The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 9

Last updated on April 10, 2021.

Online shopping exchange, hands coming out of computer screens
Image by Mediamodifier from Pixabay

In my last article, I wrote about giant retailer Walmart and its role in the packaging industry. Today I explore the packaging impact of the largest online retailer, Amazon. They have a number of sustainability initiatives and appear to be very transparent on their website in their efforts toward sustainability. But is it enough?

“Reducing packaging waste, one package at a time at Amazon, we obsess over providing a great packaging experience to our customers.”

Person shopping Amazon from their smartphone
Image by Hannes Edinger from Pixabay

Packaging for online shopping is different

Packaging at the retail store level is designed to stand out on the shelf to entice consumers to buy it. Sometimes packaging is oversized to prevent theft. With online shopping, these are not issues since the consumer is seeking the products directly. “This allows brands to rethink the optimum packaging for the use of the product, freeing designs from shelf height or having to maintain a visual size comparison with competitive products,” wrote Lisa McTigue Pierce in The Future of Packaging.

“The primary challenge we see is that packaging designed for brick-and-mortar retail is in many cases not optimal for online fulfillment. Packaging designed to stand out on a retail shelf is often oversized, with expensive “romance” design aesthetics, redundant features to prevent theft and not capable of surviving the journey to the customer.” -Brent Nelson, Amazon

Frustration-Free Packaging Program

Like Walmart, retail companies work with Amazon to optimize and reduce packaging. Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging Program (FFP) began in 2008. This program offers more sustainable packaging that is right-sized, reduces damage during shipping, is made of 100% curbside recyclable materials, does not contain plastic clamshells or wire ties, and is easier to open. Amazon collaborates with manufacturers to help them innovate and improve their packaging, reducing frustration, and cutting waste and costs. “Since 2015, we have reduced the weight of outbound packaging by 33% and eliminated more than 880,000 tons of packaging material, the equivalent of 1.5 billion shipping boxes,” Amazon states. The following are examples of companies working with Amazon to achieve these objectives.

Philips Norelco One Blade Shaver

One Amazon Frustration-Free Packaging case study was the Philips Norelco One Blade shaver project. The plastic clamshell used to both advertise from the store shelf and prevent theft wasn’t necessary for direct purchasing and shipping. Philips reduced the number of packaging components from 13 to 9 and reduced the packaging volume by 80%.

Norelco Frustrayion Free packaging diagramNorelco Frustrayion Free packaging diagram

Philips Hue Smart Lighting

Again, Philips worked directly with Amazon to greatly reduce its packaging waste and volume for this product.  Even though the same amount of packaging components were used, the packaging volume and air were vastly reduced and the frustration-free version is mostly recyclable cardboard instead of plastic.

Diagram showing Amazon standard packaging vs. Frustration free packaging

Fisher-Price Toys

The packaging for toys is often designed to draw the consumer’s attention on the shelf, but this isn’t necessary for online retail settings. So Fisher-Price was able to reduce its packaging components from 19 to just 1, reduce packaging volume by 88%, and reduced the amount of air shipped by 99%!

Fisher-Price toys Frustration Free packaging diagram

Hasbro

Hasbro also works with Amazon on packaging design:

Frustration-Free Packaging Program Certification

Today, this program requires certification. In 2019, Amazon updated the program’s guidelines which included instructions about how to calculate recyclability, product-to-packaging ratio, and requirements for oversized items. Suppliers on Amazon had to switch to the appropriate packaging or pay a surcharge on each item shipped. But Amazon works directly with manufacturers to innovate and improve their packaging functionality in order to certify, according to Amazon’s sustainability report. They have testing facilities that identify steps manufacturers can take to improve their packaging. Now more than 2 million products qualify under the FFP program.

Overall, the FFP program sounds great, but I find that products with this option are difficult to find. That may be because the option is not offered since many companies are certified to use Frustration-Free Packaging automatically. But next time you’re ordering from Amazon, if this option is available, please select it and avoid packaging waste! Here’s what you’ll see if it is an option:

Lego Friends set from Amazon showing frustration free packaging option

Current Packaging Sustainability Initiatives

Amazon’s packaging sustainability mission is “to optimize the overall customer experience by collaborating with manufacturers worldwide to invent sustainable packaging that delights customers, eliminates waste, and ensures products arrive intact and undamaged.” Additionally, Amazon committed $10 million to the Closed Loop Fund; they’ve committed funding to support The Recycling Partnership in its effort to improve recycling across the United States; they are a member of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC). Amazon also uses the How2Recycle labeling system mentioned in my post about Walmart packaging.

