These days, the word “packaging” seems to imply a feeling of negativity. Many individuals have jumped on the “anti-packaging” bandwagon, believing that our current society produces too much of it and that most of the packaging being produced isn’t recyclable. Well, they’re right in certain respects and uninformed in others. Packaging has become an important part of our society — one that extends the shelf life of products, allows for the convenience of pre-prepared foods and generally makes a positive contribution to our health and safety. At the same time, our society is changing. And with these changes comes a whole new trend in household-generated waste.
Making a difference
Packaging has been in use since ancient times when people wrapped their food in leaves or other readily available materials. It’s come a long way since then, with today’s packaging being formulated for specific applications such as preventing oxygen from getting in and spoiling the contents or the “fizz” in carbonated beverages from getting out. Much of today’s packaging is also expert at resource reduction; it not only enables food to stay fresh longer (and thus avoids food spoilage and increased waste), it also accomplishes this with as little material as possible. Think of the weight of a plastic film (less than a few grams) used to protect chicken breasts against contamination and germs. That’s a lot of protection from a tiny piece of wrap.
Packaging helps in other ways as well, such as eliminating the need to dispose of additional millions of tonnes of municipal solid waste. The commercial processing of fruit, vegetables, meat, poultry and dairy products reduces the amount of waste entering the household waste stream. Take for instance the fact that the commercial processing of 1,000 chickens produces about 800 kilograms of waste (innards, feathers, etc.). This waste is diverted commercially into by-products (such as pet foods), thereby missing the municipal waste stream altogether. And, it takes only seven kilograms of plastic film to package and prepare for market the poultry products derived from those 1,000 chickens.
The same is true of frozen peas. Every kilogram of freshly frozen peas eliminates about three kilograms of waste residues (the pods), which are processed commercially into animal feed. And that one kilogram of frozen peas requires a mere 10 grams of plastic film to create the packaging that enables us to carry it home from the grocery store to our own freezer.
Despite the fact that the Canadian population is growing, packaging as a percentage of municipal waste discards has remained constant. Using American data, it’s about 27 per cent. That’s due, in large part, to the ongoing efforts of manufacturers to reduce the amount of packaging being used.
Although packaging is continually being re-engineered to use the least amount of material to deliver the most product, the amount of packaging being generated in the municipal waste stream is being affected by other factors as well. The size of Canadian households is one such example.
Over the last 45 years, the average number of persons per household in Canada has decreased from 4.5 in 1961 to 2.6 in 2001.
Statistics show that the smaller the household, the more packaging is generated. A United Kingdom study found that a three-plus person household generates an average of 70 kilograms of packaging per person per year. By comparison, a one-person household generates 102 kg. A two-person household was found to generate about 90 kg per person.
There are similar findings from a Dutch study. In the Netherlands, statistics showed that a three-person household generates about 80 kg of packaging per person per year. A one-person household was found to generate 140 kg and a two-person household 110 kg per person. One and two-person households generate between 50 and 56 per cent more packaging than a three-person household. Why?
Smaller households generally have different shopping habits from larger households and these habits usually result in more packaging. Take, for example, the fact that a single person is unlikely to purchase four litres of milk at a time, as offered by the packaging-efficient flexible plastic pouch package. Instead, that person would more likely purchase that same amount of milk at four different times in four, separate one-litre cartons. The flexible pouches weigh 26 grams, while the cartons total 124 grams. That’s a 500 per cent increase in the amount of packaging generated. It would take a recycling rate of 90 per cent for the cartons to reduce the amount of packaging waste to the same amount generated by the pouches. In some parts of Canada, the pouches are collected for recycling.
Another example can be found on the meat counter. A smaller household may be inclined to purchase a small pre-cooked roast weighing about 550 grams. It would typically be packaged in an outer boxboard sleeve and an inner plastic pan covered with sealed plastic film. In the pan itself, the roast would likely be wrapped in a laminated plastic bag. In this case, the packaging would weigh about 86 grams — more than twice the amount used to wrap a fresh 2.5 kilogram oven roast.
Looking at Canada’s current figures, one or two-person households represent about 58 per cent of the total households, yet they generate almost half the total packaging. The 6.7 million one- and two-person households generate about 1.1 billion tonnes of packaging; the 4.8 million households of three or more persons generate 1.3 billion tonnes of packaging a year. And it doesn’t look like the household demographics will be changing any time soon. From 1961 to 2001, the population increased 165 per cent. During that same period, the number of households in Canada increased by 250 per cent.
What’s being done?
Industry is working hard to balance the changing demands of consumers (i.e., smaller sizes and increased demand for pre-packaged foods) with the amount of packaging being generated. Research into new recycling technologies and processes is ongoing. R&D continues, as does test pilots.
A few years ago, plastic tubs and margarine containers were considered “unrecyclable.” Today, some 56 per cent of the Canadian population has access to recycling them through municipal curbside or depot programs. Forty-four per cent of the population has access to recycling plastic bags, while around 80 per cent of the population has access to recycling plastic bottles. But, despite the high number of Canadians who have access to recycling various materials, the actual recycling rates remain low. In the case of plastic bottles, the estimated recovery rate is only 36 per cent.
Changes in policy
The National Packaging Protocol (NaPP) was developed in 1989 as a voluntary initiative to reduce the amount of packaging sent for disposal in Canada. It set out six packaging policies, among which were the following:
* All packaging shall have minimal effects on the environment;
* Priority will be given to the management of packaging through source reduction, reuse and recycling; and
* A continuing campaign of information and education will be undertaken to make Canadians aware of the function and environmental impacts of packaging.
These three policies are still relevant. The first policy requires the development and maintenance of a Life-Cycle Inventory (LCI) database that could be used to help packaging designers reduce the life-cycle impact of packaging. The second and third policies require information and education of Canadians about the function and environmental impacts of packaging.
Packaging for tomorrow
Although many people may view packaging in a negative light, the truth is that most packaging makes a positive contribution to our quality of life. At the same time, our society is changing and these changes need to be taken into consideration.
A recent European st
udy found that if alternative materials were substituted for all of the plastic packaging used in Western Europe, there would be a marked increase in energy use and GHG emissions. These increases would amount to 582 million gigajoules of energy per year (equivalent to about 101 million barrels of oil) and the equivalent of about 43 million tonnes of CO2 per year (the equivalent of taking 12 million cars off of the road).
Cathy Cirko is the director general of the Environment and Plastics Industry Council (EPIC). Email Cathy at firstname.lastname@example.org