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

Last updated on February 28, 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 post, 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 their 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.

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. 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.3

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 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.4 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:5

      • 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).6

“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. The participating US states are successful at keeping recycling rates higher than states that do not participate. These states include only 28% of the US population, yet account for 46% of all beverage containers recycled nationwide. 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. 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.

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 President7

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)8

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:

Only You Can Prevent Beach Trash

Trash with the words "100% Leakproof" on it
“100% Leakproof”

In my recent post about my trip to Hilton Head Island and its environmental consciousness, I mentioned that the beaches are really clean and well maintained. Even with their efforts, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these into my  Litterati app (also see my post on Litterati).

I thought I could put the images of my trash to good use, to show people how they can prevent beach and ocean pollution!

I bet you already know a lot of this. But if you share this post, it might enlighten others who will then use preventative measures. And then the world can be a less polluted place!

Common Types of Beach Trash

I noticed that the same types of trash commonly appear on beaches all over the country. So I’ve divided this post into sections based on the common types of trash I’ve found.

Image of a Plastic water bottle in the surf.
Plastic water bottle almost in the surf.

Plastic drink bottles and caps

These are the most common items I pick up EVERYWHERE, and not just on beaches. Our love affair with drinks in single-use disposable plastic bottles and cups (I’m including styrofoam in this classification because styrofoam is chemically a plastic) is completely out of control. I even picked a red Solo cup that I used to collect cigarette butts and microplastics! Here’s just a few images of the many single-use disposable drink items I picked up:

What can you do?

Buy a reusable drink container (or two) and use that for all your liquid refreshments. I have two: a Kleen Kanteen for water; and a Hydroflask coffee cup. They handle pretty much everything.

If you must buy a beverage, please dispose of it properly.

Food and snack wrappers

I find this type of litter on the beach (and everywhere else) very often. This includes food wrappers, containers, zipper bags, etc. Below is an image of a washed-up cannonball jellyfish next to the plastic lid of a cylindric chip container.

Plastic bottle cap next to a washed up jellyfish.
Plastic lid next to a washed-up jellyfish.

Here are some additional examples of food and snack wrappers:

What can you do?

Follow the saying, “Leave it cleaner than you found it.” Or “carry in, carry out.” Don’t lose track of your trash and disposables. Put them inside of your beach bag until you can find a proper trash can. You can also consume less prepackaged food, which will be better for your health as well.

Beach Toys

This is one item that is particular to beaches but so easily preventable. Children scatter and lose their things easily, and almost all beach toys are made of plastic. When these items are left on the beach, they go straight into the ocean during high tide.

Toy pink crab sand toy.

You can see how easily small toys are overlooked in the next image. Can you guess what that is?A toy buried in the sand.

If you guessed a toy car, you’ve got a good eye! A toy car buried in the sand.

Here are some other examples of left behind or broken toys:

Yellow plastic toy boat.
We found this and my son named it “Mr. Boat.” It’s the only toy we kept – the rest we donated.

In particular, we found multiple plastic bucket straps, as they are not usually permanently affixed. These are easily forgotten about but this cheap plastic will make it into the ocean by the next morning.

There are a few brands, such as Green Toys, that features a rope strap that is not easily removed. The bucket is even made of recycled plastic. It’s the one we own and play with year-round.

What about the packaging for all of those beach toys?

A plastic net bag that the plastic beach toys were sold in.
A plastic net bag that the plastic beach toys were sold in, from American Plastic Toys Inc.

Below are images of a discarded boogie board left at a wash station near the beach. I’d seen these little styrofoam balls lining parts of the beach and I couldn’t figure out what they were from. I did not manage to get a good photo of them. Once I found this broken board and looked at it closely, I could see that these are cheap boards are simply nylon or polyester fabric (fabrics made from plastics) over styrofoam. You could not make a worse product for the beach – a product meant to be used in the water that is made of cheap materials and not meant to last more than one vacation – WOW.

Please don’t buy these. This one made it into a proper trash can, but how many end up in the ocean?

What about the dog’s toys? These can be easily lost. And yes, they are made of plastics and other synthetics.

A yellow tennis ball made by Kong.

What can you do?

The best thing you can do is to not leave beach toys behind, obviously. The best way to keep track of your children’s toys is simply to own less of them. Perhaps just one bucket and one shovel, for example. In general, kids don’t need many toys when playing outdoors to stay entertained and engaged. Besides the sand and water, the beach offers so many shells, sticks, seaweed and other washed up items that kids are curious about and love to experiment with.

Place broken toys in your beach bag immediately so that it doesn’t get left behind.

As for dog toys, how about throwing a stick for Fido instead of a ball or plastic Frisbee?

Items related to smoking

This is another common item I find everywhere and not just at the beach. Cigarette butts are made of synthetic materials that do not biodegrade. Plastic lighters are found in the stomach of birds and marine animals. Honestly, I used to smoke a long time ago and I sometimes threw cigarette butts on the ground. I had no idea how bad they were for the environment. I pick them up regularly now as part of my Litterati mission, as I feel like I owe the environment for this terrible habit I used to have.

Cigarette lighter lying in the ocean's surf.

I gathered dozens of cigarette butts and several lighters on the beach, here are a few examples:

I also picked up plastic tips from Swisher Sweets, which if you’re not familiar, are inexpensive flavored tip cigarillos.

What can you do?

Don’t smoke! But if you do, can you please discard your waste properly?

Straws

Aren’t straws like so last year?

No, not really. Not yet. Despite straw bans in different parts of the world.

Everywhere we went in Hilton Head served straws, sometimes automatically in the drink. I’m not criticizing the Island for this, because it happens in my town too. But I hope all eateries eventually end this practice. The exception was the Watusi Cafe on Pope Avenue, which served paper straws – thank you!!!

What can you do?

Ask the server to not give you a straw before he or she brings your drink. I used to decline the straws when the server would set them down on the table, but since so many places automatically put them in the drink I try to cut them off at the pass. Once that straw is opened and in a drink, it doesn’t matter whether or not I use it – it will now be trashed.

I don’t use a straw very often anymore, but if I need one, I have my Final Straw.

Plastic Bags

I still found a couple of plastic bags on the beach despite the town’s ban on plastic bags!

What can you do?

Decline plastic bags no matter where you live! Bring your own cloth bag.

If you don’t have a bag, can you carry your items without one? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped at a store and purchased one item that the cashier bagged. I don’t need a bag for one item! Give them the bag back right away and say thanks but no thanks!

Many stores do have a paper bag option if you ask for one. If not, they likely have an empty box readily available that you can put your purchases in.

Beach tent/umbrella parts

Many people bring their own beach tents and umbrellas to the beach, but there is sometimes waste associated with those items. Below you can see where I found a plastic tent stake accidentally left behind and a zip tie of which I found several. The last image is of a full plastic water bottle tied to a nylon string. I found this buried in the sand but the string was sticking out. Once I pulled it out, it was obvious that this was most likely used as a weight to hold something down. Clever – but forgotten, an immediate pollutant – this would’ve been in the ocean after high tide.

What can you do?

Collect all of the parts to your tents and umbrellas, even if it’s trash. Double check before you leave that you haven’t forgotten anything.

Everyday Non-Beach items

I find many items on the beach that are not necessarily beach items but items that people use daily. These items include wet wipes or baby wipes (most often not made of anything biodegradable even if the packaging makes that claim); dryer sheets; plastic dental picks; cellophane; condom wrappers; and even a bullet casing (pictured below).

Wet wipe or baby wipe in the sand
Wet wipe or baby wipe
Wet wipe or baby wipe in the sand
Wet wipe or baby wipe
Dryer sheet in the sand
Dryer sheet
Bullet casing on the beach
Bullet Casing

The most surprising things I’ve found on a beach were plastic tampon applicators in the Gulf of Mexico. At first, I thought, there’s no way someone changed their tampon on the beach! But I found not just one, but multiple of these and I’ve also since found them along the Tennessee River. It dawned on me that these items were not left behind by careless beach-goers, but more likely washed up from trash and from sewage disposal that made it into the ocean. It turns out they are colloquially known as “beach whistles” among litter collectors.

"Beach whistle," or tampon applicator
“Beach whistle,” or tampon applicator

What can you do?

In general, the best thing you can do is cut down on disposable items and especially single-use disposable plastic items. Even if you’re not leaving these items on the beach, they’re making it onto the beaches and the items are only a portion of what’s washed up from the ocean. Meaning, there’s way more in the ocean.

The answer is to not use disposable items. It sounds difficult, but it can be done. Just work on solving one problem at a time – that’s what I’m doing and sharing with you on this blog!

Beach sunset

Thanks for reading, please subscribe in the box above. Love your beaches and ocean. And keep being the change!

This post does not contain any affiliate links. All images in this post were taken by me.