HOW MUCH IMPACT DOES PACKAGING HAVE ON THE ENVIRONMENT?
When buying a product in the supermarket, the consumers choice should not primarily depend on the type of packaging in which it sits on the shelf. Depending on the product, the value chain activites with the highest environmental impact are (feed) production, processing and transport. Packaging usually contributes between 1 to 10%. So why bother with packaging?
(i) THE PRODUCTION OF PACKAGING REQUIRES FINITE RESOURCES
A circular economy and material consumption reduction have been identified as key levers in limiting global temperature increase to 1.5°C. Material management including the extraction, refining, transportation and processing of raw materials, accounts for 67% of total GHG emissions (Circular Economy, 2019). A circular economy reduces emissions by preserving and extending the lifetime of existing products and minimizing the demand for further raw materials.
Looking at plastic as an example, the global plastic consumption increased sharply over the past 70 years - from 2Mt in 1950 to 348Mt in2017 (CIEL, 2019; Plastics Europe, 2018). More than 90% of plastics are fossil fuel based, accounting for almost 6% of the global oil demand and expected to rise to 20% by 2050 (World Economic Forum, 2016). At this trajectory, plastic will be responsible for 15% of global CO2 emissions and pollute major natural habitats by 2050. The largest application for plastic is its use as a packaging material - 30% of total plastics volume (Ryberg, Laurent, & Hauschild, 2018). In 2015, plastic packaging accounted for 25% of the global packaging volume, projected to grow by a factor of more than 4 until 2050 (World Economic Forum, 2016). Europe produces more than 60 Mtons of plastic annually, of which 40% stems from packaging (Plastic Europe, 2016) (Ellen MacArthur Foundation, Eunomia, 2017). Swiss consumers dispose 3 times more plastic waste than their EU counterparts, namely 780,000t which is about 100kg plastic waste per capita per year (Federal Office for the Environment, 2018).
(ii) MOST PACKAGING IS SINGLE-USE AND IS BURNT, LANDFILLED OR ESCAPES INTO THE ENVRIONMENT
Todays linear economic models ignore the externalities of waste and finding circular solutions for packaging is complex. Especially prevention is challenging as the convenience and throwaway culture that has emerged in recent years heavily relies on disposable packaging. Also, as supply chains are getting longer, increased shelf life is required, usually resulting in more (complex) packaging, to prevent food waste.
After a package has served its purpose, usually after a single-use, it is discarded into a bin. Here are different scenarios:
The currently ideal scenario would be the respective recycling bin.
However if no recycling bin is found in the close surroundings or if the packaging is not recyclable (or not labelled), the packaging will end up in an ordinary bin where it is then transported to a landfill or an incinerator. Across Europe, 30% of plastic waste is recycled, 39% is incinerated, and 31% is landfilled (Plastics Europe, 2014). In Switzerland over 80% (650,000t) of the disposed plastic waste is incinerated, and 10% (80,000t) are recycled (mostly PET bottles) (BAFU, 2010).
In the worst case scenario, the packaging is (mistakenly) dropped outside of the bin or perhaps a gust of wind blows the packaging out of the bin such that it escapes into the environment. Packaging waste, such as macro and micropalastic can not only be found in oceans, lakes, rivers, soils and sediments, but also in the atmosphere, animal biomass, and human food systems (C. M. Rochman et al, 2016), (D. S. Green et al, 2015), (A. A. de Souza Machado et al, 2018). Studies found that approximately 55t of plastic waste accumulates in Lake Geneva yearly (J. Boucher, F. Faure, Z. Plummer, 2018) and that there is approximately 53t of micro plastic in the floodplain soils of Swiss nature reserves (M. Scheurer, M. Bigalke, 2018). Another study calculated a swiss lake pollution at 129g/km2 (1-20mm plastic waste samples taken from 14 locations), while the global average for sea pollution is 160g/km2 (Oceaneye, 2018)
Furthermore, the amount of global waste produced is beyond the capacities of the current waste management systems such that a change from todays throw away culture is inevitable if we want to avoid releasing more waste into the environment (C. A. Velis, D. Lerpiniere, M. Tsakona, 2017), (D. C. Wilson, C. A. Velis, 2015).