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
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
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
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
Emily Folk is a freelance writer and blogger on conservation and sustainability. To see her latest posts, check out her blog, Conservation Folks, or follow her on Twitter, @emilysfolk!