Guest blog post and graphic by Allison Stewart of our Better Paper Project.
I was at a Sustainability in Packaging conference earlier this spring, and it hit home for me that we need better product and packaging development. If we develop products that have no further opportunity for re-use, then we are intentionally making unsustainable products and packages. If we support a circular-based economy – in which products are designed, produced,distributed, collected, sorted, and returned to be recycled and reincorporated into new products – then we can’t continue choosing lightweight but unrecyclable packages (see example below). These lightweight packages sound like great design innovation, but they are ultimately increasing the amount of unrecyclable waste in our landfills.
We are delivering more and more products in disposable, one-time-use, plastic containers and pouches. This trend is a result of lightweighting our packaging to decrease the volume and increase the fill-capacity of packaging. The process of lighweighting is one of the most effective ways to decrease the amount of plastic that is used for packaging.
Lightweighting is seen by most sustainability representatives of companies as the best way to economically invest in sustainability, and most would probably agree to that logic. Lightweighting can increase the amount of packaging that can be produced with the same material, it lowers shipping costs per item, decreases the volume (per item) of packaging going into our landfills, and thus is seen to have a lower environmental impact. The fundamental flaw, however, is that these pouches and containers – regardless of using less resources than previously – are not designed to be recycled or recovered.
I first heard of the idea “Light Weight, Heavy Impact” from McKinsey & Company’s report about the impact of lightweight materials across industries The variety of flexible and hard plastics, aluminum, and other materials used to create lightweight packages make it impossible to recover. These packages are literally "designed for the dump."
Waste & recycling facilities, municipalities, and consumers are all wrestling with the new challenge of determining what packages can be recycled. For the past decade, most of our waste has been sent to China where Chinese recycling plants have made a lot of money reprocessing our trash and selling the raw materials. Last year they enacted a policy called the "Green Fence," rejecting shipments of over-contaminated recyclables that don't pass inspection. As a result of these demurrage charges and subsequently higher shipping costs, many waste and recycling facilities are looking for alternative solutions. The US now ships to India and other countries that accept it, though this isn't a sustainable or long-term solution.
As companies continue to designing products and packages without considering the environmental fate, more packaging moves to hard-to-recover, lightweight materials that are designed for the dump. We need to consider the end-of-life of our products from the beginning, and design products with environmental intention. A system built on the idea of Cradle-to-Cradle design would set standards for developing non-toxic, sustainable materials and facilities that design products that can be later reutilized in new products. Biodegradable and compostable packaging will likely play an increasingly important role in a transition to zero-waste.
One strategy frequently discussed for building sustainability into our packaging system is Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). “EPR is typically understood to involve a shift in responsibility (administratively, financially or physically) from governments or municipalities to producers as well as an encouragement of producers to take environmental considerations into account during the design and manufacture phases of product development.” (Source: Sustainable Management of Resources. Accessed March 12, 2014 via web: http://epr.eu-smr.eu/introduction).
Many organizations are already working to encourage EPR in packaging legislative action, to bring corporate responsibility into the equation. Canada is leading with and Europe already lead by example.
Canada has years of experience implementing EPR at the national and provincial level utilizing a variety of approaches. There is no national EPR authorizing legislation in Canada; instead, each province or territory is able to implement or pass its own authorizing legislation and regulations. Nearly all provinces and territories have their own programs and authorizing legislation.
EPR is widely used in Europe as a means of preventing pollution and minimizing waste. The European Union (EU) possesses the authority to issue legislative acts known as directives and each member state must "transpose" or create its own laws, if necessary, in order to implement these directives. The EU has issued a number of directives aimed at increasing producer responsibility across Europe. (Examples: https://www.ec.gc.ca/gdd-mw/default.asp?lang=En&n=FB8E9973-1, http://www.eprcanada.ca/, http://www.europen-packaging.eu/policy.html ). And NRDC has awesome infographics that demonstrate how EPR can be an effective strategy in California and other parts of the US: http://www.nrdc.org/recycling/files/green-jobs-ca-recycling-info.pdf.
The Better Paper Project of Green America is participating and working with other non-profits and companies to find sustainable solutions to our packaging challenges here in the US. How we spend our dollars reflects our values, and we tend to overlook the packages that deliver our products. This impact, however, is adding up – and ending up as marine debris and in landfills, as opposed to being recollected for further use. Companies, distributors, consumers, municipalities and government are all involved, and must work together to effectively minimize the environmental footprint of our products and source materials. If you have questions or suggestions about the ways in which consumers can play a part, feel free to share in the comment section below.
Some ideas include: supporting various take-back programs, choosing certified products that are also packaged and produced with end-of-life in mind, encouraging legislative action, working on local zero-waste initiatives, education campaigns, etc.