The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 7

Last updated on August 23, 2021.

Bell pepper and green beans in convenient plastic packaging
These food items do not require this much packaging. Photo by me

In my last article, I introduced take-back programs. Today we will continue that topic and look at programs that are a bit more successful, meaning that the rate of recycling is high.

Snack bag found on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

“Plastic packaging for food makes up the majority of municipal waste in America.” -A Plastic Ocean

TerraCycle programs

I love TerraCycle’s entire concept of making new things from waste, and I think its mission of recycling everything and eliminating waste is brilliant. Many companies sponsor take-back programs through TerraCycle at no cost to the consumer.1 These are awesome for waste streams in which there is no recycling option. There’s one for instrument strings, pens and writing tools  (which has a waiting list), and Brita filters. I participate in Bausch + Lomb’s free program to recycle contact lenses and their blister packs (and they accept all brands, not just Bausch + Lomb).2 This particular program has drop-off sites all over the place, usually at eye care offices. I love this one because I have to wear contact lenses for vision correction.

Though these programs encourage recycling and keep waste from littering the environment, they actually discourage companies from exploring new packaging options. A company can sponsor a recycling stream, such as waste from applesauce packets, juice pouches, snack bags, cosmetic and personal care items, and pay TerraCycle to recycle the items. In this way, the companies can take a passive approach and not have to deal with the problem directly. It gives consumers the impression that those companies are taking sustainable actions, but it really makes waste the consumer’s problem. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean, save, and ship the items; and even if the program is free, not everyone can or will voluntarily do it. These programs are a band-aid for the gushing wound of pollution.

“These programs are often funded by consumer product brands and are usually just a mechanism for the company to claim their non-recyclable products are recyclable.” -Jennie Romer, attorney and sustainability expert3

Again, I love what TerraCycle is doing! But I think it gives companies a reason to not be more active in their sustainability efforts. I think it’s a way for companies to take a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach but not have to do much more than cover the minor costs. TerraCycle should be used for things people cannot avoid using, such as Brita filters, contact lenses, laundry detergent waste, shoes, and school supplies. But there are alternatives for things like snack bags, applesauce pouches, and coffee pods. Consumers should seek alternatives for those rather than trying to recycle them.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Glass Bottle Exchange

Homestead Creamery returnable milk bottles
This type of milk bottle used to be commonplace. Photo from Homestead Creamery

Historically, the bottled beverage industry used take-back programs during the twentieth century. This system of using returnable glass bottles for milk and soft drinks was better than recycling because it was truly a circular economy system. It is also the most sustainable type of container deposit program. Bottles were washed and refilled as many as 20-50 times. While a few companies use this system today through a deposit program, like Homestead Creamery (sold at some Kroger’s grocery stores), this system of glass bottle exchange has largely disappeared in the United States. However, you can check Drink Milk In Glass Bottle’s website to see if there are any options in your region.4

Glass Coca-Cola bottles in red carry cases
Remember these? Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

Container Deposit Programs

A very successful type of take-back program is the container deposit program. While sometimes controversial, they reduce litter and environmental pollution and improve recycling rates. The consumer is charged a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents per bottle or can. When the consumer returns that item for recycling, they get their deposit money back. This can include glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. Some call this system a tax, but it is clearly a deposit – when you return the container you get your money back, unlike with taxes.

Soda can with container deposit information engraved.
Many cans and bottles feature container deposit information as shown here. Photo by me

Benefits

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system internationally.5 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:6

      • Dramatic reductions in litter and marine debris
      • Reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer containers that need to be made from virgin materials
      • Additional jobs in recycling
      • More high-quality scrap for manufacturers
      • Extra income for consumers, charities, and community groups

Here’s a great short video from CRI explaining the system:

These systems are not meant to replace curbside recycling, but to supplement them to increase overall recycling. Curbside recycling is still not available to 50% of the American population, and curbside doesn’t address away-from-home consumption. Even where it is available, recycling rates have gradually dropped. “This decline is due in part to the increase in consumption of beverages away from home, and in public places where there are few available collection outlets for recycling. The drop in the recycling rate is also due to the shift away from aluminum to PET, which has a lower recycling rate,” according to Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010).7

“Using only single-stream curbside recycling (blue bins) fails to achieve even half of the recycling rate of container deposit laws. While curbside programs should be part of the recycling equation, because 30 percent to 50 percent of beverage containers are consumed away from home, residential programs alone can’t possibly be expected to produce high recycling rates.” -Susan Collins, CRI President

Container Deposit Programs are Quantifiably Successful

The first US beverage container deposit laws were passed in the early 1970s in Oregon and Vermont. Currently, this program exists in 10 US states and Guam, and 30 other countries around the world. “States with container deposit laws capture beverage bottles for recycling at a significantly higher rate, and the quality of recycled materials (meaning the level of contamination) is superior to materials collected from curbside recycling programs.”8 The overall recycling rate for bottles and cans with a deposit is 59%, compared to only 22% for bottles and cans without a deposit. Clearly, this system works well. The graph below shows the rates:

Graph from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

The participating states are California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Oregon’s bottle capture rate is 81%. Sadly, there are no states in the southeast or states that border the Gulf of Mexico that participate. These are missed opportunities to protect our oceans and rivers.

