The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 11

Last updated on December 11, 2021.

Water bottle refill center painted sign
Photo by Meritt Thomas on Unsplash

In my last article about the packaging industry, we explored companies with recycling built into their business models, have creative packaging, or use limited or no packaging. Today, we are going to look at refillable packaging.

Besides refilling bottles or jugs at a water refill station, other consumer refill options could make a significant impact on the amount of disposed of plastic and packaging. The idea is that you buy your products in containers that are either reusable or are returned to the company for sanitation and reuse or recycling. This eliminates disposable packaging and should be one of the major solutions to our packaging problems. I was encouraged to discover just how many companies offer refillable solutions!

“To protect the health of humans and fellow creatures who share our planet, the urgent priority must be to eliminate single-use consumer plastic, and to invest in reusable, refillable and package-free approaches.”1

Cleaning Products

Of the several types of refillable products on the market, I wanted to start with cleaners because they are the easiest to refill. Most cleaning products are made of about 90% water and almost all are sold in single-use disposable plastic bottles or pouches. Additionally, most major brand cleaners are full of harsh chemicals, toxic ingredients, and phthalates (“fragrance”). To make matters worse, in the United States companies are not required to list their ingredients on the label. So what can we do to get away from harmful products that are in disposable packaging? It turns out, there are lots of options!

I have not tried many of these products because I make my own Easy DIY Cleaner that I use for windows, counters, floors, and bathrooms. But I am still looking at options for liquid dish soap, laundry products, personal use items, and food items that have plastic-free packaging and non-toxic ingredients.

Supermarket aisle with cleaning productsSupermarket aisle with cleaning products. Photo by me

Fillaree

I discovered Fillaree earlier this year, and I love their business model.2 They sell liquid dish soap, cleaners, shampoo, conditioner, body wash, and other products. You buy your first bottle and when you run out, you can bring it back to the store to refill. Their products are sold in stores, many in North Carolina where they’re based out of but also one in Knoxville, Tennessee, and Atlanta, Georgia. If you don’t live near a store that sells their products, as I do not, they have a mail program for their dish soap, hand soap, and all-purpose cleaner. No packaging waste! Here’s a Fillaree chart showing how it works:

Fillaree mail in refillables chart

I’ve recently purchased their products and tried their mail-in program. The liquid dish soap comes in a glass pump bottle and the refill comes in a plastic jug that you mail back in a prepaid envelope for the company to reuse. This is an ideal system. I will fully review their products in a future post – but I can tell you that so far, it’s very easy to use.

Meliora Cleaning Products

Meliora banner plastic free packaging

Meliora Cleaning Products is a Certified B Corporation that makes non-toxic cleaners and detergents that are sold in plastic-free refillable packaging.3 Their All-Purpose Cleaner and the refill container can make 18 bottles. They sell powdered laundry detergent in a steel and cardboard container. You can buy refills in recyclable/compostable paper bags and not have plastic waste. I’m excited about this company! I tried their laundry detergent and oxygen cleaner and I like it so much that it is going to be my new regular laundry product brand.

Supernatural

Supernatural starter set with glass bottles and vials

This company uses all-natural essential oil blends for all of their cleaning products, with no chemicals.4 The customer mixes the solutions with water in reusable glass spray bottles. Supernatural’s products ship in glass vials and all items ship with only cardboard packaging. No plastic waste! “When I conceived Supernatural it was out of a desire to create something that’s never been made before: all-natural cleaning products that are sustainably sourced, with the lowest carbon footprint possible, that smell unbelievably amazing,” wrote the founder. They also sell aromatherapy products using essential oil blends.

Blueland

Blueland's products image

With a mission to stop plastic waste and pollution by selling cleaning products in reusable containers, Blueland sells reusable bottles and concentrated refills. Their products have no toxic ingredients, are vegan, and cruelty-free. They ship with all recyclable and/or compostable packaging.5

As I was writing this, Blueland announced that they are doing away with PVA in their laundry tabs! PVA is an acronym for polyvinyl alcohol, which is a petroleum-based plastic that dissolves in water but the plastic stays in the water system. It is commonly used as a wrapper for convenient pre-measured amounts of dishwasher and laundry detergent tabs. They are allegedly dissolvable and biodegradable, but recent studies confirm that all of the plastic does not break down. “PVA does not fully biodegrade in most wastewater treatment facilities. This can potentially result in an estimated 60-82% of intact, PVA particles released into our oceans, rivers and canals,” the company states. Blueland now sells naked laundry detergent tabs. This is a really big deal, and I’m even more excited about this company now!

ThreeMain

ThreeMain product line

This company’s mission is to eliminate plastic packaging in household cleaning products. Sold in aluminum containers and refillable, the company does not appear to use plastic packaging for shipping. They use limited ingredients and list all of them on their website. They are also a carbon-neutral company. The company does use plastic refill pouches but they will reclaim these to send to TerraCycle at their cost, where they will actually be recycled. They have a blog that covers healthy and sustainable living.6

Branch Basics

This company was founded by three women who experienced health problems, both personally and within their families, but discovered renewed health by removing toxins from their homes, food, and lives. They founded Branch Basics to get back to basic, clean living and to inspire others to do so. You select a bottle and buy “The Concentrate” which makes multiple types of cleaner – you use different amounts of water and concentrate in each type of cleaner. I really like that they have one cleaner for almost everything! It is a #1 plastic bottle, but it is significantly less plastic wasted since the product lasts so long. I am also excited about their Wellness Center resource page, which has articles about healthy living.7

Branch Basics The Concentrate diagram

“We believe choices like the food we put in our bodies, the paint we put on our walls, and the cleaners we use around our homes have power; the power to rob us of good health or to cultivate it.” -Branch Basics8

Replenish & CleanPath

Replenish bottle refill diagram

CleanPath, which is part of Replenish,9 are refillable bottle systems that offer concentrated cleaners and foaming hand soap, which saves time, resources, and money.10 The company’s mission is to eliminate waste from buying products in disposable plastic bottles. The founder designed a system where the consumer buys the plastic bottle once and refills it with a concentrated refill pod that attaches to the bottom of the bottle. Each pod can make 4-6 bottles of cleaner. By only shipping the concentrate and no water, it greatly reduces emissions and reduces plastic waste. However, I believe that the pods must be recycled at the end of their life, so this is still plastic waste although much less. Replenish and CleanPath claim to use less toxic ingredients and real essential oil bases for fragrance.

JAWS

JAWS (an acronym for Just Add Water™ System) wanted to reduce plastic waste and reduce emissions by shipping cleaning products without water. They founded their company on this principle: “Stop Shipping Water. It’s the Right Thing to Do.” The products are EPA Safer Choice certified but not necessarily all non-toxic. But they offer full ingredients lists on their website for each product.11 Like Replenish and CleanPath, the pods are not reusable which does still create plastic waste, albeit less plastic waste.

Grove Collaborative

As the name suggests, this collaborative company sells its own products but also sells products from other companies that manufacture like-minded products. They are a Certified B Company that sells household cleaners and personal use items that use safe, non-toxic ingredients but also offer some refillable products and containers. Grove uses a take-back program for their refill pouches, which customers return to them and they send them to TerraCycle for recycling. They have carbon neutral and plastic neutral practices, use ethical supply chains, and use sustainable materials for their own products. This company might be a good solution as a one-stop-shop, but it does seem to be subscription-based only.12
Grove laundry starter set

Truman’s

Trumans surface care starter kit

Inspired to create simple cleaning products, minimize the number of cleaners in the home, and reduce plastic waste, Truman’s created a system of refillable products. They ship them in fully recyclable cardboard packaging. While I respect any company that is trying to do something good, this company sells its pods in PVA, which I do not recommend using. Truman’s also includes upcycled polyester towels in their starter kits, and fibers from polyester (which is plastic) get into the water supply from washing machine drainage.13

Cleancult

Cleancult carton refill

Cleancult sells refills for its line of cleaning products, and its refills are shipped in 100% paper mailers.14 The company is very transparent in its ingredients and explains in detail what every ingredient does, which I really like! It is a carbon-neutral company too. However, Cleancult uses cartons for some refills. These are lined with a thin layer of plastic on the interior and exterior. If you read my article about cartons, you’ll recall that although they contain far less plastic than regular plastic bottles, cartons are not recyclable in many areas. Also, the company uses PVA for its dishwasher and laundry tabs. I do not recommend using any PVA, but I like that this company is taking steps in the right direction.

Common Good

Common Good dish soap glass bottle

Common Good began in an effort to develop products with non-toxic ingredients that were safe around children and pets, as well as reducing plastic waste.15 Its products are Leaping Bunny certified and their biodegradable cleaning formulas are refillable at nationwide refill stations (although there is not one in my area). When purchasing online, the refills come in plastic pouches. While these use 86% less plastic than traditional plastic bottles, Common Good does not take the pouches back. They must be taken to stores that accept plastic bags for recycling. It is not clear if these collection sites result in actual recycling, which I wrote about in a previous article, so these may end up in landfills.

Refillable Systems are on the Rise

Writing this post, I was so encouraged to learn that there are more refill shops than I knew about! I hope that you have discovered a few companies that you’d like to try out. We can all help end plastic packaging waste by using a refill system. I plan to try several of these products and once I do, I’ll be sure to review them! In my next post, I will cover refillable systems for personal use products. Thank you for reading!

“Plastic was meant to last forever, but most is only used once. 8 billion tons of plastic trash – that iced coffee you had last week, that toothbrush you used when you were 4 – are still on the planet.” -Blueland

This post does not contain any affiliate links nor did I get paid to promote any of the products in this post.

 

Footnotes:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 8

Last updated June 9, 2021.

Exterior of a Walmart superstore
Image by jimaro morales from Pixabay

In my last article, I wrote about Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) and Take-back programs. It’s hard to talk about packaging without addressing two giant corporations that sell the most goods to consumers and thus the most packaging, Walmart and Amazon. These are huge companies that can make a big difference in packaging waste. There are thousands of companies that follow the practices of these businesses, so they are also influential. I’ll cover Walmart in this post and Amazon in the next. 

Walmart started looking at packaging early

The company has made some positive changes in the packaging world over the last 15 years. From redesigning shoeboxes to use less paper, to lightweighting wine bottles to use less fuel, and to reducing the number of wire ties in toy packaging, Walmart has made some differences. In some ways, they’ve led the way in packaging innovations.

“When we first began in product sustainability, one of the first things we started on was packaging, because packaging cuts through every category.” -Laura Phillips, Senior Vice President of Sustainability, Walmart

Walmart’s vision for sustainability began in 2005 when the company partnered with suppliers to improve packaging on its private-label toy line. “By reducing the packaging on fewer than 300 toys, Wal-Mart saved 3,425 tons of corrugated materials, 1,358 barrels of oil, 5,190 trees, 727 shipping containers and $3.5 million in transportation costs, in just one year,” according to the 2006 press release.1 The company took what it learned from that and developed its Packaging Scorecard in 2006. That was later embedded in the company’s Sustainability Index.

The Sustainability Index, developed by The Sustainability Consortium2 collects and analyzes information about a product’s life cycle. This includes sourcing, manufacturing and transporting, selling, customer usage, and end of life. Walmart uses the data to identify key social and environmental issues. Suppliers can view their scores, see how they rank relative to the field, and gain insight into opportunities for improvement.

“Wal-mart sparked much of the interest in packaging sustainability with the introduction of its Packaging Scorecard in 2006.” – Lisa McTigue Pierce3

New sustainability model

Today, Walmart has three tiers in its sustainability model for its brands, suppliers, manufacturers, and package designers to develop more efficient and sustainable packaging.4 These tiers are optimizing packaging design, sourcing packaging materials sustainably, and supporting recycling in packaging. They encourage the suppliers and brands they work with to follow this model for their packaging.

Walmart chart

How2Recycle label

Walmart argues that consumers are confused about recycling. This is because recycling systems are inconsistent, the packaging is not correctly labeled, and there’s too much of it. So Walmart encourages its suppliers to use the How2Recycle label. This is a consistent labeling program that clearly shows consumers what is and is not recyclable. How2Recycle’s “mission is to get more materials in the recycling bin by taking the guesswork out of recycling.”5 While this labeling does help with recycling confusion, it shifts the responsibility of disposal to the consumer.

Walmart’s aspiration is Zero Plastic Waste

Walmart’s goal is zero plastic waste, and they acknowledge the challenges of this on their sustainability website.6 They recognize that around 35% of plastic produced is used in packaging and that most of that is thrown away after a single-use. While plastic packaging can protect products, it is mostly a means of transporting products. But then it becomes waste. Project Gigaton is the “Walmart initiative to avoid one billion metric tons (a gigaton) of greenhouse gases from the global value chain by 2030.”7 Walmart believes that sometimes plastic is the most practical solution for packaging in terms of overall carbon footprint. But they want to find end-of-life solutions.

Walmart shifts responsibility 

Walmart interior
Photo by Hanson Lu on Unsplash

Walmart has shifted some of the responsibility of packaging waste to the consumer and municipal recycling systems. The company claims, “Society’s ability to collect and recycle plastic waste has failed to keep up with exponential increases in plastic production.” The company recognizes that there are huge challenges in the recycling industry. But they claim that recycling infrastructure is weak and that less than half of US households have access to recycling. While the latter part is absolutely true, the recycling industry simply can’t keep up.

The overproduction of plastic for the last four decades has been perpetuated by companies and corporations, manufacturers, the American Chemistry Council, and the petroleum industry. They produced so much at such an exponential rate and then shifted the burden of that waste to municipalities and the recycling industry. The U.S. was so overwhelmed that they had to ship that waste to foreign countries, like China, which has since banned the practice due to human health concerns from plastic pollution. Recycling is not the answer. We cannot possibly recycle all of the plastic away.

Walmart can do better

Walmart is in a unique position as a global top retailer. They began looking at packaging sustainability earlier than many companies and made early changes in packaging. But they’ve continued to promote single-use disposable items and other cheap “throw-away” merchandise. I viewed this month’s Walmart ad and it promotes picnic season items. Sale items include single-use items like polystyrene plates, plastic cups, packages of plastic forks, as well as cookies, chips, soda, and water in single-use plastic containers. Of the approximately 119 items pictured in the sales ad, about 82 had plastic packaging or were made of plastic.

The company could do so much more, and they even acknowledge that on their sustainability page:

“We recognize that these aren’t challenges we can solve alone and we want to open our doors to a more collaborative approach within the industry. We want to look for and share new solutions to reducing the use of ‘avoidable’ plastic as well as improving recyclability and the use of recycled plastic in our Private Brand packaging.”

This gives me the impression that they want to do better. While I respect the company’s initiatives, I know that the environment will always come second to profit. Remember that Walmart is a global top retailer and profit is always going to be their first priority. Walmart wants to be sustainable IF they can still turn a profit; IF they can get consumers to pay for it; and IF it will encourage more buying. Overall, I think Walmart can do more to prevent plastic waste.

“No need to recycle something that doesn’t exist in the first place!” -Dougie Poynter8

Walmart (Sam's Club) water bottle on the beach in South Carolina.
Walmart (Sam’s Club) water bottle on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe. In my next post, we will look at the packaging practices of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.

“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:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 5

Last updated June 20, 2021.

Calvin Klein Men's underwear plastic packaging
Calvin Klein Men’s underwear in an unnumbered plastic box. Photo by me

In Part 5 of my series about the packaging industry, I explain corporate responsibility. You can read my first article on packaging and follow the series from there.

There are many ways that companies can take responsibility for the waste they create. But it often becomes the consumers’ problem. What kind of impact could we make if we change that?

Calvin Klein: Not an Example of Company Responsibility in Packaging

A couple of years ago, we ordered some Calvin Klein Men’s underwear, which arrived in an unnumbered plastic box. Plastic without a number cannot be recycled, anywhere. So I wrote to the company to see if they’d take the packaging back to reuse. They responded, “I regret to inform you that our warehouse will not reuse the packages.” They did not provide a reason, nor did they express interest in more sustainable packaging. I asked if they would stop using plastic packaging, or if they would at least switch to numbered plastic so that I could recycle it. They responded that they’d pass my comments on to their Product Development Team.

This left me with no option but to throw the packaging in the trash or find a way to reuse it. I ended up using it a couple of times as a gift box, and now it is in my collection of “plastic that I must pay TerraCycle to recycle.” Hence, the onus is on me, the consumer. We stopped buying from Calvin Klein.

This has got to stop.

“Currently, most product designers are under no obligation to consider how their products will be disposed of at the end of their useful life. This leads to the creation of unrecyclable products.”-The State of Recycling National Survey, U.S. PIRG Education Fund1

Image of my own trash audit from 2017, when I started trying to go plastic free. Notice that most of my trash is packaging waste.
Image of my own trash audit from 2017, when I started trying to go plastic-free. Notice that most of my trash was packaging waste. Photo by me

There is a way to make companies responsible for their own packaging

It’s called Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR). It is a policy concept that makes it the manufacturer’s responsibility for reducing packaging waste and improving packaging. Companies would have to have to rethink packaging, recyclability, and end-of-life impacts. There are four ways that EPR can work:

      1. EPR extends the manufacturer’s responsibility from the design and marketing to the post-consumer stage (meaning when the consumer is finished with a product).
      2. Producers either physically take items back through take-back programs, or they pay a third party for those services.
      3. Individual governments set standards for the responsible party, defines what materials should be collected and avoided, and require data collection. This model sometimes involves taxation or fees.
      4. EPR can go beyond packaging and address the post-consumer stage of items beyond packaging, such as electronics, batteries, cars, tires, etc.

It can be a combination of those as well. Here’s a video that explains EPR from Washington State, as the idea can apply anywhere:

The Costs of EPR

Extended Producer Responsibility would cost the manufacturers and companies a nominal amount of money, and they would likely shift that cost to the consumer. “But perhaps this cost is better incurred at checkout than in…greenhouse gas emissions, marine debris, resource scarcity, toxicity, and food and drinking-water pollution,” wrote Scott Cassel, founder and CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute, in The Future of Packaging.

In our current system, the true cost falls on taxpayers because we are paying for our municipalities to haul our waste, whether it goes to a landfill or a recycling center. And then we pay again when those systems fail, and the cost becomes an environmental issue.

There currently are no laws and no economic incentives in the United States to make companies responsible for the waste they sell or for the waste they create. However, when the same US companies conduct business internationally, they follow EPR regulations in countries with those laws, showing that EPR can be successful.

“Unlike in many other developed countries, in the United States manufacturers and brands are not responsible for their packaging once the consumer buys the product.” – Scott Cassel, founder & CEO of the Product Stewardship Institute

Beth Porter noted in Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine that one challenge with EPR is that if companies take control of the waste stream, it could take decision-making power about waste management away from communities and result in the incineration of many materials. “Good EPR would include strong recycling targets and a stated zero-incineration policy. It would result in shifting some responsibility of disposal back onto producers, urging them to rethink designs of their products to be better suited for recycling streams.”

Plastic sports drink bottles stuck in the pond
Photo by Ben Baily on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

EPR around the World

EPR prevails in many other countries. The United States, meanwhile, “is currently one of only three nations of the 35-member Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that does not have an EPR system specifically for packaging in place or under development,” according to Cassel.

In 1991, Germany passed the “Ordinance on the Avoidance of Packaging Waste,” which was intended to shift the burden of packaging disposal from the public to the industries producing the packaging. This led to the creation of the Green Dot symbol, which indicates that a fee has been paid by the manufacturer to pay for the package’s end-of-life disposal. However, this symbol does not necessarily mean that a product or package is recyclable, a common misconception. For more information, watch this video:

The European Union passed the “Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive” in 1994 and thirty countries have implemented it. This aims at preventing the production of packaging waste through elimination, reuse, recycling, and/or recovery of packaging. “In Europe, global companies have accepted EPR as an appropriate cost of doing business and of being responsible corporate citizens,” wrote Matt Prindiville, Executive Director of UPSTREAM.2 Beth Porter noted that “Belgium boasts more than five thousand companies that follow [EPR]…the result of this is an impressive 95 percent recovery rate for packaging materials in the country.” Other countries that have adopted EPR legislation include Canada, Australia, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, Taiwan, and Romania.

“Overall…EPR legislation has had the intended effect of moving up the waste stream into product and packaging design, logistics, and shipping departments of major manufacturers.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

Dairy section of a supermarket, lots of plastic packaging
Image by Squirrel_photos from Pixabay

Opposition

There are some who oppose EPR legislation, arguing that it amounts to an additional fee or tax. Trade associations like the American Institute for Packaging and the Environment (AMERIPEN) and the Grocery Manufacturers Association oppose it. They argue that packaging disposal, recycling, and pollution cleanup costs should be the responsibility of the government. “In the U.S., these companies have determined it’s better to fight to keep EPR at bay than to partner with local and state governments to develop 21st-century systems for designing and managing packaging materials,” Prindiville wrote. Companies and manufacturers need to take responsibility.

Solutions

EPR legislation must be passed to make companies responsible for their packaging. Without laws, it is doubtful that companies will do the right thing on their own. Remember, many companies are already practicing EPR in other countries because it is mandated. But not in the US, because they aren’t required to by law. You can write your legislators and request that they propose and/or support EPR legislation. The Story of Plastic film offers a great explanation of this.3

While EPR is one strong solution, it is not the sole answer to our packaging waste problems. We should combine EPR with many other ideas as the current waste stream is too enormous. We need to create vastly less waste on a global scale. Buy less and be mindful of the things you do purchase.

In my next post, I’ll cover take-back programs, a form of EPR. Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

 

“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 Resources:

Article, “Sustainability and the Economy,” Packaging World, March 13th, 2020.

Post, “The Producer Pays,” Knowledge @ Wharton, University of Pennsylvania Wharton, April 4, 2017.

Article, “5 Reasons EPR Is the Answer for Plastics Recycling,” by Matt Prindiville, Sustainablebrands.com, accessed June 20, 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: