Packaging is so prevalent in our daily lives, many of us probably don’t think about the importance of the industry’s impact on the environment. But whether it is the rapidly growing number of e-commerce boxes showing up on your doorstep or the containers necessary to hold your beverage, packaging has an enormous impact on both people and ecosystems. Both the industry and consumers have made tremendous strides over recent decades, but there is, unfortunately, a very long way to go.
Where the problems lie
The packaging industry sources a wide variety of materials to put to use in getting both durable and non-durable goods to consumers and other businesses, but the dominant inputs are paper and plastic, which combined comprise an estimated two-thirds of packaging materials.
Both paper and plastic (in some cases) are recyclable, so why does packaging create environmental problems?
The answer is complex and layered but revolves around consumer behavior and recycling/recovery technology. Estimates vary, but U.S. consumers recycle a fraction of plastics consumed; the EPA’s 2015 municipal solid waste study put the recycling rate for plastics at 9%, while the Ellen MacArthur Foundation gives a little more credit at 14%. This has disastrous consequences for the environment, as a vast majority of single-use plastics (roughly 50% of all 335 million tonnes of plastic production) either end up in a landfill or polluted in the environment, including a tragic 8 million tonnes in the ocean. While plastics in a landfill is better than in the ocean, the hundreds of years required for plastics to biodegrade still represent a mountainous environmental issue.
Thankfully, recycling rates are much higher for paper and paperboard – the same EPA study estimated a 67% recycle rate. Furthermore, paper products biodegrade far faster than plastics. However, the improvement over plastics is not a clear-cut win. As we covered in our Nonwood Pulping post, recycled paper fiber has significant quality issues and can only last through a few recycling turns. And with wood being the dominant source of virgin fibers for paper packaging, the industry can still improve by turning to carbon-negative, rapidly renewable feedstock such as hemp or kenaf.
Where the opportunities to improve exist
You may be disappointed at this point in the post, but don’t lose hope! The packaging industry is highly aware of a need for greater sustainability and is investing heavily to lower its environmental impact. And the industry goes beyond lip service – creative approaches such as improving packaging to make food last longer (thereby lowering food waste and logistics) or increasing usage of flexible packaging to optimize transportation for e-commerce and lower the use of plastic.
Another source of optimism: increasing use of bioplastics, which are set to almost triple in the five years ending in 2022. Not only do bioplastics lower the amount of energy-intensive plastic production necessary, but they also biodegrade faster than the regular plastic equivalent. While there can be logistical challenges for recycling bioplastics, the extremely low recycling rate of plastics, in general, suggests the biodegradability advantage of bioplastics trumps any recycling challenges.
Finally, consumer behavior patterns are changing: the EPA study did note the plastics recycling rate has quadrupled since 1990. And consumers are demanding more sustainable practices from themselves and the companies they buy from.
So there is a lot of room for improvement, and a lot of room for hope, to move to more sustainable packaging. And Sunstrand can help in every aspect: consumer education, nonwood pulp to lower deforestation, or additives for bioplastics.