It’s no secret that we – all of us – face a very real and very serious threat from pollution. Yet this is where our common ground seems to end.
The environmental challenges are complex and controversial – just look at the vastly different recycling and plastic bills proposed each year across the country. Regardless of politics, there is no doubt that we are responsible for repairing the damage that lifetimes of pollution and mismanagement of waste have done to our planet – an almost overwhelming task that may seem beyond our reach.
Words like “sustainable” are increasingly used in our daily lives, from groceries to personal and home care products to the package that just arrived at the door. But how sustainable are these options if they end up in landfills or, even worse, in the environment?
Recycling and waste management is a priority for many Americans who are looking for immediate, achievable, and results-oriented steps toward cleaner, greener practices. However, while many states continue to push for plastic bans or restrictions, the results are mixed at best, leading many of us to wonder if there is a better way.
Although many solutions seem viable in theory, they could exacerbate environmental problems in practice. For example, if Americans are moving away from plastic and relying almost entirely on paper and cardboard for packaging purposes, then how will we address the significant deforestation that will result?
Sustainability is ultimately a question of balance, and when we look at our current systems, we can agree that there is still a lot to be done to improve the life cycle of beneficial materials such as flexible packaging and plastic to to take full advantage of their benefits.
Flexible packaging is more durable, lightweight and protective than many alternative packaging options, which are hallmarks of sustainability. Typically made of two or more materials, including plastic, joined together to protect and preserve the contents, flexible packaging is more resource efficient than many other packaging options because it requires less water and energy to produce. , while their production and transportation result in fewer greenhouse gases. (GES). Surprisingly, it’s more effective than most other packaging options at protecting products from contamination, spoilage, and damage, resulting in less waste in the first place.
While other types of packaging might be more readily accepted at municipal recycling facilities (MRFs), they provide less protections for consumer products, especially food, while ultimately being more expensive and less durable at home. produce.
Flexible packaging helps extend the shelf life of food products – the number one contributor to landfills and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions – through protection from sunlight, bacteria, odors, humidity, damage caused by the transportation process and more. This is particularly important considering that if food waste were a country, it would be the third largest contributor of GHGs after the United States and China. In fact, 52% of all flexible packaging is used for food.
Additionally, flexible packaging optimizes volume and weight to maximize storage and transportation efficiency while reducing the amount of packaging waste requiring end-of-life management. Increasing efficiency and reducing packaging waste leads to reduction at source – the most efficient and environmentally friendly method of dealing with excess waste.
However, a problem remains: what do we do with flexible packaging waste? Current recycling infrastructure, which varies widely from municipality to municipality, even within the same state, is often inconsistent, inefficient and inaccessible to all residents. Additionally, curbside recycling programs face significant challenges, including changing commodity economics, constraints on taxpayer-funded collection services, and concerns about material quality and markets. final.
But there is a solution, and it already exists with an Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) approach, a policy in which commercial producers take some of the financial and operational responsibility for processing and recycling consumer packaging. Advanced recycling technologies, which are currently used for industrial recycling and waste management, can be implemented for consumers through current and new MRFs to handle an expanded list of recyclable materials, including multi-material flexible packaging . Making investments in infrastructure and modernizing recycling—with a shared responsibility with taxpayers, municipal governments, producers, and consumers—has been shown to increase recycling rates and profitability while reducing waste. environmental impact.
EPR includes fee collection, rebates, packaging usage reporting, consumer education and market development, among other responsibilities, and has several benefits for everyone involved. A fully developed system would include curbside collection options for soft plastics, eliminating the need for consumers to bring piles of plastic bags and wraps to store drop-off points. Educational programs would also increase consumer awareness of recycling and convenient collection options. While the costs of this system would be built into the prices of consumer goods, this much-needed investment would benefit the public and businesses through resource efficiency and improved management of the system.
State governments will need to share responsibility for the new system and do their part from a regulatory perspective to make it a reality. First and foremost, recycling systems must be standardized at the state level. Our current system includes thousands of municipal recycling systems, often with conflicting labeling requirements, strained finances and outdated machinery. It is estimated that $9.8 billion would be needed to provide the investment in the United States. While that may seem like a huge amount, it’s less than 1% of California’s annual state budget when spread over five to 10 years.
Once fully operational, a well-managed EPR system would provide expanded curbside recycling options for families looking to act more sustainably and more materials for manufacturers to make packaging from post-consumer recycled content. Producers and consumers would also benefit from standardized labeling requirements, increased material recovery and streamlined waste management systems. Finally, everyone would benefit from reduced carbon emissions and the use of natural resources as we work together to reduce packaging and plastic pollution and preserve our planet for future generations.
Alison Keane is President and CEO of the Flexible Packaging Association, Annapolis, Maryland. Visit www.flexpack.org for more information.