The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 13

Last updated on February 14, 2021.

Trash littered beach
Image by H. Hach from Pixabay

Welcome to this part of my Packaging series! If you read my last post, you learned about refillable options for personal care items. Today, we will look at food packaging.

I honestly cannot say enough about food packaging because there is so much encasing our foods. Sometimes this is to make packing and shipping easier. Other times, food is overpackaged to create a false sense of sanitation, as mentioned in my first post in this series. BASF, a chemical company in the business of making such packaging, argues that “good packaging can enhance the cleanness and freshness of food, while offering branding opportunities for food manufacturers.”1 This is a false notion, and I believe plastic packaging causes more health problems than not using packaging.

“The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it.” —Robert Swan, author and explorer

The Produce Section: Bagging

Produce in plastic bags
Photo by Karolina Grabowska from Pexels

The produce section is where I spend most of my time in the supermarket. When shopping produce, we are encouraged, even prompted, to bag the items. When I starting going plastic-free, I bought my own reusable produce bags and continually use them at all grocery stores and farmers’ markets. You can buy bags like these, or even make your own:

Cloth mesh produce bags
Cloth mesh bag
Mesh produce bags
Mesh bags made from polyester or plastic. These aren’t ideal but they are infinitely reusable. Photo by Amazon
Cloth produce bags
Organic cotton muslin cloth bags

In her book, plastic-free expert Beth Terry notes that most fruits and vegetables have their own packaging.2 Produce like bananas, lemons, onions, garlic, and a host of others, have natural peels removed before eating. These do not require extra packaging.

Plastic bags have always been marketed to us as more sanitary. So much so, that you, dear reader, most likely cringe at the idea of not bagging your fresh produce. The truth is, that’s debatable and it comes at the cost of polluting the environments we live in. I wash most of my fruits and vegetables before I eat them anyway, whether they were bagged or not. 

Man holding unbagged produce over shopping cart
Image by CYNICALifornia from Pixabay

The Produce Section: Overpackaged

Plastic wrapping on produce can be extreme, and I’ve seen it in every type of grocery store. Such packaging is wasteful because it is so unnecessary. Here are numerous examples of overpackaged produce:

Bulk Foods

Person filling jar from bulk bins at store
Photo by Polina Tankilevitch from Pexels

When I mention bulk purchasing, I do not mean the oversized packages of coffee, peanut butter, and toilet paper from Sam’s Club or Costco. I am referring to the bulk bins in grocery stores and other food product shops. You can fill your own containers, just have them weighed at customer service first so you are not charged for the weight of the container. You can buy foods like beans, flour, granola, candy, dried fruit, etc. from these bins. Use glass jars or reusable cloth bags and avoid packaging altogether. Also, avoid bulk foods sold in “convenient” pre-weighed plastic containers like the ones pictured below. They defeat the purpose.

Prepackaged bulk food items.
Photo by Kurt Cotoaga on Unsplash

There are companies nationwide that offer refillable food items, such as Whole Foods, Fresh Market, Sprouts of Colorado, Rainbow Grocery in California, and Sustainable Haus in New Jersey. You can find shops that sell bulk items by searching Zero Waste Home’s app3 or by searching Litterless.com.4

Jar filled with item from bulk bins at grocery store
My own jar that I filled at the grocery store. Photo by me

No bulk in your area?

If there are not bulk bins available in the stores where you live, you still have options. Always choose glass instead of plastic packaging, since glass is 100% recyclable and plastic is recycled at a rate of under 10%. If a Container Deposit system exists in your state, use it because it ensures a much higher recycling rate for all types of materials. Look for brands of dried pasta that do not feature a plastic window (and if you buy that, please separate the plastic from the cardboard and only recycle the latter). Reuse Ziploc bags from deli meats and cheese. Avoid individually wrapped snacks, as it’s cheaper and better for the environment to buy a larger package and separate the food into small metal containers or reusable snack bags.

