cardboard_box_clip_art_22876by Richard M. Goodman

When purchasing necessities or special gifts, deciding what items to buy based on its sustainable packaging can have a significant impact.

According to the Sustainability Packaging Coalition, the two most relevant sustainable packaging principles to the average consumer include:

  • Sustainable packaging optimizes the use of renewable or recycled source materials.
  • Sustainable packaging is physically designed to optimize materials and energy.

Let’s look at how to implement these two principles.  The recycling industry incurs big expense in their sorting operations to remove undesirable or toxic materials from the recycle stream.  If the packaging industry can create packaging that is easily sorted and not likely to introduce potential contaminants, then it makes the recycling industry’s job easier and ultimately reduces their costs. Proper on-package messaging from the packaging industry can help consumers help recyclers, which in the end helps the packaging industry.  Consumers should insist on greened packaging.

Paper-based packaging such as boxes, containers, cartons, sacks and bags are part of our everyday lives. Unlike other packaging options, paper-based packaging is made from trees – a renewable source that is sustainably grown, managed and harvested specifically for the paper industry – or from recovered fiber, allowing reuse of its products. According to the Environmental Protection Agency, paper-based packaging is recovered more than any other packaging material. Paper and paperboard represent more than 70 percent of all packaging recovered for recycling in the U.S. and, in 2011, 91 percent of old corrugated containers were recovered for recycling.

Another consideration involves the use of compostable materials for packaging. This can best be satisfied if the earth’s biosphere effectively recovers the nutritive value of the basic biological materials and no toxic or dangerous substances are released through any stage of the package’s lifecycle. It should be noted that the conditions for effective biological degradation do not exist in landfills and the release of problematic substances is a further concern. Managed composting and anaerobic digestion with energy recovery are examples of sustainable systems.

In summary, we should observe the following considerations when looking into the packaging of consumer goods:

  • Avoid overly packaged goods.
  • Look for packaging materials that are fully recyclable, including plastics with the recycle labels, aluminum, cardboard and paper.
  • Look for compostable materials and either use them in your own or neighborhood composts or put them into the recycling system.
  • Read the labels to be sure you are removing any potentially toxic materials from the recycling streams.

If we as consumers follow these guidelines we can help promote the use of sustainable packaging and help create a positive reinforcement to manufacturers to increase the use of these materials

Richard M. Goodman, PhD, is a chemical scientist and consultant focusing on how surface science concepts can solve real world problems.  The periodic column considers aspects of sustainability from a scientific perspective. See Goodman’s profile with Association of Consulting Chemists and Chemical Engineers (ACC&CE) at www.chemconsult.org

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