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,

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