Plastic Packaging Users Should Get Ahead of Environmental Concerns

Manufacturers have made huge progress in reducing their environmental footprints with everything from water husbandry to slashing carbon-dioxide emissions. But one area where factory chiefs can do much better is in recycling plastic packaging, according to environmental groups that increasingly have the ear not only of regulators but of American consumers.

“Our major finding is that leading fast food, beverage and packaged goods companies are coming up significantly short of where they should be when it comes to addressing the environmental aspects of packaging,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow, one of the groups, in a recent conference call. It and the Natural Resources Defense Council analyzed the packaging habits of 47 different companies and concluded that few have “sufficiently prioritized packaging source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content and related recycling policies.”

The groups hailed the fact that plastics produce fewer greenhouse gases than other packaging materials. But “the bad side is, often, the end-of-life piece is ignored” even as plastics move to become a preeminent way to package food,” McKerron said.

“Leading fast food, beverage and packaged goods companies are coming up significantly short of where they should be when it comes to addressing the environmental aspects of packaging.”

For example, plastic pouches being used to house more and more foods—ranging from vegetable purees to bite-sized candies—generate less waste than many other forms of packaging and protect products better. But at the end of their lives, they essentially have nowhere to go except in the trash in most circumstances, where they become pollution, as Plastics News put it.

“You guys have a litter problem, let’s face it,” Victor Bell, president of Environmental Packaging International told manufacturing CEOs and others at a recent industry forum. Added Betsy Dorn, environmental consultant for Reclay StewardEdge Inc.: “Now that almost all products are in pouches, you are going to be looked at as a major cause of [plastics pollution] and you are going to be expected to do something about it.”

What are manufacturing chiefs in affected industries to do? One strategy is a concept called ”extended producer responsibility,” in which a manufacturer or retailer takes responsibility for the disposal or recycling of its product—in this case pouches—at the end of its useful life, perhaps by paying a certain amount per item produced to help fund that process, the publication suggested.

Another option is a take-back program that would allow consumers to return used pouches to retailers, much as such efforts have succeeded in getting shoppers to return plastic bags. But retailers resist the idea of becoming omnibus recycling centers.

End-consumers are increasingly keen to the sustainability ethos of manufacturers and open to the messages of environmental activists seeking out every pocket of opportunity to prod companies to change or just to make a rhetorical or political point. Savvy manufacturing CEOs can get ahead of this game with proactive measures.


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