Examples

Oregon’s BottleDrop Refillables program is a successful, circular loop between the program and craft breweries. Consumers pay a deposit and return the bottles to get the deposit back. Bottles are sorted, washed, inspected, and delivered back to Oregon’s craft beverage producers. According to their website, 598,755 bottles have been saved from being crushed and recycled.9 An example in Europe is Germany, where almost 46% of all drinks are sold in reusable bottles which are refilled 40-50 times before being sent for recycling.

Container Deposit Programs as Law

Legislation for this system is commonly referred to as “Bottle Bills.” A national bottle bill could be implemented as part of the recently proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. This would make the collection, redemption, and recycling of bottles and cans regulated and consistent and could increase the recycling rate to 80%!

“For the sake of our climate, our oceans and our future generations, we must do more to collect high-quality recyclable bottles and cans that can be used to produce new products. A national container deposit-refund law can make that happen.” -Susan Collins, CRI President10

Unfortunately, bottlers are usually against such bills because they do increase costs for them, though only slightly. Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania, wrote that every time a new Container Deposit bill is introduced or an expansion is proposed for an existing one, “Coke, Pepsi, and other bottlers hire lobbyists and run ad campaigns designed to stop them. And they usually do.” But the companies making so many single-use disposable containers need to step-up and be part of the solution.

Containers as Litter

I personally grew up in a container deposit state that also had curbside recycling, and never even thought to question it. It was just what we did (in addition to curbside recycling). Our family brought back bottles and cans to the grocery store each week, and we’d receive either the cash or a credit on our grocery total. I continued this practice into my adulthood. I didn’t see as much litter on the sides of the roads. In Tennessee, I feel like I see trash on every street, playground, and parking lot; much of the litter is from single-use beverage containers. According to CRI, beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.

Image of plastic container art dolphin shaped to represent percentages of plastic containers recycled.
See this and additional plastic art projects by clicking on the image. Photo from CRI

“There are many quantifiable but just as important benefits of increased container recycling: the cleaner roadways, the healthier waterways, the growth in local jobs and green businesses and the satisfaction that we are doing what’s right not only for the planet but for future generations.” –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)11

Solutions

Some companies use greenwashing and ‘sustainability’ to make consumers buy more. However, as long as packaging remains the responsibility of the consumer, we must consume less and buy more consciously. Companies must invest in better packaging and establish Extended Producer Responsibility programs. States must implement Container Deposit Programs to curb the impact of single-use disposable beverages. These systems reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Ultimately, though, ceasing the use of single-use disposable containers is one of the most impactful things we can do for the environment.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a link to the first post in this series in case you missed it. In my next post, I’ll explore companies that are already making recycling and reduction part of their mission.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

 

Additional Resource:

Publications, Data Archive, Container Recycling Institute, accessed February 28, 2021.

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 4

Last updated August 21, 2021.

Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. Bottles, fruit container, yogurt cup, plastic bags, etc. Photo by me
Plastic packaging waste from my household, February 2017. I started doing trash audits, inspired by Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com and I realized how much plastic, mostly in the form of packaging, that I had to start eliminating. Photo by me

In my first article about packaging, I told you about packaging history, current problems with packaging, and greenwashing. I wrote about the misconceptions surrounding the terms biodegradable and compostable in my second article. In my third article, we explored bioplastics. Today, we will look at some other practices companies sometimes use to reduce their carbon footprint.

Image of a footprint with "CO2" over a map of the world
Image by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay

Lightweighting

The demand for consumer goods is on the rise, especially with the population exponentially increasing. One way companies save money is to practice lightweighting, and sometimes it can reduce their environmental impact. However, this practice can also be harmful to the environment.

What is lightweighting? “A packaging trend wherein conventional packaging is replaced with a lighter-weight alternative and/or the overall amount of material used in packaging is reduced,” as defined in The Future of Packaging.1

Lighter weight items are cheaper to ship, saving companies money on fuel which also creates fewer emissions. But creating lighter packaging means replacing conventional packaging, such as glass, with lighter weight alternatives, like plastic. This has made plastic the preferred material and unfortunately, much of that plastic is not recycled.

Another lightweighting method is making the materials thinner. PET bottles and aluminum cans use about 30% less material than they did in the 1980s. Lush Cosmetics worked with their bottling manufacturer to make their bottles 10% thinner, and this saved nearly 13,500 pounds of plastic in 2016.

