The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 1

Last updated on December 11, 2021.

Yellow excavator on mounds of waste, Indonesia
Waste pile in Indonesia. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

“Most types of plastic packaging are economically impossible to recycle now and will remain so in the foreseeable future.”1

Waste. We have so much of it that we require large machinery to move it around for us. There’s so much waste that our landfills are overfilling; the ocean is polluted with plastic and toxins; and in parts of the world, people have to spend their days living and working surrounded by large amounts of waste.  This article is the first in a series about the impact of packaging and the packaging industry.

Most packaging comes from items we buy regularly. I recently purchased a bottle of Zyrtec. Almost all medicines come in plastic bottles, but I had to buy a plastic bottle of Zyrtec inside of more plastic packaging! I emailed the company to ask why and if they would consider ending the practice of overpackaging. Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson, the owner of Zyrtec, sent a generic response: “We appreciate you reaching out to us with your concern. We always value the views and opinions of our consumers…We will make certain your feedback is shared with the appropriate management of our company.” This is the typical response I receive from companies but I keep trying nonetheless.

Zyrtec packaging. Photo by me
Zyrtec packaging surrounding the small plastic bottle of tablets. Photo by me

“Recyclable labels on..consumer plastic products do not provide truthful advertising to American consumers and are a cause of contamination and inefficiency plaguing America’s municipal collection and plastics recycling/reprocessing systems.”2

Packaging is Everyone’s Responsibility

I am a recycler and I encourage you to recycle. But unfortunately, recycling isn’t the answer. Globally only about 9% – 13% of plastics are actually recycled. Since recycling doesn’t work in our current systems, we have to find a better set of solutions. Less packaging is one idea.

Corporations and companies are not doing enough to prevent plastic pollution, especially through the packaging industry. They have the power to stop producing packaging with disposable plastics and the resources to create more sustainable packaging. But we consumers have power too, to convince those companies to change.

“As consumers, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for how powerful we really are…View your purchases as having a direct impact on the goods and services companies choose to make.” -Tom Szaky, TerraCycle

I recently read The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular by Tom Szaky and 15 packaging industry leaders. The book exposed me to more information than I knew existed about packaging and the packaging industry. Then I read other books and several articles about the packaging industry. So I decided to share what I’ve learned with you, in several posts.

Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable "convenience". Photo by me
Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable “convenience”. Photo by me

“And then there’s the ubiquitous plastic packaging, which envelops practically every product imaginable, from apples to eggs, foam bath to lipstick, toy cars to printer cartridges.”3

Packaging history

How did we get to today, where we have packaging for every single item? Packaging inside of packaging? So much packaging, often made from either mixed materials or unrecyclable materials, that we now have a waste crisis? How did we get here?

Packaging used to be sustainable and reusable with very little waste. Glass bottles held soft drinks, milk, medicine, etc. Consumers returned these and the companies sanitized and refilled them. During World War II citizens collected scrap metal, paper, rubber, and even cooking waste. Cities sometimes issued quotas for recycling.

Beginning in the post-war era, packaging increased to make life more “convenient” and “easier” for women running households. At the same time, the global population was growing at a higher rate than ever before – tripling between 1950 and 2010. Consumerism grew along with increased wealth and disposable income in the western world. Plastic packaging in all forms became cheaper to create and ship while increasing convenience for consumers.

Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955 about "throwaway living".
Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955

The False Notion that Plastic is More Sanitary

Plastic also became the “sanitary” way to serve and sell food, a somewhat false notion that persists even today. While plastic can prevent foods from cross-contamination and spoilage, it is not the only material that can do so. There are many options but sadly, plastic has become the standard.

DuPont advertising for cellophane wrapped produce
“Clean and fresh” advertising of DuPont cellophane to increase convenience.

“The spreading fear of a contaminated environment has spawned legions of buyers of bottled water, pasteurized egg and dairy products, and irradiated meats and seafood. Packaging can be highly misleading, however.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

For a full history of plastic packaging and plastic in general, I recommend  Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

The Current Situation

“Packaging and containers are the largest segment of municipal solid by waste by product category.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine

Packaging today is out of control. Despite solutions and ideas and innovations, there is far too much packaging in everything, made of all material types. “Today, the average American throws out at least three hundred pounds of packaging a year,” according to Susan Freinkel. In 2017, nearly 30% of U.S. municipal solid waste was from containers and packaging according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).4 This amounted to 80.1 million tons. The EPA estimated that about 50% of that was recycled but only 13% of plastics were recycled (but the number is most likely under 10%).

