Thursday, November 5, 2009

Hard-to-Recycle Item #3: Consumer Product Packaging

Something's got to be done about the enormous plastic packaging sum rung up by manufacturers if our communities ever want to have a chance of reaching zero waste. Approximately a third of waste sent to landfills is consumer product packaging (Origins). This includes chip and candy wrappers, saran and shrink wrap, bad rap and pop CD cases, frozen and ready-to-eat meals, beer pong cups, cosmetic supplies; all of the stuff you usually throw in the trash because its not recyclable. A good way to identify CPP (this isn't actually an official acronym, but the recycling industry is full of them, so I'm just going to follow the trend..) is if it's made of plastic and/or contains a consumable product inside (duh!). Unfortunately, if CPP doesn't end up at the landfill, it often ends up clogging streams around fallen trees and beaver dams, not only polluting our watersheds but creating an unsightly sight suited for the Death Star's trash compactor.

The pollution caused by CPP can be directly attributed to the flood of new plastic materials marketed to suburban America and the new middle class after World War II. Since then, single-use packaging has increased by more than 10,000% (EPA), a staggering percentage comprehensible only by a huge exponential growth curve that doesn't fit in this blog space. The Society of the Plastics Industry and entrepreneurs like Earl Tupper applied the scientific developments of the past century's plastic invention and chemical manipulation to a fast-growing list of consumer products, mainly food and drink containers, advocating for its use in almost every industry. Plastic is valued for its lightweight durability and ability to mold to almost any shape. It is hard to recycle because there are so many chemical resins that vary from plastic to plastic. A number system from 1-7 is invoked to identify types of plastic and an easy chart can be found on Eco-Cycle's website. Until the 1970s there was little regulation and health concerns for the use of plastic. Indeed, the FDA did not issue any ultimatums on plastic manufacturing until 2002 when they introduced the current Good Manufacturing Initiative (cGMP), which focuses on risks to public health in manufacturing procedures and end-product quality. The private research and calls for greater study by environmental groups and universities on the hazards of plastics has yielded shocking results.

While producing plastics is known to be a toxic process that releases pollutants into the air, the finished plastic is usually much safer although trace chemicals can remain, and this is where much research needs to be done. PVC, used to make shrink wrap as well as the popular potato gun piping, can leach harmful chemicals when it comes into contact with food and the World Health Organization classifies vinyl chloride (the VC part) as a human carcinogen. Polystyrene, used to make styrofoam, used to release CFCs into the ozone until non-CFCs were used, and can leach chemicals that affect hormone functions. Polycarbonates, used to make firmer molds like CD cases and action figures, has bisphenol-A, an estrogen-like hormone disruptor thats been known to lead to increases in body weight and insulin resistance in animal studies. This stuff is nasty, and even when it's recycled properly, chemicals like dioxin are released every time plastic is burned. It should also be noted that global plastic production accounts for 8% of the world's oil consumption (Ecobiz).

Further innovation in the area of biodegradable plastics is required by manufacturers to avert a literal suffocation of our future. Some companies have been able to develop such holy grails. A class of oxo-biodegrable plastics has been invented by adding small amounts of catalytic metal salts to polyolefin (a form of shrink wrap) that when exposed to oxygen degrade over a matter of months to biomass particles. Biodegradable plastics like Biopol and Ecoflex are being developed that degrade with exposure to sunlight, water, bacteria, enzymes and other natural causes, but the materials are currently too expensive to be of any widespread industry use. A process called active disassembly (ADSM) uses shape memory alloys and polymers as well as trigger points to disassemble consumer products part by part for easy recycling. This also is costly to the consumer at the moment, but will have long-term benefits for CPP as well as electronic waste. Much work is also being done on biopetroleum, which uses sugars and algae to capture carbon dioxide and turn it into clean fuel. These technologies hold the fate of Earth's environment in their hands. While the plastics industry and American Chemical Association avidly defends the use of plastics, they need to accept responsibility for the environmental problems they've caused and actively work for, promote and cheapen these new technologies. Now I better watch my back..

