Product packaging that gets discarded usually end up as waste. Even when disposed of properly, packaging waste significantly contributes to pollution, directly harming animal life and the environment.
Each year, over a quarter of all solid waste produced in the United States comes from packaging and containers. Thankfully, there have been increasing global efforts to reduce packaging waste, partially due to worldwide sentiments and preferences shifting toward sustainability.
The United Nations’ proposal for stricter rules regarding greenhouse gas emissions and pollution was published in 2008, but governments and corporations have been slow to adopt these rules. Only in the last few years have certain US politicians begun to push for faster implementation, but it’s not enough. One example of environmental regulations is the Green New Deal.
As the world moves closer to the climate deadline, governments will push out harsher regulations to avoid total climate disaster. This comprehensive article will take a closer look at how to reduce packaging waste by using sustainable packaging solutions.
Packaging Waste Statistics: How Much Do We Throw Away?
Here are some relevant figures on packaging waste to better grasp the scale of the issue globally and in the United States.
- The US produces about 82.2 million tons of packaging waste each year
This figure includes glass, steel, aluminum, paper and cardboard, and plastic containers. Plastic waste is particularly damaging because of its extremely long decomposition period, during which it releases toxic chemicals.
- The packaging industry produces plastic waste at more than triple the rate of the next highest sector
Not all plastic turns into waste. For example, plastics used in construction last for an average of 35 years. In comparison, plastic packages have a significantly shorter lifespan, around six months or less. As plastic is so inexpensive, many companies design single-use plastic packages instead of reusable ones.
- Roughly 50% of all plastic is single-use
While convenient for customers, single-use or disposable plastic packages are extremely difficult to eliminate in the environment. The vast majority of the world’s plastic is still in the environment today.
- About 79% of all plastic waste has yet to be recycled, reused, or incinerated
Due to plastic’s prolonged decomposition rate, plastic products stick around for a long time unless disposed of. Waste plastics should be repurposed or incinerated to remove them from the environment.
- The United States recycles about 53.9% of packaging waste each year
While commendable, recycling efforts fall short regarding plastic packaging waste. The US only recycled 13.6% of plastic packaging in 2018. Most of the recycling is from recycling glass, paper and cardboard, steel, and aluminum containers.
Where Does Our Waste Go?
All adequately disposed waste ends up in one of three places: recycling plants, energy recovery sites, and landfills.
Recycling plants break down packaging and process them into base materials for reuse. Energy recovery sites burn energy-rich waste, such as wood, to make steam, which produces power. Finally, waste that can’t be recycled or incinerated is sent to landfills, allowing it to break down naturally. Landfills are specially prepared areas built to contain and monitor solid waste.
Landfills use clay and plastic liners to minimize interactions between the ground and potentially harmful materials in the trash. They also include systems to collect contaminated liquids and the methane gas produced when garbage breaks down. Authorities seal the site with more clay, plastic, and soil when at capacity. This process allows people to reuse the area.
Over 50% of US trash goes to one of over 3,000 active landfills, but the capacity is rapidly filling up because of the increasing waste production rate. Another negative of landfills is that they only partially prevent contamination and odor from leaking into the environment.
Understanding the Importance of Reducing Packaging Waste
There are two main reasons why companies must reduce packaging waste: environmental and economic benefits.
Environmental reasons to reduce packaging waste
Every stage of the packaging life cycle, from extraction to disposal, causes harm to the environment.
1. Reducing pollution
As of 2020, 91% of packaging waste produced yearly is in the environment. Whether on land or at sea, this amount of waste is damaging. Plastic is particularly adverse, as it releases toxic substances in the process of breaking down.
Earthworms and other soil fauna consume microplastics along with toxic substances. Microplastics also enter our food chain via the soil on land. In bodies of water, currents break apart plastic waste, creating small pieces for marine animals and birds to swallow. Eventually, humans eat these animals, potentially causing health risks.
Packaging contributes to air pollution by releasing greenhouse gasses (GHGs) during the extraction, processing, and packaging stages. Additionally, transporting the packaging to each point of its life cycle produces a significant amount of GHGs.
Reducing packaging waste greatly impedes land, air, and sea pollution. Planes, ships, and vans emitting GHGs transport the packaging from stage to stage. First, vehicles bring the raw materials to processing plants, then to the distribution centers. Afterwards, they reach your customers and finally arrive at landfills or incinerators.
2. Conserving natural resources
Most packaging materials, particularly plastics and metals, are made from and with finite, non-renewable materials such as crude oil and coal. Even packaging made from paper uses tree and plant fibers, taking a long time to regrow. Many of these containers are also single-use and are useless once consumed.
As previously mentioned, vehicles transport these packaging in every stage of its life cycle. Most of these vehicles use fossil fuels, depleting the world’s supply with every delivery. Additionally, fossil fuels are non-renewable.
Using less packaging reduces the need for new materials and saves these resources for future generations.
Economic reasons to reduce packaging waste
Reducing packaging waste means adopting sustainable designs and materials for your packages. This shift towards sustainability provides various benefits for businesses.
1. Long-term cost reduction
Using recycled material for packaging is often less expensive than using first-use resources. Sustainable design choices also focus on using less material to accomplish the same task, making your packages lighter. Lighter and more space-efficient designs save on transportation costs.
Additionally, there are federal and state tax incentives in the US for businesses that go green. Certain states restrict or fine businesses that use non-recyclable and harmful materials. On the other hand, companies that recycle or use recycling machines enjoy tax breaks in specific states.
Some sustainable decisions might have a higher upfront cost, but the long-term reduction in transportation costs, material usage, and tax requirements compensate for any short-term price bumps.
2. Marketing and brand image improvement
People are more concerned than ever with sustainability and the environment. In a survey, almost 80% of US consumers said they include sustainability in their considerations before making a purchase. Additionally, 70% said they would change their shopping habits if a brand weren’t operating sustainably.
By taking methods that reduce packaging waste, your business adapts to these sentiments and improves your public perception, potentially improving sales and customer loyalty.
Governments worldwide are regulating companies more and more with restrictions on pollution, GHG emissions, and waste production. While you might not need to do so immediately, switching to sustainable materials ensures your business is ready for any new regulations.
For example, if the brand’s product packaging relies heavily on aluminum and the state bans or limits its use, it can be costly to change the brand’s packaging material quickly. Future-proof your business to avoid this issue by adopting methods that reduce packaging waste and other environmental polluters.
How Can Companies Reduce Packaging Waste?
It helps to have a better understanding of packaging waste’s scale and life cycle, as well as the benefits that reduction brings to your business and the environment. Here are ways to reduce packaging waste.
1. Use sustainable packaging
Sustainable packaging is designed to minimize energy use, GHG emissions, pollution, and non-renewable material use throughout the life cycle of your packages. A great example is biodegradable packaging, which quickly decomposes without releasing harmful substances.
2. Develop a design with minimal packaging
Many products have three layers of packaging, which are unnecessary. When designing your packaging, minimize the need for these layers and cut out any unused material to reduce package weight and waste. In the wake of climate concerns, excessive designs produce more waste and are less attractive to consumers.
3. Use recycled and recyclable materials for cushioning
Consider replacing the standard foam inlays or bubble wrap if the product requires cushioning. Depending on the product kind and how customers dispose of the package, these materials are difficult to reuse. Instead, consider using shredded scrap paper or packaging straws, which are biodegradable and easier to recycle.
4. Create in-house recycling systems
Processing used materials into a usable state is expensive when done through a third party. An in-house recycling machine investment removes that long-term cost and provides tax benefits in specific states. For example, an industrial shredder can help you produce enough shredded paper for packing.
5. Create a return scheme
Your business can create a system that incentivizes customers to return their packaging. For example, offering reward points or discounts on future purchases. This strategy increases customer engagement, shows your company’s commitment to sustainability, and helps you have enough repurposing materials.
Reduce Packaging Waste by Thinking Outside the Box
The issue of packaging waste will take some real effort from everyone—businesses and individuals. By adopting sustainable design practices, you also lower your company’s production costs, improve public perception, and protect your operation from future regulations.
If you want to learn more about which packaging solutions your business needs, check out this product packaging guide. Get in touch with experts from Meyers and bring your packaging to life with professional printing solutions.