All too often, there is more packaging than product. The cardboard box is encased in a plastic theft-proof container, and inside the cardboard, the minute-by-comparison product is sealed between two protective pieces of Styrofoam. Usually, each of these levels of packaging serves a purpose; however, the plastics and foams are often not recyclable and become post-purchase waste. While it’s likely that we will remain a consumer society, producers can be encouraged to minimize plastic packaging through mutually-beneficial exchange programs.
In most developed countries, packaging alone constitutes about one-third of all municipal solid waste. Likewise, in developing countries, container waste is also on the rise; as standards of living increase, so do plastic-wrapped commodities. According to the EPA, there are nearly 30 countries worldwide that have developed legal sanctions encouraging manufacturers to reduce packaging and/or increase recyclability. Manufacturers in some countries are legally obligated to accept container returns and reuse or recycle all packaging discards, often having to pay for recycling out of pocket. The United States, however, is not currently one of these countries with production and packaging laws.
Regardless, concern over packaging waste is abundant. The EPA encourages manufacturers to abide by the principles of “product stewardship”: eliminating toxins, decreasing quantity, and increasing reusability and recyclability while using more recycled materials in production. The acceptance of an extended producer responsibility (EPR) on the part of manufacturers would relieve much of the waste-management burden of local governments. Product Stewardship Institute is an NGO working to engage stakeholders in a push toward a nationally-recognized EPR system.
Increased reusability and recyclability would have great potential for reducing municipal solid waste if relevant laws could be enforced on the national level. Furthermore, if manufacturers were to practice EPR, they could potentially cut costs by decreasing what gets literally thrown in the bin.
In the “reduce-reuse-recycle” triad, the components are listed in order of best practice. Because it is a preventative measure, reducing the production of new packaging is clearly the most beneficial and immediate way to reduce waste, and in theory, costs. Furthermore, reusing is a more valuable effort than recycling, which relies on energy-intensive production, chemical treatments, and which often generates additional pollutants.
Here is where packaging exchange programs come into play: by reusing already-produced materials, manufacturers avoid the expenses of new production and recycling. However, to reuse materials, they first have to be recovered. Sydney-area industries have recently agreed to a recovery-reuse program to help achieve financial, social and environmental sustainability. This case demonstrates that these three goals, which so often seem at odds with each other, can actually be merged into a single, mutually-beneficial arrangement.
A similar initiative was started in California, which recycles 65% of all materials and thus leads the country in this endeavor. CalMAX, a division of CalRecycle, has created a network of resources for industries to better facilitate materials exchange. Education and training through workshops and “business kits” help prepare and transition businesses, organizations, and schools into green-running, waste-reducing network members.
Cooperation between organizations of all types can lead to significant improvement in waste management and its efficiency. And because efficiency is one of the primary goals of all industries, there is great potential for packaging exchange networks to relieve the costs – financial, social and environmental – of container use and disposal.