Last updated May 21, 2023.
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.
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
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.
“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
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:
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.
“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
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.
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 cost-prohibitive to ship. I found this discouraging and impractical.
Author Eve O. Schaub also found the Carton Council’s recycling options problematic during her Year Of No Garbage. She wrote: “I didn’t love it, first because any additional level of complexity or cost is going to make it that much less likely for the average person to actually do it, and second because the environmental footprint of mailing boxes of cartons across the country to recycle them seemed to me to raise serious questions about the net environmental impact of the whole endeavor.”13
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 microplastics and toxins in the plastic will infect the land and water for decades or longer.
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