The art of wasting materials
In our complicated system, even the little pleasure of munching a chocolate at work can also harm the Planet. A wrong decision with the waste plastic wrap can yield unexpected results in the environment: from feeding a turtle in the ocean to being part of the landscape for centuries. Extrapolating this to the tens of products we use daily and multiplying it by some thousands of million consumers in the world, we will agree the impact per day of badly-managed waste packaging can’t be neglected.
Wrapping, packaging and boxes make sense in a production chain. They exist to prevent products from degradation, wear, damages or breaking before their consumption or use. But, haven’t we gone too far? I’m sure you will have bought products in boxes containing boxes with more boxes and bubble plastic in them (typical of e-commerce). Or maybe fitted into shaped plastic containers, wrapped in plastic, placed in a box also wrapped in plastic (industrial biscuits, for instance). Yes. There’s room in the industrial world for ridiculousness.
Is it really necessary to wrap and pack all products? Or rather, to wrap and pack products already wrapped and packed!? Which are the consequences of this inefficient use of materials for our lives and the environment?
State of the art and some examples of overpackaging
Food and other degradable consumables are perfect candidates for packaging. This is owing to hygienic reasons, to protect their ripping cycles, to prevent rotting process. Nevertheless, very often it’s simply because producers and intermediaries use it for commercial purposes.
Finally, an especial mention to those products designed to last long such as tools, construction materials, plastic toys, shoes and clothes, etc. They all come nicely packed to look awesome, waiting for the moment to show how robust and durable they are. Isn’t it a contradiction in itself? I got a new travel bag in a huge card box, protected by plastic foam and a plastic bag. How surprising. A high-quality product made for travelling requires protection for shipping. Amazon does home delivery of ice-cream with its wrapping included. Is there something wrong with buying a traditional ice-cream near you house?
E-commerce, supermarkets, convenience stores, beach bars… Overpackaging is everywhere! On the other hand, fruits and vegetables in street markets are still today wrapped in newspapers, as it’s always been done with the fishmonger’s codfish or the cones of hazelnuts. Cheaper for the retailer, more practical for the consumer, and obviously environmentally friendlier. And life goes on as usual.
In “developed countries” we have created regulations (best-before dates, labelling, etc.) and marketing campaigns that (directly or indirectly) lead to overpackaging, making consumers go for products in apparently better conditions. The EU is making steps forward to restrain one-use plastics, but we are still away from making consumers really aware of the environmental consequences of choosing overpackaged products.
Problems linked to overpackaging
Useless material consumption. For a company, inefficient use of resources means squandering money. Adding layers and layers of protecting materials without paying attention to impact in transportation costs, conservation needs, or type of use or consumption expected, doesn’t seem to be profitable.
Massive waste production. Polyethylene, polypropylene, polyurethane, PVC or PET, are but some of the most common plastics used for packaging and wrapping. According to Greenpeace (2018), it’s estimated that only 9% of plastics are recycled, 12% are incinerated, and 79% end up either in landfills or in the environment, with more than 12 million tonnes per year dumped into the oceans. We must add to this drama all cans, tins and glasses, which take thousands of years to decompose. In countries like Japan, where overpackaging is so extreme and plastic recycling is practically nonexistent, adequate design of packaging is a must ti have a chance for the sustainable development of the country.
More volume and weight for transportation. The additional volume of packaging reduces useful transport capacity while increases load. Even when the company uses sustainable packaging materials, oversizing can likewise cause senseless fuel consumption and emissions.
Simple solutions and alternatives
Carry your own reusable shopping bag with you. Sometimes we will forget it at home. But, when we don’t, it will make the difference. Fortunately, most shopping centres are starting to offer biodegradable bags (made from potato starch, for instance) which do not harm the environment, as an alternative.
Buy in bulks or by weight. Thus, we can estimate the exact amounts of food we need and put them in our reusable bag. This will minimise plastic use, help to optimise the supply chain and reduce food waste.
Choose items with minimal or no package or wrapping. When necessary, choose innocuous or biodegradable materials first, such as cardboard or paper instead of plastic, tin or glass. If there’s no other option, choose packaging materials you can easily recycle in your area. Be hesitant with beautiful appearances or colourful looks. Do not believe food will last longer, have less preservatives or be of better quality by the envelope. Even bio-labelled products are subjected to overpackaging!
Reuse of packaging materials. Upcycling. Owing to aesthetic reasons, companies choose new envelopes instead of used ones. But if they recovered them and reused them, they would save huge amount of materials and money, and use them for their greenwashing marketing strategies. From the consumer’s perspective, a packaging is a great chance to save money and be creative. You can use bottles, boxes, glass, cardboard or foam to make cool things at home: lamps, pen holders, drawers, toys, new containers for food…
Collection points for bags and packaging materials. Just like it happens with books, we can collect packaging materials (preferably next to a shopping centre). It can be reused or upcycled by another person or, at least, effectively recycled.
Some examples of companies optimising packaging
Heineken. They are replacing the plastic rings of their 6-beer packs for bonded joints. Plastic rings are more expensive and cause horrible harm to fauna and landscapes.
Dell. In addition to the use of recyclable materials for their products, they introduced compostable packaging made from fungus. Packaging is meticulously designed to reduce volume and weight for shipping. Dell applies inverse logistics to recover materials, getting to reuse them 7 times in average, according to the company.
IKEA. They make their own packaging from self-recycled recovered materials, which they optimise to reduce the volume of stock. It all as part of their global ecodesign strategy. So, the overall material flow is used to produce furniture or packaging, and mostly recovered, recycled or reused. However, I personally find their laaaaaarge product labelling quite irritating…
The Body Shop. Not only has this company reduced the amount of packaging and saved resources and transport emissions. They are going beyond, producing plastics from atmospheric CO2 to revert or at least compensate emissions from shipping and production.
It is obvious that abuse of packaging materials is a source of inefficiency for an enterprise. Likewise, it generates an environmental impact as important as senseless, that can only be tackled through consumer awareness.
Are you as tired of this as we are? What are your ideas for a feasible solution? Do you believe there is a solution in the short term to this problem? Your opinion and ideas are very important to us!