The US comprises just 4% of the world’s population, yet it creates 33% of the world’s total waste according to the World Bank. One would hope for the majority of the waste generated to be either recycled or composted, but unfortunately, this is not the case.
In 2018, the percent of municipal solid waste (MSW) that was recycled or composted in the US was only 32.1%. In addition, 11.8% of the municipal solid waste was combusted with energy recovery and more than 50% of the MSW was landfilled. Of the 52.5% of the waste that ended up in landfills in 2018, 45% came from food and packaging.
Therefore, the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry has the potential to make a big impact in humanity’s fight against climate change. However, it is not as easy or as simple as it sounds.
The Recycling Movement… and the ‘Throwaway Living’
In the 1800s and the start of the 1900s, there were no blue recycling bins. Surprisingly, however, people were still better at recycling than we are today.
It might sound shocking, but the reality is that back then, people had a good understanding of the value of material goods. According to Baltimore County, recycling was seen as an act of patriotism during World War II because since Japan cut off supplies of tin and rubber to the US, many citizens participated in scrap drives to collect materials for the war effort. Additionally, promotions of recycling efforts included creative posters that emphasized proud and patriotic messaging to incentivize people to recycle and reuse more.
However, as the war ended and the economy started to grow again, the importance of recycling efforts started to lose relevance. Soon, disposable lifestyles and single-use plastics became fashionable. A 1955 cover of Life Magazine celebrated a new lifestyle called “Throwaway Living.” Since then, annual plastic production has increased from 2 million tons in 1950 to 380 million tons in 2015. Today, it continues to rise and is expected to increase by 40% over the next decade.
It wasn’t until The Mobro incident in 1987 that awareness of the importance of recycling significantly grew around the world. The Mobro 4000 was a waste barge owned by Mobro Marine, Inc. that became famous after it traveled for 5 months along the East Coast of North America. Through its journey in finding a place to be disposed of, The Mobro was rejected by 6 states and 3 foreign countries. Why? Nobody wanted to carry New York City’s 6 million pounds of garbage. The Mobro ultimately became a symbol of America’s growing garbage crisis as a result of declining landfill space, and it ignited an increase in recycling efforts across US households.
The Mobro became a catalyst for reform on many levels. Over time, as Americans started recycling more of their waste, the US started exporting the recycled materials to China for processing. However, the recycling dilemma continued as China passed the “National Sword” legislation in 2018 in which they banned the importation of certain types of solid waste and placed strict contamination limits on recyclable materials.
This decision continues to heavily impact the recycling industry as well as the environment because China has been the US’ biggest importer of waste for decades. Slowing down the recycling process ultimately threatens jobs in the recycling industry, causes recyclable materials to pile up in material recovery facilities (MRFs) or landfills, and depresses the price for recycled materials due to excess supply.
The World’s Mounting Plastics Problem
Plastics are a rapidly growing segment of municipal solid waste (MSW). According to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), while plastics are found in all major MSW categories, the containers and packaging from the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry have the most plastic tonnage at over 14.5 million tons in 2018. To make matters worse, only about 9% of all plastics generated are recycled, while about 16% is combusted with energy recovery, and 75% is sent to landfills.
With materials recovery facilities (MRFs) losing incentives to stay in business due to a shrinking market, this problem is expected to exacerbate even more.
Why is it so Hard to Get Rid of Plastic?
From cell phones to shopping bags to medical equipment, plastic has molded society in ways that make life easier and safer. Plastic possesses many benefits that attract industry use, as they are durable, versatile, lightweight, cheap to produce, convenient, and help reduce food waste.
However, they leave harmful effects on the environment and perhaps even human health for many reasons. For instance, plastics disrupt animal habitats, injure and poison wildlife, and, when buried into landfills, can break down into harmful chemicals that spread into groundwater.
The chemicals used to make plastics can easily be absorbed by humans. Since plastics are present in the water we drink and some foods we consume, which include fish, we might end up consuming plastic ourselves.