“Although lightweighting gains have been made for all containers as a result of these technological efficiencies, these gains are overshadowed by huge increases in per capita consumption and total beverage sales (especially for bottled water…sports drinks and energy drinks) as well as stagnant or shrinking recycling rates. All of these factors lead to vastly more container material” not getting recycled. –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates2

Convenience Items

Lightweighting makes consumer goods cheaper and easier to access, especially in the form of convenience items. Think about coffee pods, applesauce pouches, and fresh vegetables ready to be steamed in plastic. But at what cost does this convenience come? This packaging is not recyclable in most municipalities and goes straight to landfills. Some can be sent to a specialty recycler, like Terracycle, but that is not a long-term practical solution.

Example of Coffee pod or “K-Cup”. I used these for several years before I realized the harm they were causing.
Example of an applesauce pouch, now also sold as smoothie blends and yogurt pouches. I purchased these for several years before I realized how plastic was damaging our environment.

“This is lightweighting’s biggest problem: no economic recycling model has yet emerged due to the technical challenges in processing and recovering the base materials,” -Chris Daly, Vice President of Environmental Sustainability, Europe and Sub-Saharan Africa, PepsiCo3

Water

Sales of bottled water, especially in plastic, now exceed those of other non-alcoholic bottled beverages in the US. Here is a graph that exhibits the rapid growth:

Graph of plastic bottle water sales
Graph from the Container Recycling Institute

A few companies now sell bottled water in aluminum, including the brands Open Water4 and CanO Water.5 In summer 2019, PepsiCo announced that they would stop selling Bubly seltzer water in plastic bottles and switch to aluminum cans. They also planned to test switching Aquafina to aluminum cans.6

Replacing plastic with aluminum can be a positive packaging change. This is not a new idea, as brands like LaCroix water have been in aluminum for years. Aluminum is 100% recyclable, assuming they are free from plastic film lining, and almost 75% of all aluminum produced in the U.S. is still in use today, according to the Aluminum Association.7 Recycling aluminum uses significantly less energy because it is heated at a much lower temperature than using bauxite, the virgin raw material used to make aluminum.

However, the real solution is to drink tap water and carry your own reusable metal or glass water container.

Image of Open Water aluminum bottles

“Bottled water is healthy and convenient, but single-use plastic bottles are wreaking havoc on our environment, and especially our oceans.”8

Products in Cartons

Great Value Organic 2% milk in a blue, purple, and white carton
Milk carton

Cartons are another example of lightweighting, as the containers are lighter to transport. There are two types: cartons like those that contain milk or orange juice, are paperboard lined with a plastic film (polyethylene). Milk cartons haven’t been wax coated since the 1940s, as noted by Beth Terry.9 The other, called aseptic or shelf-stable containers, are multilayered with paperboard, plastic film (polyethylene), and aluminum. Most of the latter are made by the packaging company Tetra Pak. Common examples of products sold in cartons include shelf-stable milk, broth, coconut water, and juice boxes.

However, a carton’s end of life is usually highly problematic because they are multi-layered and it is expensive to separate the materials. In addition, some polyethylenes contain toxins linked to human health problems.

Diagrams of cartons and the layers of materials.
Diagrams from the Carton Council

Recyclability is Poor

Cartons are recyclable in theory, but it is not common, in large part because it is difficult to separate the layers. The recycler shreds the cartons, sanitizes them, and ties the shreds into bales. A pulp mill that has the appropriate machinery can buy the bales from the recycler, and the polyethylene coating must be separated from the paper and strained off. The plastics can be shipped to a plastics manufacturer for re-use, but usually, it is simply disposed of. The shredded cartons can then be reprocessed into pulp for paper.10 That’s a lot of work for a single type of waste, and most of the time these are landfilled or incinerated.

The Carton Council

The Carton Council advertises cartons as recyclable. However, as attorney and sustainability expert Jennie Romer noted, this is an unqualified claim. The Federal Trade Commission’s definition of recycling requires that an entire package be recyclable to be labeled as such. Cartons are not fully recyclable since the plastic film and aluminum foil layer are usually discarded. “A qualified claim of ‘only the paper layer is recyclable’ would be more accurate.”11

The Carton Council also asserts that if you cannot recycle them where you live, you can ship them at your own cost to certain facilities.12 However, I cleaned and saved cartons from non-dairy milk and broth for several months and found it was cost-prohibitive to ship. I found this discouraging and impractical.

We should avoid buying all products in these containers for both environmental and health reasons. Remember, that even if your local recycler “accepts” these items for recycling, they are often landfilled. The paper in these cartons might break down in the environment but the toxins in the plastic will infect the land and water for decades or longer.

Swanson chicken broth in a shelf stable carton
Swanson chicken broth in a shelf-stable carton

Solutions

We have power as consumers. Companies want to sell us their goods, presumably more than they want to sell us the packaging. So avoid purchasing products in packaging that you don’t like or support.

Instead, purchase items in bulk in your own containers, or buy goods in metal or glass instead of plastic or cartons. Buy a reusable beverage container to avoid buying drinks in plastic and avoid convenience packaging since it is rarely recyclable.

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe! In my next post, I’ll explain how the manufacturers should become part of the solution.

 

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Footnotes: