Earth Day and the Future of Packaging

Tomorrow, Sunday, the 22nd of April, will be Earth Day and the internet will be overloaded with the most beautiful photos of what is left of this planet. This is all nice and dandy from an historical point of view, with the accent on historical. Yes, let’s show our children how beautiful the earth once was. Safe the beautiful photographs for the next generations. They might be the only thing they will have.

However I am more interested in what we are doing to conserve the beauty of this earth, or what is still left of it. And then of course in relation to packaging. That brought me to write an essay about the future of packaging.

I am not a futurist, I have no crystal ball. I am solely interested in the future of packaging as a result of developments in packaging technology. Setting the parameters of future packaging will be my theme of this Earth Day.

The consumer is King
It looks like as if packaging is a doomed species. Doomed as a growing hard-core group of consumers only typify it as wasteful and not only think, but promote vigorously that less consumption will save the world and consequently prefer to abandon all packaging.
Looking at the past, we must agree that they have a point.

The modern consumer in general is romanticizing nature and demonizing the industry. And let’s be honest the industry indeed is the culprit.
When you look at all the press releases over the last few years relating the millions of pounds in saving of packaging material, you really wonder what the packaging industries as well as the packaged goods companies have done in the years before. And although there is a lot done, the industry hasn’t come much farther than trimming down, down weighting and using thinner material. There is an absolute end to all that. We have to be a little bit more intelligent.

In 1992 at the “Earth Summit” in Rio de Janeiro the word “eco-efficiency” was coined. This, so it was hoped, would transform industry from a system that takes, makes, and wastes into one that integrates economic, environmental and ethical concerns. Essentially, eco-efficiency means doing more with less. Although crucial, eco-efficiency only slows down the rate of environmental damage and resource depletion.

And that brings us to biodegradability. The big ‘green-washing’ slogan, found in any press release and in these days on almost any label.
Let’s face the bitter truth. More than 80% of packaging ends up at landfills, where nothing biodegrades. A situation which will not change in the near future.

Composting companies don’t touch so called biodegradable material, as it biodegrades too slowly and with residues unknown. The landscape is littered with packaging and even worse most consumers can’t determine whether a packaging is biodegradable or not.

And as final point. It might biodegrade at the long run, but it doesn’t enrich the soil. Conclusion: It is a waste. A cradle-to-grave solution.
Eco-efficiency, and that includes biodegradability, lets industry finish off everything: quietly, persistently, and completely.
Case in point: Composting-an-end-of-life alternative offered by PLA and others, is an inefficient (and I even want to define it as an immoral) way and only serves the slogans of marketing.

A new philosophy emerged: Cradle-to-Cradle
The funny thing is that, in contrast to eco-efficiency, the cradle-to-cradle philosophy encourages consumers to buy more products. However the condition is, that they do so from innovative companies which have policies in place to recycle old products, turning waste into new products.
Cradle-to-Cradle allows us to feel good again about being consumers, but to also take responsibility about whom we buy new goods from.

The term cradle-to-cradle is often used for situations in which the recycled material is used for (secondary or low-quality) products. I strongly object to that definition and want it to be narrowed down to reusing the packaging material for equally qualified new packaging material. I decline the option of cradle-to-substitute. So when the industry thinks it can recycle from packaging material to children’s toys, drainage pipes or whatever product, it is on the wrong track and the consumer will recognise the company as one which is still using virgin resources exclusively.

However, you could argue, that the current system for recycling is ineffective. And indeed it is a fragmented infrastructure based on municipal boundaries, and each area does collection differently and selective waste collection often loses in the battle for funding. But that is no reason for the industry, to run away from the problem, as Extended Producer Responsibility is lurking around the corner.

Extended Producer Responsibility
Begun 20 years ago as a solution to landfill problems in Europe, more than 30 countries now have some type of EPR packaging law. EPR programs shift the costs and responsibilities to the marketplace. Extended producer responsibility may be as many as 5 to 10 years from becoming a reality in the United States and everywhere else, it will inevitably arrive. So much better to join the pack early on.

EPR makes sure that everyone involved in the life cycle of the product shares in the responsibility for the product’s life cycle impact. What’s more, based on the experience, the overall costs, per ton, in EPR systems for packaging in Europe tend to decline over time.

To conclude: Besides consumer convenience, “waste-control” is the most important parameter for the future of packaging. Although of imminent importance, basically it has nothing to do with developments in new materials, but all with the future of Mother Earth.

So don’t wait for some high-tech solution to start controlling your waste.

I wish everybody a fruitful Earth Day. As ………..

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11 responses to “Earth Day and the Future of Packaging

  1. Thank you Anton for this interesting and thought provoking article.
    Wouldn’t it help if the regulatory agencies decide to levy some kind of environmental protection tax on small unitary packs that consume highest ratio of packaging material per quantity of contents packed ? Aren’t these small unitary packs the ones that cause maximum extent of hazard to the environment, increase the need for packaging material and thereby increase the need for sustainable disposal methods ?

    • Thanks for your comment. The article was meant to be provoking. There are too many industries out there which think they can close their eyes for the consequences and avoid reality.
      There are countries, mainly in Europe, where a (refundable) packaging tax is levied. In Holland you buy your beer in glass bottles and pay 15 eurocents extra. Go back with the empty bottle and you receive your 15 cents back. The same for large PET bottles from Coca-Cola and anybody else. Same in Germany, where there also is a pack tax on metal cans.
      Small unitary packs have indeed a very high ratio in relation to packaging material. At the other hand with more one-person households and singles, it safes tremendously on food waste, which is much more important than packaging material, as pack material can be recycled and reused. Food waste is a killer in our world. You can’t recover food waste and can’t compost it (only fresh green, not processed food). Your argument about increasing disposal facilities, is of no importance, as we have to go to a situation where we recover all and every material we have used.

  2. The excellent results from Brazil, particularly in aluminium beverage can recycling are well recorded. Two questions:

    How does Brazil handle aerosol cans? Particularly Aluminium…

    And seeing that the Dutch pay deposit on their beverages, do they pay on aerosol cans and return them too?

    • Nick, the excellent Brazilian results in recycling, as you like to call them, are (in my opinion) false and misleading. Roughly only 6% of all Brazilian waste is recycled. You want to call that excellent? Thanks to the catadores in some areas the alu cans are picked up, but only locally and sparsely. Read my article: Earth Day – The Brazilian Way (http://wp.me/pyK66-ub).
      And no the Dutch don’t pay a tax for aerosols, they are collected and recycled like beverage cans.

      • Hi Anton

        Thanks for the prompt response.

        My remarks on Brazil were based on reports from the aluminium beverage can industry that claim over 90% recycling rate.

        This , of course may be a centre of excellence, in an otherwise ‘work in progress’ like the rest of planet Earth.

        I am sure great strides have been made in other industries – will you be ‘drilling down’ in your analysis and commentary?

        Best Regards

        Nick Tselentis

      • Nick, keep an eye on my blog Brazil In Hot Pants and you will see what happens over here. Certainly recycling activities are a point of interest for my blog.

  3. Pingback: Package Machinery – Overwrapping Machines » For Earth Day: is Compostable better than Recyclable?·

  4. Thank you for another exceptional article on packaging. I particularly like you comments about biodegradable material, which composting companies cannot handle because it biodegrades too slowly and with residues unknown. Accordingly, the Sun Chips PR efforts by FritoLay are greenwashing at their worse.

  5. In Quebec, Canada, we pay a refundable deposit on many items such as aluminium cans, plastic bottles, large water containers, wood pallets, steel drums, car tires etc. The plastic bags have been removed from retail stores. One has to bring his own carry-bags. Domestic recuperation of paper, glass, plastic, compostable matters and dangerous products are collected by municipalities. Because of costs or lack of recycling needs or means it seems that some of these materials end up in landfills anyway. There is a lot left to do namely with single-portion water bottles that spread all over the place. Social awareness is clearly established here. 300,000 people walked on Montreal streets last sunday letting me think that hope is still an option around here.

    • Luc, looks very much similar as in Holland. Plastic bags are banned, like you bring your own multi-use bags. Waste is pre-selected by the consumer and deposited at specific collecting points. Everything, even furniture, tv’s, clothes etc. Maybe, maybe ever …

  6. Great article. My wife and I always BYB (bag not beer ;) to grociery. We have a Trader Joes in town, but have since weened our selves off going there, because of their overall footprint of buying from out of the country. Plus they use so much packaging. We have a COOP in town that is w/i walking, so that is the better alt. Thanks!

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