It is unrealistic to think that humans will ever get rid of all of the plastics on the Earth. We can, however, reduce the number of plastics we produce, but this is going to take big efforts from businesses as well as the support of consumers and the government.
The Struggle Between Business Operations and Sustainability
The environment has a lot to gain from businesses shifting towards more sustainable business operations.
However, sustainability and business operations are often in conflict and don’t always work in tandem. Reducing the amounts of plastics businesses use in their packaging is no exception. Offering truly sustainable packaging that is also able to compete in the market certainly presents several financial challenges for businesses today.
Managing Waste Throughout the Packaging’s Lifecycle
In order for a product to be considered as “environmentally-friendly,” the packaging must cater to the customer and environmental safety at every stage of the product lifecycle: design, production, performance during use, ability to recycle, and, ultimately, its disposal.
This means that companies will have to re-think their entire operating system in order to reduce waste while providing value. This shift towards circularity requires a lot of capital and upfront costs for businesses, as well as a change in the overall business strategy – especially around its supply chain.
The Coca-Cola Company has recently made a pledge to transition to bottles made from 100% recycled PET plastic. Combined, these innovations represent a 20% reduction in the company’s use of new plastic across its North American portfolio compared to 2018. While this initiative is good for the environment, this new commitment will require Coca-Cola to make big investments in terms of its internal operations.
Coca-Cola will need to figure out a mechanism to collect used bottles back from consumers. In Australia, Coca-Cola has started a program that gives back refunds to consumers that return eligible bottles at special recycling stations across the country. For efforts like these to truly make an impact, they will need to spread throughout more locations around the world.
Branding and Strategy Centered Around Sustainability
Any packaging material or product design change has implications for a company’s overall branding strategy. This calls for a different way to position brands in the mind of the consumer or new marketing campaigns to make people aware of the sustainable changes in products’ packaging.
Truly sustainable packaging encompasses changes in the brand by aiming to create awareness about environmentally friendly practices. Burger King is one of those quick-service restaurants that have recently announced that they will be launching a pilot program to give their wrappers, utensils, and straws an eco-friendly makeover. The burger chain will eliminate the use of plastic in its effort to reduce waste and promote recycling within its business operations – all while inspiring its customers to do the same.
If the pilot rollout is successful, Burger King will be officially launching this new strategy across its entire US ecosystem. Aside from these efforts to promote sustainability, Burger King has also partnered with Loop, TerraCycle’s zero waste delivery system, to create both beverage cups and hamburger containers that can be reused. Following these announcements, other quick-service restaurants started launching their own sustainability initiatives.
The Tradeoff Between Performance and Sustainability
Packaging must be sustainable, yet it must also be appealing, solve a problem for customers, and be priced right to be financially sustainable in the long term.
Competing with plastics is tough because as mentioned earlier, they are highly versatile, durable, and cheap, providing for an exceptional customer experience at a convenient price. According to BBC, plastic alternatives such as compostable packaging, for instance, are far more fragile. For example, customers often complain about sipping a beverage from a compostable straw because the material is not as strong as a plastic straw, which would perform the job perfectly.
Patagonia, an American clothing company, faced a similar dilemma when they realized that one of the chemicals in their products, durable water repellent (DWR), was toxic and persisted in the environment. DWR is currently a necessary evil for waterproof gear because it does an excellent job at preventing surface saturation. However, despite its efforts, Patagonia has not yet been able to find a replacement for DWR that can perform at the same level. Thus, Patagonia has had to make the difficult decision to put their value of excellent performance over their value of “best for the environment.”
Product safety can also be a big issue when it comes to dealing with plastic alternatives. Safety is crucial for both consumers and the government, especially in the food industry. However, product safety does not always correlate with what’s good for the environment. Tetra Pak is a good example of this. Tetra Paks are normally used for packaged non-dairy kinds of milk because they help milk stay fresh and last longer. To achieve this, Tetra Paks have several layers, one of them being plastic, and even though they have the recycling symbol on their packaging, recycling this package is incredibly carbon-intensive and challenging.
