While much attention is paid to technological innovations and consumer shifts, legislative policy is a driver with tremendous implications for the future of packaging.
Laws and regulations focused on packaging design are most familiar, such as recycled-content requirements and the elimination of heavy metals, but new policy trends address packaging at its end-of-life, through climate-change legislation or extended producer responsibility schemes.
As the sense of urgency around climate change intensifies, efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions have captured the attention of private citizens, industry and all levels of government. Recycling can reduce greenhouse gas emissions in several ways. Reprocessing recycled materials into new packaging typically requires less energy (and therefore lower carbon dioxide emissions) than creating virgin material. And diverting some forms of packaging from landfills can reduce future methane emissions.
The link between recycling and climate change was recently examined in Congress, when two bills relevant to packaging were introduced. The first would have created a national container deposit law to encourage beverage-container recycling. The second was an amendment to the Lieberman-Warner Climate Security Act, which would have provided funds for research on recycling as a way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Although neither of the bills passed, expect to see more federal legislation that links recycling and greenhouse-gas reductions.
Extended-producer responsibility (EPR), where a manufacturer remains responsible for its product over the product's entire life cycle, is also gaining support. The European Union, Japan, Korea and Canada all have comprehensive forms of EPR, which have resulted in a dramatic increase in the amount of packaging that is recycled and recovered. Some states, such as California, have also started discussions about comprehensive EPR laws. Container-deposit laws and electronic waste takebacks are forms of EPR focused on one type of package. In the absence of federal action on recycling, the real center of activity continues to be at the state and municipal level. Eleven states currently have container-deposit laws and though unsuccessful, 10 new state campaigns active in 2007 to 2008 demonstrate a high level of interest in this area.
Another burst of legislative activity targets the safe disposal of electronic waste. E-waste recycling laws are in force in 18 states and in New York City, and at least 10 more states are expected to take up the issue this year. While not directly related to packaging, the laws show a growing desire by consumers and legislators for manufacturers to take responsibility for their products.
EPR laws covering different packaging types are being implemented across the country. Thus, the interest in responsible disposal teamed with tight budgets and the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions could create up to 50 different packaging-compliance schemes unless there's more coordination at the national level.