There’s no two ways around it: we waste a lot of packaging.
Keurig-lovers the world over were exposed to criticism when Egg Studio’s Kill The K-Cup video went viral on YouTube earlier this year. The popular single-use coffee pods are notoriously unsustainable and have been claiming more and more landfill space since their conception in 1993. In an article for Mother Jones, Maddie Oatman estimated that laid end to end, the K-Cups sold in the year 2013 alone would circle the earth upwards of 10.5 times.
But Keurig Green Mountain is only the latest in a long list of American companies coming under fire for unsustainable packaging. The Waste and Opportunity 2015 report released by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council revealed that many beloved brand names are culpable in the food industry’s waste problem:
“Large brands like Dunkin Donuts, Burger King, KFC, MillerCoors, and Kraft Foods are wasting valuable materials through poor packaging sustainability policies—to the tune of $11.4 billion a year.”
With the increased popularity of plastic, single-use packaging (of which only 14% is recycled), companies and consumers aren’t just wasting valuable, nonrenewable resources; they are also exacerbating global pollution, filling landfills and ocean garbage patches alike.
The Waste and Opportunity study ranked the packaging practices of 47 companies across the consumer goods, fast food, beverage and grocery sectors. Not one was listed under “best practices.” Several of the companies mentioned, however, are making a much-needed commitment to improve upon package sustainability.
Here are a couple clever ways of combating excess packaging, culled from the Waste and Opportunity list, that all companies should consider:
1. Ditching “Problem Packaging”
Polystyrene foam, commonly known as styrofoam, is the bane of recycling programs everywhere. The lightweight material, commonly used in beverage cups and product packaging, is easily littered, and contributes in no small part to marine debris.
Polystyrene is recyclable, but many facilities do not have the equipment necessary for proper processing. Fast-food giant McDonald’s has eliminated polystyrene from all their stores, and Dunkin’ Donuts is getting rid of polystyrene in their New York City locations, but both Chick-fil-A and other Dunkin’ Donuts locations continue to use foam in many of their cups nationwide.
2. Designing Easily Recyclable Packaging
Last year Colgate-Palmolive became industry leaders by pledging to create packaging that is 100% recyclable for three out of its four product categories by 2020. This includes plans to develop a fully recyclable toothpaste tube.
Conversely, Kraft Foods (which just merged with Heinz) continues to lag with its popular Capri Sun drink pouches, which are completely unrecyclable.
3. Offering Reusable Dine-In Serviceware
Restaurants like Panera Bread are making their mark by offering reusable serviceware (dishes, silverware, and trays) to dine-in customers, reducing the amount of package waste generated.
Starbucks also offers a 10 cent discount to customers who opt to use a reusable tumbler, as opposed to disposable cups.
4. Increasing the Use of Recycled Material
Both McDonald’s and Starbucks have been using more postconsumer recycled content in their food and beverage packaging, but special recognition should be given to Clorox for their substantial commitment. Currently, 90% of Clorox carton packaging is made from 100% recycled materials.
5. Instituting In-House Recycling
Incorporating recycled materials into fast-food product packaging is a great start, but few stores actually allow customers to recycle packaging while in their stores. At present, Pret a Manger is the sole fast food eatery that has recycling available at all of its locations.
Starbucks is currently in the process of implementing their 2008 goal to universalize “front-of-store recycling” at their U.S. and Canada locations. The most recent update featured on their website in 2013 revealed that 39% of their stores offered in-house recycling.
Benefiting Environment & Business
Currently, the chief barrier to switching to environmentally-friendlier practices lays in perceived additional costs. As Kaivan Zokaei at The Guardian explains, companies are hiding behind this excuse as a way to keep business as usual:
“There are far too many companies still delaying creating a lean and green business system, arguing that it will cost money or require hefty capital investments. They remain stuck in the “environment is cost” mentality.”
But, as many companies are coming to discover, switching to sustainable packaging can actually be quite profitable. Over a decade after entering its partnership with the Environmental Defense Fund, McDonald’s was able to rid itself of over 300 million pounds of packaging by swapping out difficult-to-recycle polystyrene foam packaging for paper, incorporating the use of unbleached paper, and using napkins made from postconsumer recycled content. Restaurant waste was reduced by 30%, and McDonald’s has saved an average of $6 million each year.
While I am hard-pressed to recommend McDonald’s as a paragon for best business practices (especially after last year’s protests over the company’s particularly low wages), their case aptly demonstrates that environmentalism and profitability are not mutually exclusive. With product packaging taking up one third of US landfill space—and accounting for an astounding 44% of US greenhouse emissions—it is clear that what will be needed in this growing “sustainable packaging” debate is more industry leadership.
These measures do not absolve the consumer of their obligation to responsibly dispose of the products we purchase, but producers should do their part to ensure a more liveable future.
Chrislyn Laurie Laurore is a junior at Mount Holyoke College, where she is also a contributing writer for the campus newspaper. A self-proclaimed music aficionado, she can almost always be spotted donning headphones blaring Motown or British rock while complaining about the frigid New England winter. Follow her on Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr @kreisleine.