Packaging: On the Road to Sustainability

Posted on 3/1/2016 10:52:46 AM By Hallie Forcinio

The environmental impact of packaging continues to receive a lot of attention. Even though lightweighting (source reduction) and recycling helped cut packaging discards 26.5 percent between 1994 and 2013, according to EPA and Census Bureau statistics(asquoted in “A Study of Packaging Efficiency as It Relates to Waste Prevention”).

As a result, packaging discards inched up only 1 percent between 1994 and 2012despite population growth and matching expansion in solid waste generation. With this small increase in packaging discards, packaging’s share of the solid waste stream shrank from 36 percent to 30 percentduring the period. At the same time, the amount of packaging materials recovered for recycling grew 55.8 percent,boosting the recovery rate from 33.5 percent to 51.6 percent.

Although packaging waste generation has stabilized in the United States, and packaging consumes less material and is more widely recycled, we can be better stewards of our resources. Unfortunately, it’s not always obvious which packaging format is the most sustainable choice. 

“A Study of Packaging Efficiency as It Relates to Waste Prevention,” published in January 2016, updates studies done by The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report in 1995 and 2006 and examines trends in retail packaging. It looks at more than 300 containers in 56 grocery categories to determine the amount of packaging required to deliver a given amount of product. Study methodology gave credit for source reduction, recyclability and use of recycled materials.

As in past years, when looked at from the perspective of packaging required per given amount of product, larger packages have an advantage, so do lighter packages, refillable packages and dry mixes, which eliminate the bulk and weight involved with liquid products.

Lighter packaging not only reduces packaging discards, but also conserves materials and energy and cuts greenhouse gas emissions.As a result, switching from rigid packaging to lighter flexible packaging continues to be a popular tactic to improve sustainability.

However,rigid packaging is recycled at higher rates. According to the Study, recovery for recycling plays an increasingly important role in the effort to reduce packaging discards and overall solid waste levels. It states, “This is especially true for steel and aluminum cans, beverage bottles made from polyethylene terephthalate, high-density polyethylene and glass, and paperboard cartons.”These materials were collectively recycled at a rate of 34.2 percent in 2013, up significantly from 25.7 percent in 2005.

To further boost this percentage, more containers emptied outside the home must be recycled. The Study notes, “Consumers need to be motivated to either bring these packages home for placement in their recycling bins, or provided with easy-to-find, out-of-home, recycling collection sites.”

The Study also says, packaging choices should pay attention to social demands, for example, for products that help achieve active, healthier lifestyles. Packaging that providesconvenience and portion control may mean smaller sizes, heavier weight or fewer recycling options, but may be the more sustainable choice at present. RobertLilienfeld, editor ULS Report, explains:“In general, the environmental impact of food is up to 10 times greater than the impact of its packaging. So, a bit more portion control or ready-to-eat food packaging can actually reduce waste, as these packages ensure that the food inside is actually eaten rather than thrown away.”

So product-to-package ratio is a good indicator of sustainability, but shouldn’t be the only criteria in packaging format selection. “…the protective and functional capabilities of a specific package are crucial factors in determining overall economic environmental, and social performance,” the Study concludes.