Is Packaging Recycling as Environmentally Friendly as it Looks?

medium_Laurel.jpgThe weekly Verdigris blog by Laurel Brunner

In many economies, curbside recycling is becoming the norm. Actually we can recycle virtually anything: in developed economies technology takes care of it, and elsewhere innovative entrepreneurs do the work. The biggest consideration ought to be the environmental and economic impacts of the recycling process itself. In some situations sending the stuff for incineration might be the least negative option.

One of the biggest sources of waste pretty much anywhere is packaging, which is ironic since packaging is basically about conserving resources. How can you transport yoghurt from the diary to the table, without some sort of package, even if it is just waxed paper?

Packaging should make it easy to distribute goods, especially food, so that contents reach their destination in good shape. That waxed paper used for yoghurt won’t be much use for transporting it further than the local farm or village shop. Packaging has to protect stuff from damage and contaminants that might otherwise poison or injure their consumers or users. Good packaging design has to provide fit for purpose containment, preservation and handling convenience, plus be a vehicle for merchandising. The package has to be sturdy enough to protect squashables and still present the contents as yummily as possible.

And there’s more: package design has to make sure that there is ample space for information about the contents and the package’s recyclability. For pharmaceutical products, product data can run to many pages which have to be somehow contained within the package. For most Fast Moving Consumer Goods (FMCGs) local laws generally require that composition, origin and use are on the package’s outside.

Taking all this into account packaging is increasingly designed to reduce waste and limit environmental impact. But the need for packaging design to fulfil its various functions should not be lost in the urge to minimise its environmental impact. Fortunately once they reach end of life many packaging materials, such as glass, aluminium, PET, paper and board, can be recycled. The question isn’t so much if, but how so that both environmental and economic impacts become part of recycling models.

Collection methods and checking that packaging waste has acceptable quantities of regulated metals or volatile solids (they tell you how much organic content is in the package), should be done in an environmentally friendly way. But this can be costly and recyclers are in the business of making money, so a process’s cost-effectiveness matters a lot. Recyclers may consider the environmental impact of a collection or processing within the law, but finding the right balance is between profit and environmental impact is tricky. Profit may trump environmental impact more often than environmental impact comes out on top.

– Laurel Brunner

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