Packaging professionals or not, we’re all consumers, and we all have a responsibility to the environment to be conscious of the packaging waste we generate. It’s a simple chain of events: we buy a product, use it, and throw away its now-useless plastic container or wrapper. TerraCycle is just one of the companies trying to address the post-consumer packaging problem, but there are more sources of packaging waste that occur before a product ever even hits the shelf. Just shipping products to stores requires an army of protective packaging, stretch wrap, plastic liners, containers and bags. Products need to be secured to pallets with linear low-density polyethylene wrap, sheets of plastic bubble wrap cushion items during transport, and polystyrene foam (Styrofoam) secures products and keeps them protected during shipping. The worst part is that all of this occurs behind-the-scenes, away from consumer scrutiny.
Once products are unloaded at a storefront, they usually have to be removed from even more layers of packaging. When a business like a fast food restaurant buys bulk quantities of things like plastic utensils or drinking cups, they come packaged in a container that must be discarded. A 2008 study published in Resources, Conservation and Recycling found that in the fast food industry alone, 93 percent of all packaging waste is technically recoverable (i.e. can be diverted from a landfill), but only 29 percent of it inevitably does. With no standardized recycling solution in place, these rates are likely to continue floundering at their current, dismal levels.
Unsurprisingly, these commercial waste streams are not industry-exclusive. In the clothing and fashion industry, clothes are often individually packaged in protective “polybags” before transporting to a store. These bags are made from low-density polyethylene, the same difficult-to-recycle material in plastic grocery bags. Each article of clothing must be bagged individually according to industry standards, meaning the clothing industry is generating a massive stream of plastic waste before the clothes even hit the shelves.
The good news is that there are companies taking the initiative to address commercial waste streams like these. For example, with the help of recycling company TerraCycle, outdoor clothing and equipment supplier The North Face started a recycling program to collect and recycle its own discarded polybags. The program works directly with 25 of The North Face’s retail stores, collecting used polybags and sending them to TerraCycle for recycling. Instead of going to a landfill, the 1.5 million polybags that have been recycled to date are turned into products like bicycle racks and plastic lumber. This translates to more than 62,000 pounds of plastic waste diverted from landfills and turned into recycled plastic.
A more sustainable solution would be for the clothing to be shipped polybag-free in durable, reusable containers or bags. Ideally, reusable containers for shipping products will become an industry standard across consumer markets. Not only would it prevent new waste from being generated, but it would simultaneously decrease costs and make the supply chain more sustainable. However, until that happens, this waste can be managed by adopted alternative systems of recycling.
Plastic commercial packaging like bags, packing foam and plastic wrap are particularly hazardous as they don’t degrade and are easily strew throughout the environment by the wind due to their light weight. Considering that only about 12 percent of the 3.8 million pounds of plastic sacks and bags generated annually in the United States are recycled, it’s obviously an incredibly pervasive problem.
If consumers should be held responsible for the packaging waste they generate from the products they buy, then the suppliers of those products should be held equally responsible for their own commercial waste. Without companies like The North Face to attack these hard-to-reach waste streams head on, the inevitable end of the line is likely a landfill or incinerator. These are unsustainable solutions that can be addressed right in the supply chain; by recycling and limiting the use of polybags and any other forms of disposable commercial packaging, product suppliers can lower material expenditures, use fewer resources, and make the supply chain far more efficient overall.
Author Tom Szaky, founder/CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, also writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, recently published a book called "Revolution in a Bottle" and is the star of a National Geographic Channel special, "Garbage Moguls."