Did you know that food, packaging, and containers account for nearly 45 percent of the materials landfilled in the United States according to EPA. The food wasted in the United States is enough to fill the Rose Bowl Stadium every day. These numbers are astonishing for a world that’s already on the verge of a climate crisis. We require a shift in the consumer packaging industry for a zero-waste future now more than ever.
A report by McKinsey & Company revealed that sustainability is becoming a priority in the packaging value chain. Even though the COVID-19 pandemic changed the consumer perspective, and concerns about food hygiene and safety took the front seat, sustainable products and packaging are still an important issue for many.
In this article, we will discuss why reducing waste is important in the consumer packaging industry, how to reduce and eliminate packaging waste, and how companies and countries around the world are advancing sustainability in packaging by shifting to recyclable and compostable alternatives.
Why Reducing Waste is Important in the Consumer Packaging Industry
The most important reason for reducing packaging waste is that it is bad for the environment. In the United States, containers and packaging alone contribute to more than 23 percent of materials in landfills. Eliminating packaging or shifting to reusable or compostable packaging alternatives will reduce greenhouse gas emissions, conserve energy, and be better for the planet.
In addition, most of the litter on beaches and in waterways is packaging (mainly food packaging and containers). Fish, birds, and other aquatic creatures are often harmed by ingesting packaging and other such debris. Scientists have found large amounts of microplastic in the guts of deep-dwelling ocean mammals like whales. This debris can also cause navigation hazards for boats and losses to the fishing, shipping, and tourism industries.
Lastly, as people understand the implications of packaging waste, they’re opting more for sustainable packaging. In particular, younger consumers are ready to pay higher prices for products in sustainable packaging. A report by Trivium Packaging shows that it’s important for 67 percent of consumers to buy products that come in recyclable packaging. These shifts in the minds of consumers are ultimately driving substantial change in the industry.
How to Reduce (and Eliminate) Waste in the Consumer Packaging Industry
Reducing and ultimately eliminating packaging waste is a massive challenge. It’s also something that cannot be avoided further. The current system we have in place is not equipped to handle different types of waste, and although hard plastic can be recycled, food-grade packaging is another story. Even where there is infrastructure in place, it differs from place to place.
The most effective method for packaging waste prevention is by source reduction, where you prevent unneeded materials from ever being created. Not only does it help save money but you also save purchasing, handling, transport, and disposal costs. To reduce packaging waste from the source, start by purchasing only what you need to avoid excess waste.
Try reusing items that you cannot avoid purchasing. The first step is to stop using disposable or single-use materials. For example, instead of serving food or beverages in a disposable plate or cup, try switching to one that can be reused. Companies should also encourage people to bring their own utensils or start offering refills instead of packed bottles. A report by the EPA shows that the “bring your own” container program can be beneficial financially for both businesses and consumers in the long run. If a business spends 15 cents on each disposable package item, then offering a discount of 10 cents can encourage consumers to “bring their own” containers and save the business money. If only three customers per hour bring their own containers, stores can reduce their solid waste by 378 lbs and save $657 annually.
Another interesting initiative taken toward a zero-waste future is zero-waste stores. Designed to encourage conscious consumerism, these stores stock bulk products in large containers or jars instead of disposable packaging. Consumers are encouraged to bring their own containers or bags, or use the reusable, recyclable and compostable packaging options provided by the store.
Use recyclable or compostable packaging. For example, Nestle has switched to paper straws from plastic straws. Alternatively, companies can opt for cardboard or paper bags over plastic bags.
Companies Moving Toward More Sustainable Packaging
Amidst the global climate crisis, many big food companies are making changes to the way they operate. Here is how companies like Mars, Kellogg’s, and Starbucks are shifting toward sustainability in packaging:
“For Mars, packaging waste doesn’t align with our vision for a world where the planet is healthy. There is no sustainable product without sustainable packaging. We’re taking action to support the circular economy through investments and innovation, working toward a world where packaging material never becomes waste, but is reused, recycled or composted.” — Mars
“In support of the company’s goal to reduce waste sent to landfill from stores and direct operations, Starbucks is shifting away from single-use plastics, promoting reusability and championing the use of recycled content, driven by a broader shift towards a circular economy. ” — Starbucks
“Kellogg has one of the smallest plastic packaging footprints among peer food companies and 76% of our packaging is recyclable globally. Most of our other packaging uses either recycled-content paperboard cartons or corrugated cardboard. We also use composite cans, and for our bars and convenience foods, we use flexible plastic packaging. We are aggressively driving cutting-edge innovation, looking at how packaging can protect and enhance our foods and have an even smaller environmental impact.” — Kellogg’s
The Global Shift in Consumer Packaging
To address the consumer packaging waste issue, many countries and regions are taking significant steps like introducing regulations to drive sustainability. In the United States, 16 of the 50 states have statewide regulations around packaging waste. These regulations tend to target single-use plastics like cups and shopping bags and aim to increase the overall recycling rates.
In sustainability, Europe has progressed further than most other regions. Under the New EU Directive for Single-use Plastics, measures were announced to reduce leakage of certain single-use plastics products that were consistently found on European beaches. Some countries like the UK, Germany, and France are taking things a step further with Extended Producer Responsibilities (EPR). They’re aiming for more aggressive recycling targets and charging fees for using non-recyclable packaging.
Asian countries like Thailand, India, and Cina are also introducing regulations. Thailand announced a nationwide ban on single-use plastic bags, which aligns with its vision to reduce plastic use to 100 percent recyclable plastic by 2027. India has imposed a ban on single-use plastic, and China has also approved legislation to ban or reduce single-use plastics, while banning the import of plastic waste.
Packaging waste is a problem that threatens the air, waters, and overall health of our planet. It does not align with the vision of a zero-waste future and requires an immediate solution. A commitment to reusable, recyclable, or compostable packaging will reduce landfills by as much as 23% and the solid waste stream by 39 million tons per year. It’s vital that we work together to reduce packaging waste to ensure a better and healthier tomorrow.