Somewhere in the middle of the Pacific Ocean floats a gigantic mass of plastic litter covering approximately twice the area of Texas and weighing as much as 500 jumbo jets.
Where does all this garbage come from? A significant portion of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (and others like it) is made up of plastic product packaging, broken down into tiny, harmful particles by the elements.
Despite the best efforts of people and communities to recycle, a stunning percentage of all single-use product packaging (nearly 19 percent, according to a January 2020 McKinsey report) leaks into the environment, making its way down rivers and streams to the ocean.
In the United States, leakage is not quite as significant a problem, but still, the recovery rate (the amount converted into useful energy or recycled) for packaging and food-service plastic is only 28%. Everywhere in the world, packaging is a wasteful drain on resources and a major contributor to pollution on the land and in the ocean.
The good news is brands are beginning to recognize the environmental impact of their packaging and making efforts to mitigate it. For example, in late 2018, 250 organizations, including major corporations such as PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Unilever, signed on to a plan to make all plastic packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.
Packaging initiatives like this are part of a broader movement toward sustainability that is taking hold one way or another in nearly every industry. Brands are motivated to go green as much by a commitment to environmental stewardship as they are by consumer sentiment. (Nearly three out of four millennials say they would pay more for sustainable products.)
Are We Focused on the Wrong “R”?
It’s not always easy to determine what changes will do the most to lessen your brand’s environmental impact. For example, switching your packaging material might help conserve one type of resource but increase demand for another.
In addition, many brands (and civic waste management policies) tend to focus heavily – if not exclusively – on recycling. And while recycling might reduce physical waste, it also consumes energy – both for the recycling process itself and for shipping materials to recycling facilities. Additionally, think about the adoption rate of recycling programs. No matter how user-friendly and well-communicated the recycling program, there will always be consumers who simply can’t be bothered. So, by focusing solely on creating recyclable packaging, brands are taking a gamble – while ignoring other opportunities to reduce their environmental impact.
Experts think about that environmental impact in terms of a waste hierarchy. The waste hierarchy arranges waste management strategies from least favored to most favored.
Here is an excellent example of a waste hierarchy that goes beyond the typical “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra:
Recycling is in the middle of the hierarchy, while efforts to prevent, reduce, and reuse waste sit at the top.
When it comes to product packaging and labels, using recycled and recyclable materials is generally more beneficial than using non-recyclable materials. But, according to the waste hierarchy, your brand can reduce its environmental impact even more. Here are some examples:
Refuse: Refuse to buy products that generate a lot of waste or are non-recyclable and examine your own products to see what you can do to meet that same standard. Let vendors know that sustainability is important to your purchasing decision.
Reduce: Trim down the amount of packaging you use – the consumer probably doesn’t need all that extra plastic or Matryoshka doll-like levels of boxes to open. Additionally, reducing label sizes (or having one big one instead of a bunch of little ones) can reduce liner waste considerably.
Reuse: Many brands like coffee shops and beauty products have started offering (or have always offered) reusable packaging, giving customers a small discount for bringing their packaging back for refilling. Explore ways to extend the life of your packaging for as long as possible.
Repurpose: Budget-conscious families have been doing this one for centuries (raise your hand if your grandmother stored sewing supplies in a cookie tin). Look at ways to repurpose waste in your workplace and think up ways your own product could be repurposed – and then communicate those ideas to your customers.
Recycle: If the four options above have been tried, THEN it’s time to recycle. It’s important to consider how easy it is to recycle your product and its packaging. The more convoluted a process it is, the less likely it is that your end users will bother.
Product labels are small, but they do play a role in the vast planet-wide cycle of resources, energy, and waste. But looking deeper at the many ways to be sustainable, it's impossible to easily determine just how eco-friendly your brand’s label choices are.
These are important questions to ask your label printer and any vendor. Very often, companies make their greatest environmental impact not through their recycling program, but through the choices they (and the rest of their supply chain) make every day.