Loop

Created by TerraCycle, Loop is a closed-loop model that partners with consumer brands to put products in specially-designed durable and reusable containers. This is a take-back program, or a container deposit program, which we learned about in Part 7 of my Packaging series. Here’s a two-minute video explaining the business model and one way we can solve the disposable problem:

For a while, this was only available in parts of the U.S., but now it is available nationwide. While I love this business model, it still encourages consumers to buy some of the same products without changing their habits much. As Tom Szaky mentioned in the video, “let them experience a throw-away mentality but be doing the right thing from an environmental point of view.” This does eliminate single-use disposable packages, but as a consumer culture, we need to rethink how we spend, how we buy, and what we purchase.

I have attempted to purchase items from Loop several times, but I find it expensive. I don’t mind the container deposits because I’ll get those back. But the products have an upcharge and unfortunately, I cannot fit these into my budget. This makes it inaccessible to many people who want to support the cause. The upcharge to buy products in reusable packaging should be absorbed by companies, not put on consumers.

“Reusing an object saves time, energy and resources and does away with the need for waste disposal or recycling.” -Loop

Convenience vs. Environment

Our desire for convenience, driven by marketing and busy lifestyles, is killing the environment with packaging alone. Many argue that consumers have to change the way they shop; others argue that companies must change the packaging for items consumers buy. I think both are right – companies and consumers must change. Chris Daly of PepsiCo. believes that the convenience of packaging will continue because it is less work for the consumer. “Because these habits will be slow to change, we must continue to focus on improving the packaging that consumers take home and planning better for what happens to it,” he wrote in The Future of Packaging. Additionally, stores have to implement expensive infrastructure including the bins, scales, and systems for quality control and shrinkage.

But others disagree. In a well-written article, Karine Vann wrote that the use of bulk sections in grocery stores are not maximized to their full potential.5 These sections need promotion, normalization, and stores should educate consumers on how to use them. I believe this is entirely possible! We must do all we can to eliminate packaging waste.

“To truly reduce waste, advocates believe bulk must be more than just an aisle in the store—it must become a deliberate system that starts at home and continues seamlessly into the supermarket.” -Karine Vann6

Solutions

For more ideas, refer to my page on “11 Ways to go Plastic-Free with Food.” There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging on the internet and I’ve included some articles under Additional Resources below. Last, don’t underestimate the power of growing your own food in your backyard or on your balcony.

Salad bowl with vegetables from garden
Photo by Elias Morr on Unsplash

Remember, we can all make a difference in how we consume and how we generate waste. We’re all sharing this planet and its’ beautiful and valuable resources, and we have nothing to lose by working together to create change.

If you’d like to read my Packaging series in full, please see this quick guide highlighting the contents of each article. And if you’ve already read it, I thank you and please subscribe! I’ll see you in my next post.

“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, “How to Grocery Shop When You Can’t Bring Your Own Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated March 20, 2020. There are some great tips on how to shop and avoid packaging when you can’t bring your own containers.

Article, “Eat your food, and the package too,” by Elizabeth Royte, National Geographic Magazine, August 2019.

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

Article, “Grocery Stores May Soon Offer Your Favorite Brands in Reusable Containers,” Treehugger.com, updated February 21, 2020. This features information about Loop.

Video, “Closing The Loop: The End of Disposable Plastics,” Fortune Magazine, June 12, 2019.

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 11

Last updated on February 28, 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!

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.1 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.2 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.3 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.4

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.5

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.6

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 Basics7

Replenish & CleanPath

Replenish bottle refill diagram

CleanPath, which is part of Replenish,8 are refillable bottle systems that offer concentrated cleaners and foaming hand soap, which saves time, resources, and money.9 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.10 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.11
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.12

Cleancult

Cleancult carton refill

Cleancult sells refills for its line of cleaning products, and its refills are shipped in 100% paper mailers.13 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.14 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 10

Last updated on April 10, 2021.

Light bulb
Image by Arek Socha from Pixabay

In my multi-part series about the packaging industry, I’ve written about many types of packaging, packaging problems, and packaging solutions. Today I’m going to explore companies that already incorporate sustainability into their business model and those that are designing innovative and creative packaging.

