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How to Minimize Your Packaging Waste

Updated: May 14, 2021

"What we excrete comes back to consume us." ~ Don DeLillo, Underworld

National Packaging Design Day celebrates packaging design and their designers every year on May 7th. Packaging keeps our goods together, secure, and safe. Good packaging design secures the goods during transit, protects the product from weather and damage, and displays the items’ uses and directions. Plastic dominates packaging since it is lightweight and durable. (Plastic packaging is sometimes too durable. Blister plastic packaging is almost impossible to open!) Packaging is also a marketing tool to attract consumers, and excessive packaging is used to make the product stand out among its competitors on the shelf.

What makes good, environmentally-friendly packaging? Paperboard of course is the classic packaging that is easily composted or recycled. Yet, many times there’s a plastic bag inside containing the food items. Glass is also eco-friendly since the material is inert and impermeable. The silica-based material can be infinitely recycled. Glass is easily breakable and heavy to transport, which contributes to carbon emissions. Because of these deficiencies, plastic is often chosen. Innovators are exploring alternatives, such as bioplastics made from food waste, mycelium, and other natural materials, to the fossil-fuel sourced plastics.

The most environmentally friendly packaging is no packaging. It takes natural resources to make packaging and then, more resources to dispose of it. There are further externalities such as pollution that occur during production and disposal as well. Reusable container shops and zero-waste packaging however are not always possible in our current world.

So, what to do? After all, almost 30% of total Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) generation consisted of containers and packaging. (Source: EPA) Ask yourself these pertinent questions before your next purchase:

Are there alternatives such as bulk at your grocery store? Bulk is a great place to use your own containers and bags. Buying food through a Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and at farmers’ markets are also great ways to avoid packaging as well as supporting local farmlands.

  1. Can I recycle this where I live? Not all municipalities are created equal. Many have dissolved their recycling programs over the years due to budget cuts and loss of markets for recyclables. If there is a robust recycling program where you live, then by all means buy plastics which your community recycles. PET #1 and HDPE #2 plastics are most recycled. Avoid however black plastics! Optical scanners used at recycling centers to identify recyclable plastics cannot “see” black plastics. Even when recycled, black plastic can only be downcycled into black plastic.

  2. Can I compost this where I live? Compostable plasticware and takeout containers need a commercial composting facility. Paperboard and pizza cardboard can be composted in backyard systems.

Plastic film used to make packaging for our favorite snacks cannot be recycled as well. To reduce my packaging footprint, I’ve decided to make my own energy bars. This recipe for trail mix bars is surprisingly simple!

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