How sustainable is plastics packaging? Here’s what the numbers tell us

Tired of people telling you we throw away too much packaging? Here’s what you can tell them: We’re actually each throwing away less packaging today than we did more than 15 years ago. Between 2000 and 2014, the amount of packaging by weight that we generated grew by only 1.1%. On a per capita basis, it actually declined by 11.5%. This is quite impressive, given that the U.S. population grew by 13.0%, and real (inflation adjusted) per capita GDP grew by 14.0% during this same period.  

These statistics mean that productivity per person went up over $6,200 while the amount of packaging needed to do so declined by almost 57 pounds. Thus, more goods and services are being produced with less packaging (see Table 1.)

                 Table 1: Changes in U.S. Household, Packaging, and GDP                                                                          2000               2014            Difference

Population (MM)                               282.2              318.9           +13.0%           

Real GDP per capita ($)                   44,492             50,718         +14.0% (+$6,226)

Packaging/Container Generation* 75,840           76,670       + 1.1%
Packaging Generated Per-Capita (lb) 537.5           480.8     -11.5% (-56.7 lb) 

*M Tons     (Sources: U.S. EPA, Census Bureau, Bureau of Economic Analysis)

The primary strategy for achieving this very positive result has been source reduction (the first “R” in reduce, reuse and recycle) -- needing less packaging to deliver the same or a larger amount of products. And, when it comes to minimizing greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, the primary environmental focus by nations large and small, source reduction is the best way to do so. After all, it’s better to not use materials and energy than to figure out how to reduce the effects of doing so.

The value of material substitution

How have we achieved this result? Two words: material substitution. Between 2000 and 2014, glass, steel, aluminum, and paper/paperboard all declined in volume, while plastics increased. (See Table 2, below) Significantly, the increase in plastics volume was less than the decline in the net volume for glass, metal, and paper, a further indication that the higher strength to weight ratio of plastics can deliver more product with less packaging.

         Table 2: Changes in U.S. Packaging & Container Generation (M Tons)

                                                 2000                2014               Difference

                                                                                                   M Tons        %

Glass                                       11,040             9,200                -1840       -16.7

Steel                                          2,870             2,170                  - 700       -24.4

Aluminum                                 1,950             1,810                  - 140        -7.2

Paper & Paperboard              39,940             39,130                - 810       -2.0

   Sub-total                              55,800             52,310                -3,490      -6.2

Plastics                                    11,190             14,320               + 3,130    +28.0

Wood                                      8,610                 9,680               +1,070     +12.4

Miscellaneous                            240                   360                +  120       +50.0

Total                                       75,840             76,670               +  830        + 1.1

(Source: U.S. EPA, Advancing Sustainable Materials Management: 2014 Tables & Figures)

Keep in mind that this is not a promotion for plastics. They are used where it makes sense where switching to a different material would likely be less efficient from an economic and environmental standpoint. However, other materials (e.g., paperboard, metal) are used when those materials make more sense. So, for a different set of applications, paper or metal or glass may be the best choice. This is the reason that different reports may show different materials as being preferred for different applications—because they are!

Here’s the apparent icing on the cake: At first glance, it seemed a bit strange to me that wood packaging increased by 12.4%. However, a deeper dive into the EPA data indicates that much of this is used for pallets. So, if we did get more goods with less packaging, it makes perfect sense for pallet volume to increase, especially since the increase is very much in line with both population growth (13.0%) and real GPD growth (14.0%).

There are three important takeaways from this analysis

1. First, source reduction is still the best way to minimize environmental impact. Less weight means less energy during production and transport. Less energy means less CO2 generated.

2. Second, a strict interpretation of Circular Economy thinking would not lead one to this analysis and its conclusions. It’s only by stepping up to the more strategic perspective of Sustainable Materials Management that we can see both the forest and the trees.

3. Finally, this analysis very much supports the growing awareness that we should stop being so concerned with tons of waste and more concerned with tons of generated CO2, especially as it applies to energy consumption. Ironically, this was the reason that recycling took hold in the first place: It is more cost efficient, economically and environmentally, to produce new aluminum cans from old aluminum cans than from bauxite.

By changing our focus, we are forced to look at the entire picture of both product and package design, production, use, recovery and disposal when making sustainability decisions. Not only is CO2 measurement the great normalizer, it may also be the best way to mitigate the world’s most pressing environmental conundrum, which, of course, is climate change.

Make sense?

You can learn more about the value of this big picture approach by reading the AMERIPEN white paper entitled Maximizing the Benefits of Circular Economy and Sustainable Materials Management Models For Product-Packaging Systems.

Robert (Bob) Lilienfeld has been involved with sustainable packaging for more than 20 years. He is editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a marketing and communications consultant to AMERIPEN and other organizations and is also a professional photographer. His website is  https://www.robertlilienfeld.com/

You’ll find cool options for packaging and plastics in Minneapolis November 8-9 during the 15th anniversary of MinnPack that’s co-located with 5 other exhibitions including PLASTEC. For more information, visit the MinnPack website.

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