Packaging designers and manufacturers are increasingly taking up the practice of “lightweighting.” Cited as reducing a company’s carbon footprint, as well as costs, throughout the supply chain, lightweighting is done by either replacing packaging material with a lighter weight alternative (such as a flexible plastic pouch versus a glass bottle) or cutting down the amount of packaging material used.
However, though a package that is in itself less costly to ship, lighter in weight and volume, and conserves natural resources may suggest reduced environmental impact, there are other factors to this lightweight-packaging trend we must consider, particularly in the food and beverage sector.
The problems with “lightweighting”
Lightweighted packaging configurations are often marketed to consumers as being more affordable, more convenient and making less of an environmental impact by taking up less volume. However, the trade-off of a lighter package is often one that is neither reusable nor recyclable, destined for landfill or incineration and the inevitable pollution of our natural ecosystems.
For example, in many cases, a lightweighted package, like a juice pouch, is multi-compositional in nature and not recyclable in the current waste management infrastructure. The multi-layer films from which most pouches are comprised are often made up of several different plastics, which are difficult to recycle because these components require separating.
Further, the waste created by the various fitments that give lightweighted items high functionality (such as straws, caps and spoons) are also not recyclable through curbside collections due to their small size. These loose add-ons fall through the screeners at municipal recycling facilities and are missed for recovery.
The biggest problem with lightweighted packaging is that producers and manufacturers of these items have not designed end-of-life solutions into their packaging innovations. Where items like pouches and sachets bring down costs, we see packages with decreased recyclability in largely inefficient waste management infrastructures, compounding the issue of their pollution.
A better solution
Ideally, consumers have increased literal and financial access to products and packaging comprised of reusable, recyclable materials. Making products and packaging that are highly recyclable and built to last, as well as education about recycling and access to public recycling programs, available to more consumers is part of the solution to the scourge of disposables that are largely the result of the lightweighting trend.
Packaging designers and manufacturers have moved away from a history of containers made of glass and metal (such as glass milk bottles and metal jugs), durable, quality materials that vest items with value, and forward to create demand for disposable configurations that promote convenience and inexpensiveness. Marketing long-lasting, durable items as comparable or exceeding the now-standard market products in areas of performance, credibility and, most importantly, cost, removes the prohibitive barriers to these more sustainable purchases.
Part of this entails changing the paradigm around the ownership of products. For example, sharing services like AirBnB (space-sharing), Lyft (ride-sharing), ZipCar (car-sharing) and Blue Apron (food-sharing) are growing in popularity, cutting down some of the waste and inconvenience associated with owning a product. Finding a way to transfer this value benefit to food and beverage products might change the way consumers view the purchase of these goods.
In the meantime, it is necessary for manufacturers and major brands to take responsibility for the products they put on the market. Considering that lightweighted and other difficult-to-recycle packaging items continue to proliferate in consumer product industries that are constantly innovating, companies need to solve for the costs of collecting and treating this waste, putting forth the resources to design end-of-life solutions.
Author Tom Szaky, founder and CEO of TerraCycle, has won more than 50 awards for entrepreneurship, writes blogs for Treehugger and The New York Times, published a book called "Make Garbage Great" in July 2015 and is the star of the television show "Human Resources.”
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