However, there are instances where the two worlds collide and the magic happens – sustainability can indeed drive business performance.
Ongoing trends show that there is an increase in customer awareness and sentiment around climate change and its effects in the world. Consumers are increasingly rejecting single-use plastics, and asking for companies and governments to adopt eco-friendly alternatives. As research from KPMG shows, customers are even willing to pay more for products that are good for the world.
There is a growing opportunity for businesses to exploit this trend, differentiate themselves, and ensure readiness for the future. As Coca-Cola’s VP of sustainability puts it, “you either pay the price of sustainability today or you pay it tomorrow. New generations are basing their purchase decision on this. There is a strong business in doing the right thing.”
What Must Happen In Order For Sustainability To Succeed in the Business World
Businesses today can no longer afford to detach themselves from the environment and ecosystems that surround them. It’s a business imperative for businesses to uplift the people, communities, and the environment around them.
On the Business End
In order for sustainability to succeed, businesses have to reduce the amount of plastic they produce as well as design their products so their operations incorporate the principle of circularity, all while keeping the consumer in mind and meeting their needs. In addition, packaging companies must aid the process by performing the research necessary to come up with attractive and cost-effective substitutes for single-use plastic packages.
In order to truly make an impact, companies must be proactive and mindful about how their products are being disposed of.
In the fashion industry, for instance, many fast-fashion brands such as H&M and Zara have been enacting recycling programs at their stores to incentivize people to return clothes they no longer use. However, after realizing that most of the returned textiles could not be recycled, they donated the products to developing countries such as Kenya, thinking that they were giving these products a new life. Yet, when Kenyans realized that the products sent were low quality and could not be sold, the clothes were burned or sent to landfills.
The Power of Consumers
The technosphere, a system comprised of all of the structures that humans have constructed to keep themselves alive on the planet, has brought popular attention to the amount of “things” humans own and purchase on a daily basis. To make a difference, consumers must hold themselves accountable for their actions by reducing the number of materials they buy and keeping themselves informed about sustainability matters.
Additionally, consumers must start to prioritize sustainability in their lives by being open to new legislation surrounding single-use plastic and recycling. Currently, only 25% of all Americans fully support single-use plastic bans, whereas countries like Canada and Rwanda already have them in place.
Governments Should also Be Pushing for Change
Much like the occurrence of carbon taxes in the energy industry, the government has the power to drive businesses towards more sustainable practices through green initiatives and legislation. Regulators around the world are adopting various approaches for minimizing and managing packaging waste. States such as California, for example, are already working on a bill that says that by 2030, all single-use plastic materials will need to be recycled or compostable. This has the potential to lead to a 75% reduction in plastic packaging waste.
Progress is Being Made
Luckily, innovations are in place and progress is being made towards fighting the plastic problem.
18-year old Fionn Ferreira won the Google Science Fair prize in 2019 with his outstanding invention, a liquid that can remove microplastics from water. His system removes microplastics from water using non-toxic iron oxide. The invention was able to pull 85% of 10 different types of microplastics out of the water.
Moreover, roads made from plastic bags and glass are paving the way. In Australia, there is a road paved with the equivalent of 200,000 plastic bags, 63,000 glass bottles, and waste toner from 4,500 printer cartridges. It is the first road in the world made of Reconophalt, a combination of recycled materials and asphalt. Plastics turned out to be a great raw material for roads because of their durability. According to the New York Times, trials are taking place in the United States and Britain to replicate such inventions.
Plastics represent a much bigger threat to humanity than we imagine. The world’s oceans, wildlife, marine life, the environment, and humanity as a whole are already suffering the consequences of the excessive use of plastic in the consumer packaged goods (CPG) industry.
In order to reduce the amount of plastic used, collective efforts are required. Businesses, governments, and people from all over the world need to be more conscious about their use of plastic and find attractive substitutes. Despite plastic being cheap, affordable, and highly durable, its use won’t make sense financially nor sustainably in the near future.
History has taught us that humans are able to adapt to new environments if needed. Let’s adapt to a more responsible and conscious world.
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