“About half of all goods are now contained, cushioned, shrink-wrapped, blister-packed, clamshelled, or otherwise encased in some kind of plastic.” -Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Many types of packaging are not recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable are often not recycled. One solution is to avoid purchasing as many products in packaging as possible, something I often write about. You can read my article on going plastic-free with food consumption.

The sad truth is that branding and marketing often drive packaging design, rather than environmental issues. This is beginning to change, but not at a fast enough pace to keep up with the rate of consumer packaging disposal.

“More often than not, the perceived value of being ‘green’ is trumped by bottom-line costs.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is advertising or promotions in which green marketing is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly when they are not. Let’s call this what it is: this is false advertising. Here’s a video with excellent explanations:

I encourage you to read up on greenwashing because it’s everywhere!  Many companies participate in this practice. Remember the Volkswagen scandal? Volkswagen intentionally advertised low emissions vehicles but they actually equipped those vehicles with software that cheated emissions testing. Those vehicles emitted as much as 40 times the allowed amount of pollutants. While that’s an extreme example, this happens all of the time and it can be so subtle that you aren’t aware of it.

Please see my list on how to avoid greenwashing.

Consumers expect companies to dedicate themselves to making a positive social or environmental impact…they want to be able to trust them to prioritize ethics. – KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media, “Consumers Care,” The Future of Packaging

In my next article, I’ll detail some of these greenwashing terms, such as “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and “bioplastics”.

Thank you for reading! Please watch for future parts of this series by subscribing.

“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

 

Additional resource:

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Footnotes:

Have you seen WALL-E?

Wall-E DVD cover art

Have you seen the movie WALL-E? It features two cute little robots that mostly communicate through a few words and voice inflections. There’s very little dialogue so the story is told visually and beautifully. I found it to be a powerful movie. Here’s the trailer for it:

I first saw this movie about a year ago. I borrowed it from the library so that I could watch it with my son, and I was really blown away by the film! The day after, I was talking to a colleague about it and he told me that he can gauge a person by their reaction to that movie. He said if they’re indifferent about it, that’s likely how they are about the environment as well. But if a person reacts emotionally, it says a lot about them. While you can’t judge a person by a single film reaction, of course, that conversation has always stuck in my mind.

There’s a lot about WALL-E that stuck with me.

So I watched it again over the weekend.

Please note: the rest of this post does contain spoilers. So if you haven’t watched it, please go watch it and then come back and finish reading this post!

Wall-E, Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash
Photo by Dominik Scythe on Unsplash

The movie was made by Disney-Pixar. And even though it’s 10 years old already, it’s still completely relevant. WALL-E is cleaning up the trash on Earth, which has become one giant wasteland and landfill. Humans made so much trash and polluted the air so bad that all of the plant life died off and they had to move to space! It takes place 700 years in the future. The little robot is lonely and has only one friend, a little cockroach (because cockroaches can survive everything, right?).

He finds interesting objects while cleaning up the trash, such as silverware, Zippo lighters, and Rubik’s cubes. The robot discovers a squeaky dog toy and a bra, which he mistakes for a mask. He catalogs and sorts the items in his home. (That part reminded me of The Little Mermaid when Ariel collects items from shipwrecks and keeps them in her secret cove.) WALL-E even has one of the singing Big Mouth Billy Bass plaques that were popular years ago. He has recovered one videotape of Hello, Dolly! from the late 1960s, from which he learns about emotions and human interactions.

rubiks cube, Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash
Photo by Alvaro Reyes on Unsplash

The air is cloudy, there’s very little water and no plant life. The whole premise of the movie is that once plant life reappears on Earth, humans can return. WALL-E meets EVE, a robot that has come to Earth to search for plant life. He finds a plant and gives it to her as a token of love. But this is her mission and it spawns a journey that lays out the history of corporate greed, mass consumerism, and the unsustainable disposable economy and lifestyle that humans created. So much stuff and waste that the Earth became polluted and uninhabitable.

Sometimes that sounds like the path we’re on right now.

plant, Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash
Photo by Igor Son on Unsplash

In the movie, the worst part was that humans, once in space, did not change their behaviors. They rocketed their trash further into space instead of learning from the past. This behavior was propelled by corporate giant B&L, a fictional sort of Walmart that gained a monopoly on Earth and gained control of everything by the time the humans left for space.

This movie really hit home for me. Did you feel the same when you saw it?

Truly, though, if robots can get it, why can’t we?

I think many of us do, and I think the more people that learn about the worldwide waste crisis, the more people who will want to change things. So help me spread the word and educate others. Let your children watch this movie. Share it with a friend. Leave me a comment below. And thanks for reading.

This post does not contain any affiliate links.