Less than 7% of purchases we make use packaging for protection. Packaging is required to protect these products to prevent waste due to damage. In developing countries, there can be food waste as high as 50% because it was not properly protected, while places like the UK experience only about 3% waste. If packaging was not used, there would be a lot more product waste. The more product waste, the higher the energy costs to accommodate for this waste. Less than 3% of packaging waste is actually sent to the landfill while the other percentage is reused in some manner. The harmful waste that can be found in landfills comes mostly from industrial waste rather than the perceived household waste.
Recycling (also known as recovery) is an economy. If a package, such as a coffee bag, is placed into the paper recovery stream, the metal and plastic embedded within it will reduce the value of the recycled paper stock it now pollutes. In addition, packaging that is difficult to sort properly will result in less material recovered. Thus less incentive for businesses to exist to recover the material. The way to combat this is to educate the manufacturers, brands, and consumers on the economic needs of everyone, including the recyclers of “recoverers” of materials.
For example, Whole Foods took a lot of social media attacks for their pre-peeled oranges in clamshell packaging. This is a classic example of over-packaging. The skin on an orange does a perfectly good job at preserving an orange. A peeled orange in a plastic container actually reduces the shelf life of an orange.
In contrast to the orange, this plastic-wrapped cucumber is an example of good packaging that extends the shelf life and prevents water loss. Wrapping a cucumber extends its shelf life from 3 days to 14 days - more than three times longer than an unwrapped cucumber. In this scenario, it’s important to keep in mind the cost / benefit and impact of additional packaging. If a slight increase in packaging results in gains that exceed the costs and environmental impact, then additional packaging should absolutely be considered in the design.
To conclude, it’s important to consider these four points as you form your own views of sustainability:
Manufacturers, Consumers, & Recoverers are all economies
Ask questions on how to encourage a circular economy for package designs
Consider the costs vs. benefits of packaging materials
Consider all waste as food waste - where less waste = more food
To learn more, check out the free trial of The Packaging School’s Sustainable Packaging course.