The world runs on packaging. Whether that be from items at the grocery store to medications, to your order from Amazon, packaging is constantly used in everyone’s day-to-day life.
The EPA states that between 1960 and 2018, the amount of packaging generated each year in the United States has gone from roughly 27,370 in 1960 to 82,220 in 2018, just below a 400% increase (1).
While the amount of packaging recycled has increased, the amount of packaging that is simply going to the landfill has virtually stayed the same, even growing some as well (1).
While it’s excellent that recycling has increased, the fact that the amount of packing going to the landfill has been growing as well is problematic.
You might be asking, why is this a problem? The answer lies in the fact that waste and climate change are inherently tied together.
Waste and Climate Change
The average person produces 0.11-4.54 kg of solid waste every year (2). The amount of waste generation is tied to one’s economic standing, where more wealthy people tend to produce more waste. Depending on how one deals with it, waste can be a massive contributor to climate change (3).
What Is Climate Change?
Climate change is essentially the warming of the Earth’s average temperatures due to an increase in greenhouse gas concentrations in our atmosphere.
Greenhouse gases in the Earth’s atmosphere help to trap the sun’s heat on Earth rather than allowing it to be reemitted back into space.
While there are many greenhouse gases, some of the most important ones include carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrogen oxides.
Types of Greenhouse Gases
Methane specifically is 34 times more potent of a greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. While carbon dioxide is the most abundant of the greenhouse gases in our atmosphere, methane is far more powerful.
Also, it has a longer residence time, meaning that one molecule of methane will stay in the atmosphere for a more extended period of time than a molecule of carbon dioxide would.
All of this simply means that methane is a far more dangerous greenhouse gas when it comes to climate change.
Now, why is methane significant in our discussion of landfills? Landfills produce a lot of methane. They are one of the greatest producers of methane, constituting roughly 16% of human-produced methane (4).
All of this is to say, landfills are very harmful to the environment, so it is important that as little waste as possible goes into landfills.
Recycling is currently one of the alternatives to landfills that we have at our disposal. However, not everything can be recycled. Very little can truly be recycled.
The recyclability of different materials varies greatly. For example, aluminum is virtually effortless to recycle.
In fact, no new additives need to be used to create a new aluminum product from recycled aluminum, and this can occur an infinite number of times.
This is not true will all other products. Paper, including cardboard boxes, is similar to aluminum in that it can be recycled and create new paper with no or very few additives. For plastic, however, this is not the case.
When plastic is recycled, it commonly downcycled, meaning that those plastic bottles that are being recycled get turned into something other than another plastic bottle.
For example, plastic is frequently made into fleece jackets, carpets, benches, etc.
While this is good because it still is reusing the plastic, it is not as good as the case of aluminum because downcycling stops that material from being turned into a new product again.
The plastic that is frequently used in packaging is what is called film plastic. Film plastics generally include plastic bags and other very thin plastics.
These film plastics commonly cannot be recycled in a standard curbside recycling bin. While they can still be recycled, it takes more effort because one cannot simply place the plastic into their recycling bin.
It must be taken to a location that accepts film plastics for recycling.
Types of Sustainable Packaging
Eco-friendly packaging is a broad term that can mean many different things and has many different levels, starting with the best one.
Ultimately, the most sustainable form of packaging is something that can be reused.
This may include glass, metal, reusable plastics, or even a service that accepts their packaging back from customers after being used to be used again.
This idea, where the company reuses the same packaging many times, is known as a closed-loop cycle or circular economy, or where there are few to no additives that must be used for the company to continue to produce and distribute its product.
Packaging Made From Recycled Materials
Another sustainable packaging may include packaging made from recycled materials. This is a fairly common practice in some areas of the world, where recycling facilities are readily available.
Materials like cardboard are straightforward to recycle and are also used abundantly in packaging worldwide, making them an excellent contender for this type of sustainable packaging.
Similarly, recycled plastics can also be used in packaging. While plastic packaging is not as recyclable as its cardboard counterparts, if plastic must be used in packaging, using recycled plastic is the most eco-friendly means of doing that.
Another way to make plastic more eco-friendly is by using bioplastics, or biodegradable plastic.
Biodegradable plastic is plastic, but instead of being made out of petroleum, it is made out of organic material like plants.
However, these plastics cannot simply biodegrade just anywhere, at least not to the extent that they are meant to.
One must bring these plastics to a commercial composting facility to biodegrade quickly. They will eventually break down on their own, but it takes many years (5).
While these are an upgrade from fossil-fuel plastics, they are not perfect, as discussed later.
In the way of plant-based packaging options, there have recently been some significant developments that stray away from biodegradable plastics and some of the drawbacks that are included with them.
These include packaging made from mushrooms but mimics the function of styrofoam (6). It is not only made of mushrooms, but it is made of the residual mushroom roots or the mycelium.
Because of this, mushrooms can be grown for food while simultaneously creating packaging with little to no need for light or water to be used in the making process (6).
These can be used for fragile items in place of styrofoam or other plastic packaging options, which frequently help to protect fragile items in transit.
This mushroom packaging is also entirely compostable and does not even need to be composted at a commercial composting facility; it can biodegrade in an at-home composting bin.
Finally, air pillows are frequently used as a less plastic alternative to packing peanuts or bubble wrap.
While air pillows do still use plastic, they use far less, using air instead of plastic to fill the space, where the only function of the plastic is to hold in the air.
Although it still uses plastic, it is still a step in the right direction toward more sustainable packaging.
Life Cycle Assessments Of Packaging Materials
While biodegradable plastics, or PLA, are certainly more sustainable than traditional plastics because they are not made of fossil fuels, they still have some issues.
Biodegradable plastics are commonly composed of plants like corn which are frequently grown in a very unsustainable manner. Plants like corn are often grown as a mono-crop.
This means that there are only one species of plant being produced in a given area. When there is greater crop diversity, the ecosystem is more stable (7).
Little biodiversity promotes unhealthy soil, and makes crops more susceptible to pests, causing farmers to require more significant amounts of pesticides and fertilizers to grow crops successfully.
These pesticides and fertilizers, however, are highly detrimental to the environment. Pesticide runoff is linked to the breakdown of many aquatic ecosystems, including marine ecosystems in the Gulf of Mexico.
Fertilizers runoff of agricultural fields into surrounding rivers and other bodies of water. This influx of fertilizers causes algae to flourish, ultimately leading to many of algae dying and then decomposing.
The decomposition process depletes the water of oxygen, causing all other living organisms to die due to hypoxia, ultimately leading to the demise of that ecosystem.
A study from the University of Pittsburg did a life cycle assessment (LCA), which quantifies the environmental impact of a given product for different plastics, including both petroleum plastics and plastics made of biomass.
They found that while biodegradable plastics produce fewer greenhouse gas emissions than fossil fuel-based plastics, they produce more pollutants, like the fertilizers discussed above (8).
However, another more recent study found that the greenhouse warming potential (GWP) for plastics made from fossil fuels and biodegradable plastics “did not differ significantly,” where biodegradable plastics have a GWP of 3.05 kg CO2 eq./kg, and fossil fuel plastics range from 3.05-3.94 kg CO2 eq./kg.
This means their greenhouse gas emissions are relatively similar and thus have similar impacts from a climate change perspective (9).
Integral to the sustainability of biodegradable plastics is proper disposal.
Unfortunately, biodegradable plastics have a somewhat misleading name.
While they certainly will biodegrade over many years, they do not follow the traditional definition, where something biodegradable completely decomposes within a few months.
Many types of compostable plastics can only be composted at commercial composting facilities, where energy is added to assist in decomposing the material.
Many cities do not have commercial composting facilities yet require their businesses to use compostable to-go containers.
While compostable plastics can go into the landfill, they will take much longer to break down, and they will release methane as a byproduct, worsening the climate crisis.
Many people are inclined to throw all plastic materials into the recycling bin because that is what we have been conditioned to do.
However, compostable plastics cannot be recycled and could even be problematic if too many are put into recycling bins because they are considered a contaminant in recycling facilities.
While compostable plastics are certainly a step up from petroleum plastics, it is essential to consider some of the downsides when choosing the most sustainable packaging options.
There are two types of plastics made from fossil fuels. These are known as polypropylene (PP) and polyethyleneterephtalate (PET).
PET is easier to recycle and is used for things like water and soda bottles and many other forms of packaging.
On the other hand, PP is used for things like wrappers and is much harder to recycle (9).
The production of PP plastics has a GWP of 3.94 kg CO2 eq./kg. Whereas the production of PET has a GWP of 3.05 kg CO2 eq./kg (9).
One can reuse PET bottles up to 25 times and therefore have a GWP up to 70% lower than their single-use counterparts.
Relatively new research has found that a bacterium, called deonella sakaiensis 201-F6, may be capable of digesting PET plastics, thus assisting in the acceleration of the otherwise very long biodegradation time of plastics.
This works because the bacterium uses the plastic as a source of carbon, or food, primarily from two enzymes: PET hydrolase and mono (2-hydroxyethyl) terephthalic acid hydrolase (9).
This option gives hope for a future solution to the world’s plastic problem, as we have too much plastic waste and no extraordinary means of genuinly dealing with it.
Plastics cause issues not only in the scope of climate change, but also have significant ecological impacts when it pollutes both aquatic and terrestrial ecosystems.
In addition, when plastic is not disposed of properly, it frequently ends up in the natural world or places like the great pacific garbage patch.
This is problematic for wildlife as they commonly see the plastic and mistake it for food, attempting to eat it, ultimately leading to their death.
Although glass is frequently thought of as very eco-friendly packaging, its energy-intensive production process causes it to have a reasonably high GWP.
Glass is made from sand, soda, ash, and limestone. All of which must be mined for and collected for use.
Those materials are then melted with immensely high temperatures (around 900-1600 °C) and shaped using compressed air.
After being so extremely hot, the glass must then be very slowly cooled. It is this energy-intensive process that causes the GWP of glass production to be so high.
To produce an average-sized glass bottle weighing about 0.33 kg, there is a GWP of 0.296 kg CO2 eq. The more general GWP of glass is about 0.898 kg CO2 eq./kg glass.
Glass, however, is relatively easy to recycle. It can be crushed into little pieces of glass, melted down, and reformed into new material.
This recycling process produces a glass bottle with a GWP of around 0.529 kg CO2 eq./kg glass. This is a significant improvement from using virgin materials (9).
Glass bottles can also be reused up to approximately 50 times. This reuse alone can reduce the GWP by 85% (9).
All of this means that glass can both be a very sustainable packaging when used properly, such as in some sort of closed-loop system where glass bottles are used as packaging and then returned to the vendor for reuse.
However, they can also be a relatively unsustainable form of packaging if new bottles constantly have to be made due to the energy intensity that producing new bottles requires.
While metal is not the most common packaging option, it certainly an important one.
The two primary types of metal used in packaging are aluminum and tin.
Both of these are most frequently used in food packaging far more than other forms of packaging.
Aluminum is generally a pretty sustainable form of packaging. This is primarily because aluminum is highly recyclable.
An aluminum can can be recycled into a new aluminum can with virtually no addition of virgin materials, using roughly 90% less energy to make a can out of recycled material versus virgin material.
Like aluminum and most metals, tin is easy to recycle, making it a good candidate for sustainable packaging. The production of one tin bottle (0.093 kg) produces roughly 0.245 kg CO2 eq.
Again, when packaging can be made from recycled materials rather than from raw materials, it drastically decreases the carbon footprint of production.
Because metals are so easily recycled, it makes the reality of a more environmentally friendly packaging through metal a genuine possibility.
Cardboard and Paper
In contrast to every other material discussed, paper and cardboard are made of organic matter.
This gives them the unique capability to fairly quickly biodegrade independently, without any need for recycling or commercial composting.
While they can break down and biodegrade naturally, they can also be recycled moderately easily.
Although they cannot be recycled virtually infinitely like an aluminum can, one piece of paper can be recycled up to seven times.
The GWP for the life of 0.03 kg of cardboard varies greatly depending on how the cardboard is disposed of after use. The GWP ranges from 0.032 kg CO2 eq. to 0.38 kg CO2 eq. (9).
If recycled properly, especially in a facility running on renewable energy, the GWP of cardboard will likely be on the lower end of that spectrum, making it an excellent option for sustainable packaging when recycled materials are used.
Paper and cardboard are most sustainable when they are produced using recycled cardboard to make recycled packaging. (9)
What Is The Most Sustainable Form Of Packaging?
While there honestly seems to be no perfect option, it is crucial to keep many things in mind when deciding on the most sustainable forms of packaging.
Of course, the actual material being used in packaging has a significant impact on the sustainability of the packaging.
However, also important is how the company is (or is not) reusing packaging. A great example of this is how milk used to be distributed.
It used to be that milk would be delivered in glass bottles, then used, and old packaging is returned to the company to be cleaned and refilled.
This represents a circular economy, where the materials continue to circulate and get used, with very little needing to be done in between uses.
This is ultimately a great way to limit waste. However, very few companies have this sort of system these days, the industry standard is far more to use single-use packaging.
Recycled packaging is always more sustainable than packaging made from the same virgin material.
While glass and metal packaging may have a higher GWP output from initial production, if they are recycled, which are both relatively easy to recycle, the subsequent GWP from production will be much lower.
Plastics, however, are generally less reusable than glass or metal, and are harder to recycle.
Paper and cardboard are moderately easy to recycle but do not necessarily have great potential for reuse.
Ultimately, the ideal sustainable packaging uses as little material as possible and primarily uses easily recyclable or reusable materials.
If your goal is sustainability, reusability is the most critical factor.
Chose companies that use glass or metals for packaging and take their packaging back after use to refill them for future customers.
This kind of closed-loop thinking, where there are few inputs into the system, and therefore, fewer resources being used.
We, as humans, must move away from disposable packaging and toward a reuse mindset. Like we like to say here at Puratium: Reuse, rather than disposability, is where true sustainability lies.
Celeste loves being outdoors doing just about anything you can think of. If not, you’ll find her hitting the books 📗 relating to Ecology & evolutionary biology 🌿 or atmospheric and ocean science 🌊.