Plastic consumer packaging still draws the ire of environmental group

The environmental group "As You Sow" recently released another blast at plastic packaging with the intent to force companies to find alternatives to plastic or, at the very least, encourage recycling. While that's not all bad—recycling is a good thing and the demand for recycled polymers is quite high—As You Sow continues to blame plastic (the material) for all the environmental woes of the world.

In January, As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) reviewed the packaging practices of 47 fast food/quick service restaurant (QSR) chains, beverage companies, and consumer good/grocery companies, and released a report highlighting the leaders and laggards in the field. The report notes that plastic packaging is the fastest growing form of packaging in the U.S. largely due to the popularity of fast food and consumer beverages, yet only 14% of it is recycled. "That contributes to an overall waste of $11.4 billion in potential recycling revenue every year," according to the report, Waste and Opportunity 2015: Environmental Progress and Challenges in Food, Beverage, and Consumer Goods Packaging. (www.asyousow.org/recycling)

The report found that "few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle their packages," and that "more brand leadership to boost lagging U.S. recycling rates and enhance sustainability of packaging is needed to help ensure than packaging is manufactured and disposed of responsibly."

The large brand owners are already engaged in reducing the amount of plastics used in packaging through various thin-walling techniques designed to reduce the amount of material while providing barrier protection for food and beverages, and extending shelf life. And most of these large brand owners use polymer materials that are recyclable.

But these brand owners can only do so much. Once the products are in the hands of the consumer, it is entirely up to the consumer to take the care and initiative to put these recyclable materials in the proper place so that recycling can take place.

Grocery stores are trying their best to get consumers to recycle #4 low density polyethylene or #2 high-density polyethylene plastic bags such as grocery bags, bread bags, etc. by providing recycling bins for consumers to return these materials to help meet demand for these recycled materials. Many of these are used in building and construction products such as extruded fencing, railing and decking. Obviously these materials are valuable commodities, as the report noted. But again, the stores can offer the recycling bins and provide the means to recycle, but they can't force people to return all of the HDPE and LDPE to the store for recycling.

Packaging practices were analyzed in each industry sector based on attributes including types of material used; whether those materials are recyclable, compostable, and/or made of recycled content; and what the companies are actually doing to promote recycling of their packages. None of the 47 companies evaluated attained the report's highest "Best Practices" status. The goal is to have "front-of-house" recycling opportunities in each location of brand owners such as Starbucks and McDonalds cited for "Better Practices." Dunkin' Brands, Subway, Chick-fil-A, Chipotle, Panera Bread, and Yum Brands were categorized as "Needs Improvement."

The report shows that, with the exception of Starbucks, none of the QSR brands analyzed has aggressively sought front-of-house recycling for part or all of its packaging, system-wide.

As a reminder to As You Sow, one major factor that needs to be considered is that most post-consumer recycling has huge contamination problems. Plastic materials can be cleaned if they are put into separate "plastics only" bins. However, many of the QSRs that I've been that have front-of-house recycling bins have one bin marked "Trash" and another marked "Recycle," which means that paper, cardboard, and even wax-coated cups go into the bin marked recycle. That requires a tremendous amount of sorting at the recycling facility.

As I keep reminding the folks over at As You Sow, plastics is NOT the problem. People who do not recycle, people who are litter bugs and do not care about the environment are the problem! The report mentions that one study of street litter in four Bay Area cities found that the biggest source of street litter (49%) was from fast food.

Conclusion: people who eat fast food are litter bugs!! People who eat fast food do not care about their environment!

The companies shouldn't have to finance the recycling. Recycled plastic has tremendous value if people would just be aware of their environment and be conscientious enough to use the recycling bins available.

Maybe As You Sow should quit trying to strong-arm brand owners into taking responsibility for something that is every individual consumer's responsibility, and instead educate consumers. They would get better recycling rates and less litter in the environment.

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