Packaging is a necessity. From cardboard to plastic, aluminium to glass, every company, from small business to multinational is reliant on the packaging industry to provide an effective way for them to ship their products safely from A to B.
The majority of businesses are thinking responsibly about how they dispose of their waste packaging. Larger companies are required by law to be responsible for their waste and must prevent recyclable materials from ending up in landfill. These are responsibilities that must be improved year on year.
Most assume that if they recycle their waste materials then this is sufficient. They invest in baling machines and pay a recycling company to collect their waste. They assume their waste will be recycled and their obligation is fulfilled. Their waste is effectively out of sight, out of mind. Unfortunately recycling is not quite as straight forward as this. It is not enough for companies to simply recycle away their pollution.
What’s wrong with recycling?
Obviously recycling is good. It is definitely preferable to sending our waste to landfill. The problem with recycling is there is no government involvement or support within the industry. It is entirely reliant on privately owned companies agreeing to recycle our waste. Waste rates for all materials continually fluctuate which means the whole industry is very unstable. When prices are high, recyclers can make a good margin from selling their recycled content back to the manufacturers. But when they are low it can be more cost effective for manufacturers to simply buy in virgin product and there is less demand for the recycled content.
Another worrying fact to note is the sheer scale of new materials being produced. With regards to plastic, it seems impossible that we will be able to recycle all that we are producing. Since 2012 the UK had been shipping 2.7 million tons of plastic waste a year to China. But this stopped in January 2018 when China imposed a ban on all non-industrial plastic imports. From a consumer perspective, drinks companies produce up to 500 billion single use drinks bottles annually. If we are no longer able to export a large proportion of this plastic, where is this going to go?
The process of recycling itself requires huge amounts of energy and resources. Whilst cardboard can be recycled a number of times, a material such as plastic is more complicated. Each time it is processed it degrades a little more so recycled plastic is typically used for plastics which are not then recyclable themselves, such as stickers, textiles or plastic lumber. Companies need to be aware that when they send their waste for recycling, it isn’t a quick fix that will result in products being recycled into new products again and again. There is a limit to what we can recycle and not everything will escape landfill.
So what can we do?
The amount of waste being produced needs to be addressed at source. Packaging is a necessary evil in some respects but it can be reduced. Pallet boxes can be used to ship a number of smaller products. Their strength and durability means the products will be well protected and they won’t need to be re-packed in smaller boxes. Consider if you can reuse any of your packaging internally for picking bins, protective sheets or as outer shipping cases.
When purchasing packaging think carefully about what you need from your packaging. Is it essential that your product is packed in a printed, bespoke box or would a once used, eco-friendly box do the job? You might find your customers would be impressed with your commitment to sustainability if you explained you were packing in once used boxes!