Europe currently leads the way in requiring manufacturers to consider the end-life of their products and incorporate plans for such before they proceed. This is enforced through increasing legislative pressures and directives like the goal of increasing recycling rates from 75% to 85% by 2015, and the goal of eradicating landfills for hazardous waste. While a lot of Americans seem to dislike or distrust smart, proven European initiatives like universal health care and shorter work weeks, pressure of some sort needs to be exerted on manufacturers to consider the end-life of their products and to employ active disassembly techniques. This is already being set in motion by more and more examples of green corporate stewardship, but improvements like the implementation of the technologies listed above still need to be made.

In direct relation to the recycling industry, Polyflow Inc. of Ohio claims to have developed a process that turns previously unrecyclable materials like rubber, plastics, electronics and scrap metal back into raw polymer and monomer feedstock to manufacture new items creating an efficient recycling loop. The company still looks like its consolidating support and funds to jump off, but could prove to be a worthy investment in the future if they install regional plants across the nation. TerraCycle, a so-called "upcycling" company, has partnered with companies like Mars and Frito-Lay to create consumer products featuring popular candy and chip wrappers such as this Doritos tote bag and Oreo kite. Putting the obvious branding mechanism aside, this repurposing initiative diverts tons of the most popular consumer product packagaing and reminds me of the Nascar flair jackets worn a decade ago by Springbrook's urban elite. You can even get paid for collecting specific, intact wrappers and sending them in if you truly want to nickel and dime it. For all the ladies and mermen, the natural cosmetic company Origins allows you to bring in any used cosmetic products, regardless of brand, to any store location to be shipped to their recycling plant for reuse. Origins has also committed to use natural ingredients and recycled materials wherever possible in their production chain.

Another solution to the problem of consumer product packaging is simply to consume less plastic. Ask for paper bags or use renewable ones at the grocery store. Buy products with no plastic wrap around them that have a recyclable or compostable end-life, and combine similar produce items (like Gala apples and Granny smith apples, or red, green and orange Bell peppers) into one bag. Save your plastic bags from newspapers and produce, keep 'em dry, and deposit them at a safe recycling center or grocery store (search for a proper location). Walmart and similar big box stores are asking manufacturers to ship products to them in packages of three, which cuts down on plastic wrap, but may ultimately contribute to more plastic being used since its a switch to bulk consumption. Buy bulk only when the contents inside can be recycled. If you're having a party or large event, don't forget to invite me, but also find compostable paper plates and cups; Eco-Cycle has a Zero Waste Event Kit if you need ideas--unfortunately they don't ship.

Not only do manufacturers have to get with the program, but we as consumers need to be mindful of our buying practices and support the companies that sponsor green stewardship initiatives. The people's support for market innovations combined with government pressure and research has always led to results-oriented solutions that better our world in general. This can be seen in operation all over the green sector from the desire for clean fuels like solar and wind power to energy-saving devices like halogen light bulbs and toilets that flush less water. We must consume less plastic as a society and make a conscious shift to other materials. The will to change is stronger than any polyamide polycarbonate tupperware resin bullshit.


  1. In my discussion of biodegradable plastics, I forgot to mention the implausibility of mixing biodegradable materials with standard plastics in the finished recyclable product. Biodegradable plastics are not able to be recycled with our current processing capability because the additives used are weaker (because they are supposed to degrade) and cannot be melted together with conventional plastic. This would end up contaminating the durable end-life uses of recycled plastic, reducing the quality and service life of such things like decking, carpeting and piping materials. Technically, biodegradable plastics are a contaminant in the recycling stream and consumers should collect these for a high-heat composting facility rather than throwing them in a recycling bin. Some don't even degrade in a landfill highlighting the need for more research. Until biodegradable materials become the standard for all plastic usage, a development needing decades to institute, recycling conventional plastics is actually a more eco-friendly practice since "the idea of degrading material runs counter to the idea of value creation and good stewardship" (APR). A study from Germany released in September that took into account the whole recycling loop found that standard polyethylene bags are less damaging to the environment than biodegradable bags. Furthermore, bags made from recycled material are the least damaging.

  2. I would like to thank you for sharing your thoughts and time into the stuff you post!! Thumbs up
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