It is nearly impossible to estimate the amount of manmade debris in our waterways. Sea turtles are at particular risk: they mistake plastic six-pack rings for jellyfish, among other hazards.
Delray Beach, Florida’s Saltwater Brewery has responded by creating a biodegradable six-pack carrier made from the brewery’s waste. And packaging maker Hi-Cone invented a carrier the company claims weakens within days of exposure to UV rays. Hi-Cone also offers a recycling program (ringleader.com) in which schools and other groups can ship rings to Hi-Cone’s facility near Chicago.
Other companies are eager to help the planet. Arthur Marcus, owner of King Arthur Coffee in Deerfield Beach, Florida, created a USDA-approved single-serving coffee package; the exterior is made from bagasse, created from sugar cane byproduct, and is biodegradable and recyclable.
North Carolina’s Sealed Air was looking to develop new eco-friendly packaging. Cleveland’s NineSigma, which helps companies find creative solutions, connected Sealed Air with Ecovative Design to develop Restore Mushroom Packaging. Used for heavy products such as pumps, it is produced from mushrooms’ root-like mycelium and other farm waste products such as corn stalks and husks.
Sugar Bowl Bakery, headquartered in Hayward, California, launched an organic line of bakery products, and general manager Michael Ly knew plastic packaging wouldn’t do. So he sourced compostable materials including paperboard, soy ink, and special films and wraps.
“We are able to cut down our carbon footprint by more than 50%,” he says.
However, most packaging is still deposited in landfills designed to keep packages from degrading, says Jonathan Asher of PRS IN VIVO, a New Jersey marketing and innovation agency. “Unless people actually eat the edible packaging (rarely) or dispose of it in a compost (very unusual) or leave it out in such conditions that biodegradation can actually occur (also very unusual), these approaches do not make a meaningful difference for society at large,” he explains.
“Unfortunately people, corporations and governments have put sustainability on the back burner, and they are just beginning to realize the consequences,” says Marcus.
“When any new material is developed, we ask whether it strengthens or detracts from overall sustainability,” says Steve Russell of The American Chemistry Council. “For example, a plastic made from a bio-based feedstock that uses large amounts of water or energy to produce may not ultimately provide a net benefit. Similarly, compostable materials may not be better than traditional materials if large-scale composting facilities are not available.”
Russell adds, “Most ‘compostable’ materials, including plastics, don’t break down naturally in the environment. Will claims of biodegradability or compostability lead to more litter because people mistakenly believe something will just ‘go away’ if tossed out the window?”
The most proven approach for creating eco-friendly packaging, notes Russell, is based on optimizing a package’s weight, “enabling a manufacturer or brand owner to ship more product with less packaging.”
The conscious consumer will bring about change in packaging, says Marcus. “He or she can purchase products in compostable or biodegradable packaging. Talk with store managers; write letters to company management expressing displeasure with the current packaging. Join an organization that has a platform in which you believe, that supports sustainability.”
Asher believes the consumer can begin with the basics: reduce, reuse, recycle.“Use less material to begin with; find alternate uses for a package after it’s been used; and recycle—but for a real purpose.”
At present, planet-friendly packaging can carry a heftier price tag for both the manufacturer and the consumer. But Ly agrees that the change begins with the buyer.
“The best thing for conscious consumers to do is to purchase items that are sold in smarter packaging,” Ly says. “The consumer really does have a great deal of power.”