Society needs packaging to function. The global distribution of goods and transportation of products via air, water and land requires these materials. However, these items, especially plastic, are incredibly detrimental to the environment. Most of the long-term effects are not well understood, considering that consumption levels have increased rapidly in a short period of time.
To understand how packaging will affect our planet in the long run, it’s necessary to know what packaging is, how we produce it and the role it plays in the consumption of everyday goods.
There are two main categories of packaging, pre-consumer and post-consumer, and both are materials like plastic, wood, steel, aluminum, cardboard and paper. Pre-consumer packaging is an essential aspect of waste, as it includes any item necessary in the production, distribution and transportation of goods. Because it’s not consumer-facing, however, its impact is largely unseen.
The pollution effects of packaging are significant. The production, consumption and disposal of these materials are all fossil-fuel intensive. While consumers tend to focus on the importance of proper disposal of packaging, the primary source of the contamination takes place in manufacturing. This process contributes more carbon emissions than any other point in the materials’ lifecycles.
Packaging, especially plastic, impacts the environment and human health in a myriad of ways. Production is energy-intensive, and materials like aluminum and wood require the use of natural resources that degrade habitats and threaten local ecosystems.
A holistic approach to packaging’s impact on the planet requires looking at the energy involved in the mining and manufacturing of materials, how it is consumed and how it’s disposed of. Efforts to reduce pollution in the ocean are insignificant if the levels of production and consumption remain the same in the future.
On a positive note, many industries are examining alternatives to traditional packaging, as well as effective ways to reduce unnecessary amounts. Green packaging, including recyclable and biodegradable materials, reduces energy use and pollution by incorporating more sustainable methods of production.
Traditional packaging materials, like plastic and aluminum, are extremely energy-intensive. Not only in their production, but in distribution and the management of their waste. When considering the long-term impacts of packaging, it’s essential to examine the materials throughout the entirety of their lifecycle.
Packaging waste is most obvious in single-serving containers, like water bottles or yogurt jars. However, the impact on the environment expands far beyond its incorporation in current consumer trends. The production of these materials is a significant source of air pollution, and plastic is almost always made from oil.
If consumer rates remain the same or continue to rise, the long-term effects of these materials on the planet will include their aggressive consumption of energy. Unfortunately, while people pay more attention to buying carbon-friendly products, they fail to consider the packaging, which carries the same impact. To reduce the effects of production, it’s important to employ efficient technologies, reduce the need for packaging and find more sustainable alternatives.
Consumption levels exceed the capacity of natural resources, and our planet cannot sustain the current rates. When measuring the impact of packaging, it’s essential to attach it to product consumption. High purchasing levels require large amounts of materials. Even if advancements reduce unnecessary items, the current levels of use remain unsustainable. The key to lowering packaging necessitates the reduction of the goods it protects.
According to the EPA, there were 14.5 million tons of plastic containers and packaging produced in 2017. This statistic refers to materials and containers alone and does not account for other types of plastic waste, which make up the majority of pollution around the world.
At a consumer level, unnecessary packaging is easier to witness and understand. For example, some supermarkets sell fresh produce, like oranges, that have been pre-peeled and wrapped in plastic. It is fairly obvious to the average shopper that this process is not sustainable, or at the very least, defeats the purpose of oranges having a protective peel.
Other types of unnecessary packaging are harder to discern. In today’s global economy, products are shipped all over the world, often by multiple types of transport, including air and water. Each mode requires extra packaging to protect goods, including wooden palettes, plastic shrink wrap and cardboard boxes. These items are only necessary because of the length of time between production and consumption, especially when it comes to food. A bag of mixed greens can sit for three weeks between when harvested to when placed in a grocery basket.
Some forms of packaging are unavoidable. For example, a widespread sustainable solution has not yet been found for a way to reuse prescription bottles, toothpaste containers or other daily household items that are not reusable or recyclable. However, the rates at which people consume certain things are the real issue. Packaging would not be a problem if it were not for the goods it protects. Curbing consumption levels will be a necessary factor in finding sustainable solutions.
Recycling and Waste
A few years ago, recycling was the antidote to our world’s waste. The packaging did not matter as much when there was the ability to reuse it. Today, unfortunately, that fact is no longer true. Recycling is not beneficial if the distribution and transportation of waste require inefficient amounts of energy.
In the United States, the option to reprocess items is limited, with many local municipalities no longer collecting items. This change is due to the fact that China was at one point the largest importer of recycling, which required the shipment of U.S items via barges. China is no longer accepting this waste, however, having overwhelmed their own capacity to handle it. With our global system, this shift affected recycling strategies all over the world.
The three Rs of waste management taught in elementary school are Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. Unfortunately, the latter has somehow become the most frequently utilized, with little to no emphasis on reducing or reusing. While the ability to recycle packaging is imperative, the sheer quantity of packaging overwhelms the system.
In addition, the use of recycled packaging is not yet cost-effective enough to replace the production of new materials. Cause for concern also exists when recycling becomes a way to avoid changing consumer habits. In many ways, this process has become the solution to maintaining consistent consumption levels without thinking of the consequences.
The majority of packaging materials and containers are not reused or recycled. These items make up almost 30% of municipal solid waste, including food containers, wrappers, medicine boxes, water bottles and any other material that stores or distributes a product.
The environmental and health implications of packaging waste are pervasive around the globe. From ocean pollution to toxic secretions from landfills, the spread of this waste is universal. The long-term effects are hard to comprehend, considering how overwhelming the impact has been in a short period of time. One thing is for sure, reducing waste will be imperative to minimizing lasting repercussions.
Mitigating the Long-Term Effects of Packaging
The necessity of packaging will most likely continue to rise as the world becomes increasingly urban. By 2025, an estimated two-thirds of the total population will live in cities. With increasing distance between where we produce goods and where we consume them, these materials will continue to play an essential role in the distribution of commerce.
Analyzing the long-term effects of packaging on human health and the environment requires a close examination of its entire lifecycle. The most widely discussed impact is when these items become waste. Visual examples of this include plastic containers on the beach, styrofoam boxes in landfills and food wrappers floating in water sources. It’s not uncommon to see stories in the news of fish eating plastic bags and turtles getting stuck in soda containers.
The aftermath of packaging production is more readily understood than the impact of creating it in the first place. Finding alternatives to packaging and innovating ways of reducing wasteful materials will be a massive part of the solution to lessening long-term effects on the planet.
If consumption levels do not change, the impact on the planet will include increasingly toxic water sources, microplastic pollution, habitat destruction, rising global temperatures due to carbon emissions and adverse health effects like cancer, respiratory failure and autoimmune diseases. Unfortunately, society has passed the point of completely avoiding these outcomes. The issues have already altered the environment and human health. At this point, finding a solution to minimize the effects will be vital.
Packaging will negatively affect our planet in the long run. The question now is how great this effect will be, and what can we do to mitigate it. Finding sustainable solutions will include innovative technology in more energy-efficient production, reduced consumption and more viable disposal options. Smarter materials, not necessarily less of it, will be the key to future success. Replacing mainstream packaging items with greener, including biodegradable options, will be essential in reducing long-term effects.