Shopping bags, water bottles, food wraps, coffee cups… these are all daily-use packaging that we use and dispose of without a second thought. The average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes. It's only valuable to us long enough to hold our items from the point of purchase to the end of use or storage. Once that's over, the plastic bag loses its value, and off to the garbage it goes. There's an apparent problem here; we need to reduce packaging waste.
There are so many reasons why plastic packaging material should have no place in the modern world. Whereas plastic is by far the worst offender, other unsustainable or unnecessary packaging counts, too, from extra cardboard boxes, packing beans, and layers to disposable cutlery we don't really need.
The first and most obvious is that it is hugely wasteful. Manufacturers make most plastic packaging from petroleum, the polluting fossil fuel which the energy industry is working on getting rid of. If you're using renewable energy sources but still buying plastic packaging, your money is still going toward sustaining the oil industry.
Plastic packaging manufacturers need about 430,000 gallons of oil to make 100 million plastic bags. That may sound manageable until you realize that the U.S. goes through 380 billion plastic bags a year2. When the average family accumulates 60 grocery bags from only four trips to the grocery store, it's easy to see how we can reach this number.
No one quite knows how many plastic bags are in the ocean, but the problem is massive because they blow out of landfills and are carelessly discarded.
According to the World Watch Institute, we eventually recycle less than 1% of plastic bags. This is bad news considering how much plastic packaging contributes to waste in several world regions. It also doesn't help that large amounts of our plastic packaging result in litter on the streets or in the ocean.
In Europe, plastic packaging accounts for 59% of packaging1 (when measured by weight). In the US, that number is closer to 65%. Plastic packaging is a $700 billion industry that won't slow down until the consumers decide that we've had enough.
The impact of plastic packaging is most felt in our ecosystem, where human activities threaten marine life daily. Our plastic packaging goes from our waste bins to garbage trucks, where much of them blows into the streets and then water bodies as litter. Even the plastic packaging and plastic containers that get to landfills still find their way to the water. A SPREP report shows that Up to 80% of ocean plastic pollution enters the ocean from land3.
Pollution in the oceans affects at least 267 different species of marine life. The result? Marine wildlife is being poisoned, punctured, entangled, choked, and in many other horrible ways, affected by the ocean's plastics.
Plastics kill more than one million sea birds and 100,000 marine animals yearly. And if we don't make the needed changes now, that number is bound to keep rising.
So what can we do? How do we reduce our dependence on plastic packaging to cut down fossil fuel use, save marine animals, and preserve the nature of our water bodies? Well, we can start by using less packaging. Here's how you, in your small way, can reduce packaging waste.
If the average lifespan of a plastic bag is 12 minutes, then we're not using them enough to justify the waste. If every family or single-living individual bought their own shopping bags at the store, we would be able to reduce packaging waste at such a dynamic level.
So invest in your shopping bags and say no to plastic bags. You can buy reusable cloth bags in different sizes to fit various items. You can also purchase mesh bags for your fresh produce, which are great for packing perishable foods.
Many consumers want to switch to less/no packaging, but most times, we can only work with what is available. If there are no farmers' markets or zero-waste stores nearby, consider speaking to the available ones.
You can ask for the switch to biodegradable packaging materials or recyclable packaging. By simply lobbying with a few of your friends to ask management for products with less packaging, you can bring this need to their attention. You can also speak to your local community leaders, as they have a bit more influence over the management of local businesses, and point out the various simple ways they can go about reducing waste.
We're seeing a growing number of stores that allow shoppers to bring in their glass containers or reusable bottles for refills. This removes the need to buy new packaging for each trip. With your shopping bags and personal reusable containers, you can leave the store with loads of products and no extra packaging.
You can search for 'packaging-free stores near me' to see your options wherever you live in the world. If you live in the US, here's a state-by-state list of the zero-waste grocery stores available to you.
Both paper and plastic coffee cups are wasteful and damaging to the environment. Much of our packaging waste also comes from daily consumption. So if you're a coffee drinker, take your mug with you. If there's office lunch available, and the only cutlery options available are disposable plastics, bring your reusable cutlery.
If you live in a country where running water is drinkable, you have no reason to keep buying bottled water. Carry a reusable stainless steel bottle whenever you leave your home and refill at taps when needed - if we all made these small changes, we'd go a long way towards reducing packaging waste.
We can't anticipate all our needs. Even if you shop with a list, random needs still come up at different times. And they may not come up when you're around your local packaging-free store or when you have a shopping bag with you.
In such situations, let the person at the counter know that you will not need a plastic bag even if they don't have paper bags or cloth shopping bags for sale.
If you're buying a few items, you can simply hold them in your hand. If not, ask to use the shopping basket or cart to transfer the items to your car if you have one at the moment. Only accept a plastic bag if necessary.
Fruits and vegetables already come in their natural packaging, and we don't need suppliers to rewrap them in packaging. Of course, people with disabilities benefit from peeled fruits and chopped vegetables repackaged in plastic. Since they primarily make these products with the needs of the disabled in mind, the people who don't need to buy loose products must try to reduce the overall amount of packaging waste generated.
Shop local at stores and markets where the sellers stock their food items loosely. Bananas, oranges, onions, and more come in the ultimate sustainable packaging design - their natural skin biodegrades and is compostable. No one needs to wrap them in more plastic.
If you don't have access to stores that allow refillable containers, then buying in bulk may be your next best option. You can choose to purchase non-perishable items that come in one large container rather than several small containers. You can take these bulk purchases home and divide them up using your at-home refillable containers or pack them for school in eco-friendly lunch boxes.
However, ensure that you are not just buying individually-wrapped items as bulk purchases. Look for bulk items designed for buyers to pick up as a unit. These will typically have a lot less/no packaging for the individual items.
As a consumer, several factors influence your purchasing decision. Make a conscious effort to add 'excess packaging' as a deterrent. When comparing similar products from different brands, choose the option with fewer packaging materials.
And when you can't avoid the packaging, go for the next best option. Choose brands with packaging made from recyclable materials. Such products will often have an on-pack recycling label (or OPRL) stamped on a visible portion of the packaging.
In addition to minimal packaging, we can recycle products in containers such as glass jars and aluminum for longer than plastic which degrades with each reuse.
Note that you should still generally avoid the use of packaging when possible. The recycling process consumes a lot of fossil-fueled energy and water. So in one way, recycling can also be wasteful when we use it to solve the problem of packaging waste.
We're starting to see more innovative brands, especially in the food and personal care industries, come up with eco-friendly, sustainable package options. Some examples include cornstarch, mushrooms, and seaweed as raw materials for packaging products in addition to recycled paper.
Note that biodegradable and compostable do not mean the same thing. Biodegradable packaging will eventually break down and return to the earth. At the same time, you can add compostable packaging to your compost piles from household waste because they break down a lot quicker.
Additionally, chose flexible packaging options when shipping goods or returning items bought online. Examples include recycled mailer bags that fit around a product and use less packaging than bulkier cardboard boxes.
The most effective approach to reducing plastic waste is not having them in the first place. However, this may prove challenging to achieve unless you follow a strict zero-waste lifestyle. So use the tips shared above to set a daily goal to avoid collecting packaging materials unless necessary.
This change in your consumption habits may be tasking, but it's for a very important goal. The future of our environment depends on the choices we make today to protect the earth and its resources.
A EUROPEAN STRATEGY FOR PLASTICS IN A CIRCULAR ECONOMY. European Commission.
|The Crusade Against Plastic Bags. Kenneth P. Green and Elizabeth DeMeo. Pacific Research Institute.|
|Plastics in the Marine Environment. Kara Lavender Law. Annual Review of Marine Science 2017 9:1, 205-229|
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.