Packaging makes up nearly half of plastic waste
- Plastic for packaging made up 36% of all plastic production in 2015. This is higher than any other use, according to a 2017 study by researchers at the University of California, Santa Barbara; University of Georgia; and the Sea Education Association. The researchers said the publication was the "first global analysis of all mass-produced plastics."
- Packaging represents a greater share of the plastic waste stream than its share of the total plastic currently being produced. The plastics from packaging entering the waste stream were more recently produced than plastics from other areas, the study found.
- "Most of the packaging plastics leave use the same year they are produced, whereas construction plastics leaving use were produced decades earlier, when production quantities were much lower," the study reads.
More packaging plastic is being recycled than ever before, and retailers and manufacturers are taking a hard look at their practices in an attempt to reduce the amount of plastic packaging they use in their operations.
Adam Gendell, the associate director of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition (SPC), said progress is being made on making more sustainable packaging. SPC is a nonprofit with members that include many of the nation's largest companies; its Executive Committee includes employees of 3M, Nestlé, Coca-Cola and Dow Packaging and Specialty Plastics.
Modern plastics are thinner and made of "high-performance plastic structures" that help to make the packaging more carbon-efficient and reduce waste. The downside, though, is "many of these types of plastic packaging that are gaining market share do not have any means of being recycled or recovered at their end of life - they're incompatible with the existing recovery infrastructure," Gendell told Supply Chain Dive in an email.
SPC is working with industry to look for recovery methods that work for these kinds of plastics, he said.
"Make no mistake," Gendell said, "it will be a titanic effort to establish these new recycling technologies at the scale necessary to achieve major change, but there is wide recognition among industry players that something titanic must be done if they are to continue using plastic packaging. Lots to be done, but we're encouraged by the amount of activity since single-use plastic packaging came under the spotlight."
Companies are also changing traditional plastics that don't work in the existing recycling stream due to colors, labels, adhesives or additives, he said.
Coca-Cola said it wants to make its packaging 100% recyclable globally by 2025. Lego plans to make all of its products and packaging from sustainable materials by 2030. And Johnson & Johnson plans to make 90% of its packaging recyclable in the U.S., U.K., Germany, Canada and France by 2020.
Kroger found out in 2017 a more sustainable packaging solution improved the supply chain for its produce. The company started using reusable plastic containers for shipment and found they "improve product quality and significantly reduce waste by protecting fresh fruits and vegetables from the time they are packed at the farm or processing plant, throughout shipment and storage, and ultimately arrival at our stores."
Companies that move toward more sustainable practices surrounding their plastic packaging face less business risk moving forward, Gendell said.
"Some consumers may buy into a good spin job, but industry has to meet the expectations of consumers, environmental NGOs, government agencies, and their supply chain partners, who each represent unique business opportunities and risks," he said. "The companies with the most robust environmental strategies tend to garner the best allies — certainly including consumer bases — and they can weave that risk mitigation and brand enhancement into their everyday business strategies."
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- Science Advances Production, use, and fate of all plastics ever made
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