PATH TO PROPER MANAGEMENT OF PACKAGING WASTE

INTRODUCTION

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), packaging waste defined as packaging products that are assumed to be discarded the same year the products they contain are purchased. Since plastic isn’t biodegradable, every piece of plastic that was ever made is still on this planet. These plastics might further breakdown into microplastics. Dumping plastic waste in oceans has severely affected marine animals.

Reports from the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) suggests that packaging-related materials make up more than 30 percent of landfill waste (shown in Fig. 1). Quantitatively it is around 75 million tons annually, two-thirds of which is food packaging material. Furthermore, consumer goods generate around 207 million tons of packaging waste annually.

These enormous numbers are a serious cause of concern and is inspiring nations all around the globe to push for a packaging detox. More and more consumers are demanding an eco-friendlier approach to this problem.

Fig 1: Total MSW Generation (by product category), 2012
251 Million Tons (before recycling)
Source: Weebly.com

The Pitfalls of Packaging

Besides contributing to waste production, packaging also negatively impacts the environment in several other ways:

  • The production requires a lot of energy and results in greenhouse gas emissions contributing to global warming.
  • If discarded without proper care, it might harm wildlife and pollute the air, water, and soil.
  • Exhausting water, soil, and other natural resources.

ECO-FRIENDLY APPROACH TO PACKAGING

Ways to eliminate packaging waste.

Direct Elimination:

The most efficient approach is to remove the unnecessary extra packaging where it is not needed at all. Since the launch of Walmart Canada Charter of Plastic, Walmart Canada has implemented several packaging changes which in turn will prevent more than 1.1 million pounds (the weight of 100 elephants) of plastic from entering the supply chain. Their recent contribution to the cause include:

  • Elimination of plastic wrap from organic bananas bunches which resulted in the removal of about 14,000 lbs. of plastic.
  • Elimination of plastic wrap from single peppers resulted in the removal of about 193,000 lbs. of plastic.
  • Removal of 420,000 lbs. of expanded polystyrene by introducing new packaging for sausage trays.
  • Avoiding the use of 925,000 lbs. of new plastics annually by increasing the post-consumer recycled content in the packaging holding baked goods.

According to Greenpeace, several supermarkets have come under fire from environmental campaigners for increasing the use of single-use plastic, which rose to 903,000 tonnes in 2018. Also, another joint report by Greenpeace and the Environmental Investigation Agency states that the top eight UK supermarkets produced 58.3 billion pieces of plastic packaging. Most of the supermarkets like Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Asda, Morrisons, and Waitrose pledged to clear hard-to-recycle “black plastics” from shelves. Tesco is also getting rid of multipack plastic packaging. Tesco’s move is also supported by the World Wide Fund of Nature.

Innovative Elimination:

An innovative eco-friendly design can be considered a good alternative in some cases where packaging is essential. One such case being, Carlsberg replacing the former plastic rings holding six-packs of beer with dots of glue that stick the cans together.

ICA Gruppen was the first grocery retailer in Sweden to test laser marking in a pilot project on organic avocados and sweet potatoes to differentiate between conventionally grown produce and organic produce. The project is further expanded to other organic fruits and vegetable products. The marking is a unique approach to reduce the environmental impact by eliminating the need for plastic wraps and sticker labels while at the same time it helps distinguishing organic products from conventionally grown products (shown in Fig. 2). The new, sustainable label is etched directly on the skin using a laser that changes the pigment on the skin, which further displays the product’s name, country of origin, and PLU code. Upon using the laser, only the pigment in the outer skin of the fruit or vegetable is changed. The method does not affect the product itself.

Fig. 2: ICA Gruppen Laser Marking to etch sustainable labels on organic products.
Source: Fruitnet.com

Water-soluble films have revolutionized the laundry and dishwasher detergent industry with its soluble unit dose systems that are used by the world’s leading consumer brands. The films dissolve completely upon contact with water and are biodegradable thus preventing any sort of environmental contamination and do not contribute to micro-plastic pollution.

Refills

In scenarios where the complete removal of packaging is not possible, it can be reused. Major manufacturers such as Unilever have introduced reusable, refillable packaging to help cut plastic waste and help to prevent environmental contamination.SC Johnson has started offering concentrated versions of products that can be decanted into spray bottle at home. Bite toothpaste tablets have promoted the use of fully recyclable, and infinitely refillable glass bottles to help curb the problem of packaging waste.

Global beverage giants such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have invested heavily in recent years to improve beverage dispensers and encourage consumers to use their own bottles. It’s part of a handful of new strategies that the company has adopted in recent years to try reducing plastic waste. The company has recently started selling its beverage in aluminum cans in some regions and plans to expand this method all over the globe.

CONCLUSION

Packaging has been responsible for an extraordinarily high proportion of waste, which leads to environmental contamination. Many companies are starting to take an eco-friendly approach when it comes to packaging of their products, driven by pressure from increasingly environmentally-conscious consumers. India currently sits in 15th position among the rankings of the biggest plastic polluters in the world. The Indian manufacturing industry can adopt some of the aforementioned methods to prevent plastic pollution.

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