Screenshot of Amazon's homepage

Plastic Air Pillows

More often than not, however, it seems that Amazon ships items with what are called ‘air pillows,’ those plastic bags filled with air to cushion products. In theory, these can perhaps be reused or recycled through a place that accepts plastic bags for recycling (note that those are likely not recycled). But largely, they add to the plastic bag waste stream and pollute our waterways. The use of these is the exact opposite of sustainability.

French press shipped from Amazon, with plastic air pillows.
French press shipped from Amazon, with plastic air pillows. Note: I ended up returning this French press and was able to reuse the same air pillows. But in most cases, air pillows are not reusable.

In another order, Amazon used a box closer to the size of the item package, and thus did not use air pillows. I wish they ship products like this more often.

Computer speakers shipped without plastic air pillows.
Computer speakers shipped in a cardboard box without plastic air pillows.

What to do with Amazon Packaging

It can be confusing and overwhelming to figure out what to do with all that packaging. Note that Amazon makes no attempt to reclaim its packaging for reuse or direct recycling. This is a missed opportunity to greatly reduce the impact of its packaging. The packaging is solely the consumer’s responsibility.

They have a page that helps you figure out what to do with their packaging. You can view each type of packaging Amazon that uses in its shipping and delivery, and see how they suggest you dispose of it. Their cardboard boxes and brown paper packaging are recyclable in most municipal recycling systems. However, their common bubbled and plastic shipping bags are difficult to recycle. You have to take them to a specific location that collects those types of plastic films, such as Publix which I mentioned in a previous post.

Last year, Amazon launched a fully recyclable paper padded mailer that protects products during shipping. I have received one or two of these but I was not aware that these were fully recyclable until researching for this post. Although you do not get a choice of packaging at checkout, fully recyclable packaging is long overdue so I’m glad it’s now available.
Amazon package recycling page

But Amazon’s priority is profit

In many ways, I am excited about all of the things Amazon is doing for sustainability. Amazon will always be looking at profit first, and overall they could do so much more. They should be more directly involved with Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR), which I wrote about in a previous post. Amazon encourages and advises its suppliers to follow EPR concepts, but the company does not have a take-back program for its own shipping packages.

Many consumers want to buy products that are sustainable and eco-conscious, but often don’t know what options they have. Amazon could make a significant difference just by overtly advertising their sustainable packaging options and Frustration-Free Packaging (FFP) program. I suspect many people just throw away much of the packaging they receive only because they don’t know what else to do with it.

Overall, Amazon is not doing enough. They, alone, have the ability to change the entire packaging industry.

Solutions

The most important thing you can do for the environment and your finances is to buy less. You can try to avoid purchases from Amazon and instead choose a local retailer. When you do make purchases, be a conscious consumer. Next time you order from Amazon, look for the FFP option if it’s available. Recycle all cardboard and recyclable mailers in your curbside recycling or at your local recycling center. Save the plastic mailers and recycle them at a local grocery store that accepts them. Last, but not least, the Plastic Pollution Coalition currently has a petition asking Amazon to stop using single-use plastic packaging. I’ve signed, will you please sign too?

Below, I’ve listed several companies that sell environmentally friendly packaging for shipping. There is no reason that companies like Amazon can’t switch to those types of mailers.

In my next post, I’ll explore companies that already have sustainability built into their products and unique packaging solutions. In a future post, I’ll address whether online shopping or in-person shopping is better for the environment.

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

 

Companies that sell eco-friendly shipping packaging:

EcoEnclose

Ecovative Design and Paradise Packaging – mushroom packaging

Ranpak paper packaging

Uline carries a line of paper cushioning products

Western Pulp sells molded fiber packaging

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.

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.1 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.2

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 1

Last updated on August 5, 2021.

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

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

 

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

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.”1

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 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).2 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: