If you’ve navigated excessive packaging, perhaps you’ve been baffled by the pile of plastic, cardboard, or foam scaling higher than the item you purchased. Packaging can be useful and even necessary to keep items from breaking or to prevent food waste by extending shelf life. But the volume and materials used must be scrutinized to reduce environmental impacts.
The problem with packaging
Over 80 million tons of packaging enter our waste stream each year. Half is recycled, 40 percent is landfilled, and 10 percent is incinerated. And there’s a sea of impacts before even arriving at stores, as the production of goods and packaging consumes energy and resources while emitting greenhouse gases. There are practices to lessen impacts and companies are increasingly offering more sustainable options, but there are issues around access. Not all stores stock these products and confusing labeling and greenwashing can make choosing sustainable options difficult. There can also be barriers of increased cost to many items.
Individuals can strive to avoid overconsumption and responsibly utilize recycling and compost options for disposal. But companies have control at the design stage and a responsibility to improve practices. That’s why individuals and communities are urging companies to take more accountability for packaging waste and find solutions.
There are a many ways for companies to curb waste and negative impacts. It’s best for brands’ environmental goals and bottom lines to start by identifying ways to reduce waste. This includes cutting unnecessary materials and “right-sizing” packaging to minimize empty space and still protect products. Companies can explore reusable packaging in ways such as offering bulk goods in stores that customers can collect in their own containers or by incentivizing customers to return packaging for reuse through deposits or discounts. Shifting to recycled content in packaging and products can reduce demand for new material through extraction processes like mining and deforestation. Using recycled materials also reduces energy consumed and emissions created in the manufacturing stage.
Companies should consult with recyclers to ensure that their items will be widely accepted across recycling programs to be reused again. Packaging should have clear recycling instructions for consumers, such as the How2Recycle label, which assesses collection availability, design components, and end markets for materials. Compostable packaging alternatives certified by Biodegradable Products Institute offer great possibilities to reduce impacts. Although robust compost collection infrastructure is not yet available across the country, many communities and local governments are working to develop programs, and this will continue to grow.
While urgent action is needed, it’s critical that companies not substitute one material with another without understanding potential consequences. For example, simply swapping plastic with paper, particularly paper that isn’t recycled and Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified, can lead to increased pressure on forests. The goal is finding the right balance of packaging that operates within a circular model and cuts emissions that contribute to the climate crisis.
Small business leaders of nationwide brands are implementing these practices. Annie’s Homegrown, which makes organic meals and snacks, is one example. It uses 100 percent recycled fiber boxes with clear recycling instructions and recently launched cereal liners made with minimum 35 percent recycled content. Beyond packaging, Annie’s is enhancing regenerative agriculture to build soil health and fight climate change. It reports annually with key performance indicators to track progress and stay accountable to consumers.
Above all, sustainability must be a pillar in decision-making throughout supply chains, not solely in packaging. If products are made with socially unjust and environmentally damaging practices, it’s not sustainable for people and the planet. We can all take part in urging shifts to sustainable packaging and call for companies to deepen environmental and social responsibility commitments.