging as possible, there are many steps and small changes that could be made to improve. Consumers can support by choosing companies that use sustainable packaging and by shopping with reusable bags. If you’re that company that’s using way too much plastic packaging there are strategies you can take and alternatives that can decrease the negative impact packaging is having. Wait for my next blog to find out strategies on improving your packaging as well as how to conduct a packaging audit.






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