But first, I wanted to exhibit my newest finding. In my post about packaging and Amazon, I wrote that Amazon does not currently reclaim any of its shipping packagings. Since then, I stumbled upon this compelling concept from Finland company Repack, a reusable and returnable packaging service.1 Check out this short video:

Companies with recycling built into their business model

Dr. Bronner

Dr. Bronner’s brand of organic liquid soaps has been around since 1948 and is a familiar brand in most healthy grocery stores. The company reuses and recycles within its facilities. They have been exclusively using 100% post-consumer recycled polyethylene (PET) plastic bottles for their soaps for the past 10 years. Approximately half of their post-consumer recycled plastic bottles are made from plastic sourced from curbside pick-ups in the state of California.

“‘Bottle-to-bottle’ recycling, the recycling of plastic bottles into new bottles, is also uncommon. Most times the plastic picked up on curbsides is ‘downcycled,’ shipped to countries like China, where it’s used to create synthetic fabrics for carpets and clothes, then shipped back to the United States for sale. Bottle-to-bottle recycling helps to close the loop and results in fewer greenhouse gas emissions.”2

Dr. Bronner's Cosmic Principles chart
Dr. Bronner’s Cosmic Principles

Unilever

Despite owning brands that use single-use disposable packaging, Unilever has been building sustainability efforts into their company for a decade. They set a goal to reduce pre-consumer waste which is the waste that is created during the manufacturing process. This is something we don’t normally consider but is a part of the packaging waste stream. The company applied a Zero-waste-to-landfill (ZWTL) concept where all non-hazardous solid waste “is not landfilled but instead reused, recycled, composted, or disposed of via some other outlet,” wrote Tony Dunnage in The Future of Packaging. “Today Unilever sees no landfill waste in its factories, has proud and inspired employees, has achieved $234 million in annual savings and cost avoided (to reinvest back into the business), and has created 1,000 jobs in the wider economy.”

Unilever also set a goal of using 100% reusable, recyclable, or compostable plastic packaging by 2025. They feature a lot of goals related to plastic packaging and recycling on their website.3 While I appreciate the effort that they are putting toward building sustainability into their business, we all know that recycling will not fix the problem of plastic waste. They need to move away from plastic packaging as much as possible.

This company owns dozens of brands of products you’re familiar with: Vaseline, Axe for men, Breyers ice cream, Dove, Hellman’s mayonnaise, Lipton Tea, Klondike bars, Q-tips, Pond’s beauty products, and many more. Many items could be packaged without plastic. Hellman’s mayonnaise could be returned to the glass jars in which they were once sold. I recently used up a tube of Vaseline lip therapy and when I went to dispose of it, I found no recycling symbol or number. So I saved it to recycle through TerraCycle, but Unilever’s intent for the tube’s end of life was the landfill. Some companies are using #5 plastic for tubes like these, which is still hard to recycle, but at least it is an attempt. Unilever can do better.

Q-tips

Unilever packages Q-tips in a plastic-covered box, and while recyclable, it’s just not necessary and fuels the plastic waste stream. These could easily be sold in a cardboard box. Environmental writers often suggest contacting companies directly about packaging changes. Most of the time I just stop buying products that have plastic packaging, but I decided I’d write to Unilever. I used their ‘Contact us’ page and simply asked if they’d consider moving away from plastic and selling Q-tips in cardboard packaging.

The response I got was more of a programmed response rather than a tailored customer service representative response. Only in the first paragraph did they indicate that “packaging is regularly evaluated” and that “the container could change at some time in the future.” The focus of the email was on sending me a replacement coupon so that I can buy more Q-tips. Thanks but no thanks, Unilever. I’ve switched to a brand of cotton swabs that comes in cardboard packaging. The most interesting part of this email was that next to the logo was the slogan, “Make Sustainable Living Commonplace.” Will this company live up to its own marketing?

Unilever email response to me.

Creative Packaging as Part of the Product

Toys are the best examples of creative packaging. The first example is Disney’s Moana doll. The packaging had instructions to separate the paperboard and plastic for proper recycling, and also encouraged children to use the Moana packaging in their play! Part of the packaging turns into a boat for the doll to go “exploring.” Here’s a quick video showing how it worked:

Last year, my son got a remote-controlled Monster Jam Grave Digger Truck whose cardboard packaging turned into a scaled ramp. While this is very cool, I will say that the toy broke within a couple of months, which only added to the plastic waste stream. 

A third toy, Educational Insights Design & Drill Bolt Buddies, also transforms the packaging into a corresponding setting for the toy:

I’m really excited to see such innovations with toy packaging, as it is typically very wasteful. I think there are lots of opportunities for dual-purpose packaging in all types of products and I hope more companies explore the concept.

Naked Packaging

Lush naked advertisement, girl holding package free Lush products
Lush Naked Products advertisement from the company’s Instagram

This is my absolute favorite because those of us who are striving for zero waste don’t want packaging. Lush Cosmetics is a good example of this, and I mentioned Lush in my post about shampoo bars. Around 35% of Lush Cosmetics’ products are sold without packaging, or “naked.” The overall impact of 35% is astounding: “Since 2005, we’ve sold more than 41 million shampoo bars, saving 124 million plastic bottles from ever being produced,” according to Lush.4

Lush shampoo bar
Lush shampoo bar

Products from Lush use recycled and recyclable materials. They also have a take-back program for items sold in their black plastic pots, such as body lotions and masks. They’ll even reward customers with a free face mask after returning a certain number of their pots. They use a closed-loop system for these – they send the pots back to their recycler who molds them into new pots for Lush.

“When it comes to packaging, less is more.” – Lush Cosmetics

I hope that more retailers start doing this when there’s no need for packaging. Many small businesses and Etsy shops will ship without extra packaging or plastic packaging upon request, so make sure to ask! Aquarian bath does not use plastic at all, and they can ship their bar soap and shampoo bars without packaging, or naked.5 So be sure to ask about this option when buying!

Sappo Hill

Sappo Hill berry soap

This company’s soaps and shampoo bars are naked or package-free. We started buying this brand because it was a moderately priced package-free soap available locally at Whole Foods and the late Earthfare. But they will ship package-free as well. It’s a very mild soap and it has never irritated my dry, sensitive skin. They prevent over 9 tons of packaging from going into the landfill every year by not individually wrapping their soaps. They also have a near Zero-Waste facility.6

Limited Packaging

Nourish Natural Bath Products

Nourish bar soap

This company7 makes my absolute favorite bar soaps with safe ingredients and sells them with a simple paper wrapper that I put in the compost. Additionally, they ship with all paper packaging:

Nourish shipment with all paper packaging
Nourish shipment with all paper packaging. Photo by me

They still sell some products in #1 plastic bottles, such as lotions and body washes. But they’ve recently come out with a refillable option for their liquid soaps. The next post in this series will be about refillable options to reduce packaging.

Ethique

Ethique Pinkalicious shampoo bar

Ethique sells shampoo, conditioner, body and facial soap, and moisturizers, all in the form of bars.8 This reduces emissions from the shipping of heavier liquid products. All packaging and shipping materials are plastic-free. They use cruelty-free, vegan, plant-based, and sustainably produced ingredients. I am interested in trying their products!

Solutions

Truthfully, if you ask a retailer to use less packaging or plastic packaging, they often will comply to keep you a satisfied customer. This works especially well with smaller companies and Etsy shops. So if you’re buying, speak up! I do this all the time and I often get complimented, not judged, for being so eco-conscious. Additionally, less packaging usually saves the company money! If you’re ordering online, you can put this request in the notes section on the order page. If there isn’t one, feel free to send the company a quick email either through their ‘Contact Us’ form or by replying to the confirmation order email.

There are many companies I did not mention and many packaging innovations that I may not have included, so feel free to share those. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe. In my next post, I will explore refillable packaging options, which may be another great solution in solving the waste and packaging crises.

 

“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

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

Additional Resources:

Article, “Bar Soap & Why It’s Better than Liquid Soap,” Because Turtles Eat Plastic Bags website, November 9, 2018.

Article, “Shampoo Bars Eliminate the Need for Plastic Packaging,” Because Turtles Eat Plastic Bags website, October 9, 2019.

Footnotes:

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

Last updated on February 28, 2021.

Bell pepper and green beans in convenient plastic packaging
These food items do not require this much packaging. Photo by me

In my last post, I introduced take-back programs. Today we will continue that topic and look at programs that are a bit more successful, meaning that the rate of recycling is high.

Snack bag found on the beach in South Carolina. Photo by me

“Plastic packaging for food makes up the majority of municipal waste in America.” -A Plastic Ocean

TerraCycle programs

I love TerraCycle’s entire concept of making new things from waste, and I think their mission of recycling everything and eliminating waste is brilliant. Many companies sponsor take-back programs through TerraCycle at no cost to the consumer.1 These are awesome for waste streams in which there is no recycling option. There’s one for instrument strings, pens and writing tools  (which has a waiting list), and Brita filters. I participate in Bausch + Lomb’s free program to recycle contact lenses and their blister packs (and they accept all brands, not just Bausch + Lomb).2 This particular program has drop-off sites all over the place, usually at eye care offices. I love this one because I have to wear contact lenses for vision correction.

Though these programs encourage recycling and keep waste from littering the environment, they actually discourage companies from exploring new packaging options. A company can sponsor a recycling stream, such as waste from applesauce packets, juice pouches, snack bags, cosmetic and personal care items, and pay TerraCycle to recycle the items. In this way, the companies can take a passive approach and not have to deal with the problem directly. It gives consumers the impression that those companies are taking sustainable actions, but it really makes waste the consumer’s problem. It takes a lot of time and effort to clean, save, and ship the items; and even if the program is free, not everyone can or will voluntarily do it. These programs are a band-aid for the gushing wound of pollution.

Again, I love what TerraCycle is doing! But I think it gives companies a reason to not be more active in their sustainability efforts. I think it’s a way for companies to take a NIMBY (“not in my back yard”) approach but not have to do much more than cover the minor costs. TerraCycle should be used for things people cannot avoid using, such as Brita filters, contact lenses, laundry detergent waste, shoes, and school supplies. But there are alternatives for things like snack bags, applesauce pouches, and coffee pods. Consumers should seek alternatives for those rather than trying to recycle them.

Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Glass Bottle Exchange

Homestead Creamery returnable milk bottles
This type of milk bottle used to be commonplace. Photo from Homestead Creamery

Historically, the bottled beverage industry used take-back programs during the twentieth century. This system of using returnable glass bottles for milk and soft drinks was better than recycling because it was truly a circular economy system. Bottles were washed and refilled as many as 20-50 times. While a few companies use this system today through a deposit program, like Homestead Creamery (sold at some Kroger’s grocery stores), this system of glass bottle exchange has largely disappeared in the United States. However, you can check Drink Milk In Glass Bottle’s website to see if there are any options in your region.3

Glass Coca-Cola bottles in red carry cases
Remember these? Image by SatyaPrem from Pixabay

Container Deposit Programs

A very successful type of take-back program is the container deposit program. While controversial, they reduce litter and environmental pollution and improve recycling rates. The consumer is charged a deposit fee of 5 or 10 cents per bottle or can. When the consumer returns that item for recycling, they get their deposit money back. This can include glass, plastic, and aluminum bottles and cans. Some call this system a tax, but it is clearly a deposit – when you return the container you get your money back, unlike with taxes.

Soda can with container deposit information engraved.
Many cans and bottles feature container deposit information as shown here. Photo by me

Benefits

The Container Recycling Institute (CRI) promotes the bottled beverage deposit system internationally.4 There are so many benefits to this system, as CRI President Susan Collins noted:5

      • Dramatic reductions in litter and marine debris
      • Reductions in energy use and greenhouse gas emissions due to fewer containers that need to be made from virgin materials
      • Additional jobs in recycling
      • More high-quality scrap for manufacturers
      • Extra income for consumers, charities, and community groups

Here’s a great short video from CRI explaining the system:

These systems are not meant to replace curbside recycling, but to supplement them to increase overall recycling. Curbside recycling is still not available to 50% of the American population, and curbside doesn’t address away-from-home consumption. Even where it is available, recycling rates have gradually dropped. “This decline is due in part to the increase in consumption of beverages away from home, and in public places where there are few available collection outlets for recycling. The drop in the recycling rate is also due to the shift away from aluminum to PET, which has a lower recycling rate,” according to Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010).6

“Using only single-stream curbside recycling (blue bins) fails to achieve even half of the recycling rate of container deposit laws. While curbside programs should be part of the recycling equation, because 30 percent to 50 percent of beverage containers are consumed away from home, residential programs alone can’t possibly be expected to produce high recycling rates.” -Susan Collins, CRI President

Container Deposit Programs are Quantifiably Successful

The first US beverage container deposit laws were passed in the early 1970s in Oregon and Vermont. Currently, this program exists in 10 US states and Guam, and 30 other countries around the world. The participating US states are successful at keeping recycling rates higher than states that do not participate. These states include only 28% of the US population, yet account for 46% of all beverage containers recycled nationwide. The overall recycling rate for bottles and cans with a deposit is 59%, compared to only 22% for bottles and cans without a deposit. Clearly, this system works well. The graph below shows the rates:

Graph from the Container Recycling Institute (CRI)

The participating states are California, Connecticut, New York, Vermont, Michigan, Maine, Hawaii, Iowa, Massachusetts, and Oregon. Sadly, there are no states in the southeast or states that border the Gulf of Mexico that participate. These are missed opportunities to protect our oceans and rivers.

Container Deposit Programs as Law

Legislation for this system is commonly referred to as “Bottle Bills.” A national bottle bill could be implemented as part of the recently proposed Break Free From Plastic Pollution Act of 2020. This would make the collection, redemption, and recycling of bottles and cans regulated and consistent and could increase the recycling rate to 80%!

“For the sake of our climate, our oceans and our future generations, we must do more to collect high-quality recyclable bottles and cans that can be used to produce new products. A national container deposit-refund law can make that happen.” -Susan Collins, CRI President7

Unfortunately, bottlers are usually against such bills because they do increase costs for them, though only slightly. Elizabeth Royte, the author of Bottlemania, wrote that every time a new Container Deposit bill is introduced or an expansion is proposed for an existing one, “Coke, Pepsi, and other bottlers hire lobbyists and run ad campaigns designed to stop them. And they usually do.” But the companies making so many single-use disposable containers need to step-up and be part of the solution.

Containers as Litter

I personally grew up in a container deposit state that also had curbside recycling, and never even thought to question it. It was just what we did (in addition to curbside recycling). Our family brought back bottles and cans to the grocery store each week, and we’d receive either the cash or a credit on our grocery total. I continued this practice into my adulthood. I didn’t see as much litter on the sides of the roads. In Tennessee, I feel like I see trash on every street, playground, and parking lot; much of the litter is from single-use beverage containers. According to CRI, beverage containers comprise 40-60% of litter.

Image of plastic container art dolphin shaped to represent percentages of plastic containers recycled.
See this and additional plastic art projects by clicking on the image. Photo from CRI

“There are many quantifiable but just as important benefits of increased container recycling: the cleaner roadways, the healthier waterways, the growth in local jobs and green businesses and the satisfaction that we are doing what’s right not only for the planet but for future generations.” –Bottled Up: Beverage Container Recycling Stagnates (2000-2010)8

Solutions

Some companies use greenwashing and ‘sustainability’ to make consumers buy more. However, as long as packaging remains the responsibility of the consumer, we must consume less and buy more consciously. Companies must invest in better packaging and establish Extended Producer Responsibility programs. States must implement Container Deposit Programs to curb the impact of single-use disposable beverages. These systems reduce litter and increase recycling rates. Ultimately, though, ceasing the use of single-use disposable containers is one of the most impactful things we can do for the environment.

Thanks for reading! Here’s a link to the first post in this series in case you missed it. In my next post, I’ll explore companies that are already making recycling and reduction part of their mission.

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Note: There are no affiliate links in this post; all links are for informational purposes only.

 

Additional Resource:

Publications, Data Archive, Container Recycling Institute, accessed February 28, 2021.

Footnotes: