The total package: waste and saving money

Anyone who has ever felt a thrill at opening a nicely-wrapped gift can attest that there is an emotional appeal in packaging. Manufacturers of luxury products like perfume employ expensive packaging that may be a larger volume than the product it encases, all to evoke the lavishness of the scent inside. Then there is the time-honored trick all of us have been duped by in the grocery store: the huge box that makes the relatively small contents swimming inside seem like a bargain. Corporations spend millions each year designing packaging because they know it has the power to get inside our heads and our wallets.

"Packaging waste production per capita in Europe." UNEP/GRID-Arendal Maps and Graphics Library. 2006. UNEP/GRID-Arendal. 24 Oct 2008

If packaging produces so many personal feelings, it should come as no surprise that while nearly 50% of global consumers would forgo all convenience packaging in order to protect the environment, the survey responses varied widely by region—reflecting a variety of concerns. According to the Nielsen Global Food Packaging Survey, in Japan, where homes are smaller, respondents were less willing to give up stackable containers. Japan generates less packaging waste because of a cultural emphasis on fresh food—which doesn’t require long-term storage and requires less packaging. North Americans and Europeans placed a greater emphasis on food wrapping for hygiene. In Latin American, the area most concerned about climate change, indicated that they were most open to giving up packaging, no matter the reason.

Culture, diet, housing and other lifestyle factors, then, affect the way a region packages its goods. Another emerging factor is packaging law.The European Community first introduced measures on the management of packaging waste in the early 1980s. In 1992, the "Packaging and Packaging Waste Directive” was adopted as an attempt to "harmonise national measures in order to prevent or reduce the impact of packaging and packaging waste on the environment and to ensure the functioning of the Internal Market. It contains provisions on the prevention of packaging waste, on the re-use of packaging and on the recovery and recycling of packaging waste." The measures must still be incorporated into the laws of the member countries, and have been implemented with varying levels of success.

In the UK, for example, the Waste and Resources Action Program (WRAP) has been largely successful in its aims to reduce landfill waste, increase recycling, boost composting and cut greenhouse gas emissions through programs with consumers, businesses and governments. Using such tactics as designing lighter bottles and including recycled content in packages, the program has cut packaging waste by 176 million pounds to date. Other countries guided by the same EC Directive create markedly different amounts of packing waste per capita, as can be seen in the map. Perhaps a combination of law and culture determines these differences.

In the US, of course, there is not really a legal equivalent to the EC's unified stance on reducing packaging waste. We can still learn from Britain's successes, however, which were due in part to individual changes. Packaging materials make up more than 30 percent of all consumer waste in the US, according to the EPA, and up to one out of every $11 you spend at the store pays for packaging. Buying in bulk is one way to reduce the amount of packaging you consume, and is both lighter on the landfill and your wallet. Consider oatmeal: buying individual packets of oatmeal can be up to three times as expensive. And if you buy 15% of groceries in bulk you can save 1,355 lbs. of carbon a year.

Some manufacturers are rising to the demand for less packaging. Nike has reduced the amount of cardboard used in its shoe boxes, the Girl Scouts have figured out how to fit more cookies in a box, and someone has even invented a useful package—the TV box that turns into a stand. Conscious consumers vote with their purchases, so buy from companies that don't make you search for a product within a wad of packing.

Lawmakers, manufacturers, and individuals should make waste reduction a priority. Worldwide, the concern for packaging waste has increased more than any other environmental concern—a sign that the time for addressing this issue has come.

Read more:
US and European trends in packaging waste
A History of Packaging

Tags: Europe packaging, European waste policy, International trash

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