The Mysterious Carbon Footprint of Packaging
Packaging. We seem to be obsessed with it. From squeezable convenience foods, to wrapping up individual pieces of produce at the grocery store, to placing shiny new laptops inside boxes inside boxes inside boxes so that it reaches our doorstep safely, some packaging is just over-the-top. Check out our slideshows of bad packaging ideas and packaging gone wrong to see what we mean.
We've gotten accustomed to taking our reusable bags to the grocery store, but we still haven't seen a strong shift towards reducing the packaging on the items we place in that reusable bag. And all that plastic and cardboard add up to quite a carbon footprint. But how much of a carbon footprint? What kind of impact could we make on cutting back carbon if we were to cut back on packaging?
Carbon Footprint of Packaging Still Mostly a Mystery to Many
Unfortunately, the numbers to answer these types of questions aren't easily accessible for the average person. Part of this has to do with poor measurement by manufacturers and a lack of life cycle analysis that measure the carbon footprint of packaging. Groups like the Sustainable Packaging Coalition are working to change this, and they've even released a software program called COMPASS that helps designers and companies weigh the environmental impacts of their packaging. As the eco-saying goes, what gets measured gets managed. If companies aren't taking the time to measure more than the price point of their packaging, then the bigger picture, and bigger long-term cost of that packaging is being missed.
Additionally, part of the reason numbers are MIA has to do with the lack of transparency in our marketplace. When it comes to the manufacturing of goods, transparency is needed so that consumers can more fully understand the impact of their purchases. That's one of the reasons for the push for carbon footprint labels on products that look and work similarly to nutrition labels on food products. Packaging
The Big Impact of Packaging
How Much Waste Packaging Generates
- Of the 66 million tons of solid waste generated by Californians each year, approximately one third is packaging
- 38 billion water bottles enter U.S. landfills every year
- Containers and packaging account for 31.6 percent by weight and 29.6 percent by volume of the municipal solid waste (MSW) in the United States
- Our landfills contain thirty percent paperboard
- Over 6.4 billion cardboard boxes were used to ship items via ground or air in 2007 alone
Carbon Footprints of Common Packaging
Plastic bottles tend to dominate the conversation on beverage containers. However, there are other containers we use on a daily basis and they have a significant impact as well. The carbon footprint of glass packaging is more than double the impact of using aluminum cans. For example, a 330 milliliter aluminum can of Coca-Cola Classic emits 170 grams of carbon emissions during production, while a glass bottle of the same size had a footprint of 360 grams. These numbers matter because packaging on a can of soda can account for as much as 70% of the overall carbon footprint of the product. The material choice for a can of soda is important; aluminum is highly recyclable and lighter in weight than glass so that the carbon footprint of transporting the products is smaller.
Using recycled materials in the production of packaging helps to reduce the carbon footprint because it takes more energy and resources to gather and process virgin material than it does to gather and process recycled material. According to Food Production Daily, an Amcor-produced PET bottle of 54 grams without recycled content produces an average of 446 grams of CO2 per bottle. Change that to a PET bottle with 50% recycled content, and the figure changes to an average of 387 grams of CO2 per bottle. Using 100% recycled content produces an average of 327 grams of CO2 per bottle. However, we rarely see this level of recycled content for food-grade plastic bottles because using recycled plastic has two big drawbacks - health concerns over what was in the plastic before being recycled and if the material is carried over into the new container (who wants to drink out of something that once contained a toxin?), and structural integrity of the new bottle is diminished. So, plastic is still a pain.
When talking about using recycled material for glass containers, a 365 gram glass bottle with 81% recycled content produces an average of 453 grams of CO2 per bottle. Change that to 92% recycled content and the figure drops to 356 grams of CO2 per bottle. A 496 gram glass bottle also with 81% recycled content produces an average of 523 grams of CO2 per bottle. So, the more recycled content, the smaller the carbon footprint. While using recycled content in plastic containers used for food is difficult because of health reasons, the same is not true for materials like recycled glass, which can be used in high quantities and recycled over and over.
Moving on to paper, Wrap reports that the UK consumes more than 12.5 million tons of paper a year. Over 3.7 million tons of this is paper packaging. Specifically, cartonboard accounts for 743,000 tons and corrugated cardboard accounts for 2,377,000 tons. If all this is made of 100% virgin material, this equates to 2,898,000 and 9,270,000 tons of CO2...all for paper packaging!
Packaging and Our Role in Cutting Our Carbon Footprints
The average American has a carbon footprint of 20 tons per year. Experts estimate that in order to stabilize greenhouse gas emissions and curb global warming, the average carbon footprint of each human needs to be around 2 tons per year. That means we have a whole lot of reducing to do. There are some easy but impactful ways of drastically cutting our carbon footprints, and minimizing and eliminating packaging wherever possible can play a big role in getting us there.
9 Ways You Can Cut Back on Packaging's Carbon Footprint Right Now
1.Buy in bulk whenever possible and store goods in refillable containers.
2.Reuse glass containers for storing foods, rather than plastic wrap or foil.
3.When ordering from Amazon, see if your product comes with "Frustration-Free Packaging"
4.Buy used, since many used items come with far less packaging than new.
5.When ordering products online, ask for them to come in one shipment.
6.Take your own reusable materials out with you, such as a stainless steel coffee thermos, To-Go Ware, reusable bags and so on, to help cut down on consumption of disposables wherever possible.
7.Avoid anything you don't really need, and that comes in packaging, such as convenience foods, bottled drinks, and individually wrapped items.
8.Choose items with packaging that is reusable in some way, and get creative in how you can reuse, instead of recycle, packaging.
9.Contact the makers of products you buy that have excessive packaging or packaging made of non-recycled materials and give them your two cents. Hearing feedback from customers facilitates change. Get a sample letter here.
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