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Packaging has many purposes, including product delivery (think shampoo in a bottle, milk in a carton), protection (cushioning for breakable products), safety (protection from inadvertent exposure), communication (product information) and marketing (product benefits and appeal). Some of these purposes are fulfilled once a sale has been completed, while others continue as long as the product remains usable. Every packaging solution is a balance between the intended purposes, functionality, aesthetics, and cost.

Environmental and social considerations are slowly coming into the equation for packaging, which is increasingly being viewed from a circular systems lens. This has prompted packaging developers to use more materials that can be recycled, which in turn presumes that consumers will be motivated to recycle the packaging, that there is a means to do so, and that once the packaging is collected, there are processors that will turn the packaging into a useful material that can be sold to create more packaging or other products.

None of this is a given.

On its own, using recyclable materials is not enough. What’s needed is a packaging system with three key elements:

1. Packaging materials that are made with recycled content and are readily recyclable and/or compostable

2. Technical means for collection and processing of recyclable packaging materials for further use

3. Markets for secondary uses of processed recycled materials including packaging—a virtuous circular system

It’s the last element that is particularly challenging as markets for recycled packaging materials can be highly volatile. And while there are multiple reasons for that volatility, one of the most significant reasons is the demand for recycled materials, which is fundamentally a demand for raw materials in manufacturing.

If factories aren’t running due to a global pandemic, no one will want to buy processed recycled material. Where a trade war disrupts established markets for recycled materials, alternative markets may not be able to absorb the surplus. And as countries that sought out recycled materials as cheap inputs to building industrial capacity mature into industrial powerhouses, lower quality materials may not find a home.

There are no easy answers to these challenges, but one possible approach to limiting global volatility in recycled materials for packaging is a threefold policy:

A) tax non-recycled content in packaging;

B) support Research & Development that improves collection and processing of recyclable materials; and

C) increase support for domestic manufacturing.

These policy tactics, technical improvements and regulations require heavy lifting and even government involvement, but they are achievable and offer immeasurable benefits to people and the planet.

Life in a pandemic is challenging in many ways, especially when it is compounded by economic stress and an awakening to the consequences of systemic inequality, racism and injustice all in a world increasingly pressured by climate change. We are all challenged to stay safe and healthy and to take responsibility for helping others who are struggling with daily living. None of this is easy. But some things should be easy, like doing things to lessen our impact on the planet.

Households have long been a target for messages on ways to reduce environmental impacts of daily life. In the 1970s, home energy use was targeted in response to the oil embargo imposed on the U.S. and on the pollution caused by using fossil fuels. In the 1980s, drought brought messages on water conservation to communities and households. In the 1990s, curbside recycling became commonplace along with instructions on source-separating recyclable materials.

For household energy and water use, technology became the primary means for maintaining ongoing reductions—low flow plumbing fixtures, energy and water efficient appliances, drip systems for landscaping, insulation for dwelling units and solar systems for electricity and hot water. There are still some behavioral actions that contribute to reduced energy and water use—shorter showers, laundering in cold water on short cycles—but these are incremental additions to the major environmental benefits provided by improved technologies.

Recycling, however, is different. There aren’t any household-based technologies that offer primary benefits. Recycling depends wholly on resident behavior— albeit with a little help from simple technology (bins!). And despite decades of messaging, the recycling rate remains stuck at around 35% of household and other municipal solid waste. As a country, we seem to be incapable of solving what should be a relatively easy problem. That’s because reality turns out to be quite complicated.

Household behavior is just one part of an extensive system that involves local jurisdictions, collection specialists, contractors, intermediaries, processors, re-formulators, transporters and logistic companies and manufacturers. No entity coordinates any of these actors, rather they are driven by market conditions and, in some cases, contractual obligations. Think of the packaging that the products we buy comes in, which is immediately rendered useless when it is opened, and the product is removed. You’re immediately faced with the choice of putting that packaging in the recycling bin or the trash. What goes through your mind when you’re faced with that choice?

If you’re conscientious, you’ll ask yourself if the packaging is recyclable, which requires that you know the material(s) in the packaging, the materials that are recyclable in your community, which bin to use if you have a multi-bin system, and what you have to do before putting the packaging in the bin (clean, remove stickers, tape, etc.). And since recycling is driven by market conditions, the answers that were appropriate last month, may not be appropriate this month. It takes work to make recycling work and that reality leads many to conclude it’s easier to put recyclable materials in the trash.

But what if we had a different system?

What if we had a system where we didn’t have to do all that work? What if we had a system where all packaging is recyclable all the time? Would we push the recycling rate up over 50%? What would it take?

Before we do anything, we would need to recognize that packaging (and all other products and materials) are part of a system that allows manufacturers to use just about any materials that they want (subject to limited regulations around safety) and households to decide whatever they want to do with that packaging.

Change will come if we create a system where the only packaging that is used is made from widely recyclable (and recycled) materials and where packaging is prohibited from being thrown in the trash.

While this sounds radical, particularly the no packaging in the trash part, it is achievable. It’s already illegal to throw electronics, paint, batteries, and toxic chemicals in the trash in many communities. A ban on the disposal of packaging is not out of the question. But a ban would need to be accompanied by other actions to make a packaging system work.

In Part 2 of this blog post, I’ll talk about the other parts of a functioning packaging system.

  • Michael Brown, Ph.D.

People shake their heads when a favorite organization does something that seems completely contrary to their culture and beliefs. I was in a GreenBiz Forum audience when Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, the outdoor clothing company, talked about the corrosive effects of incessant corporate growth on the environment and then proceeded to extol his company’s sales growth during the recent recession. Knowing my Patagonia background, several people came up to me later and mentioned the seeming contradiction.

My reaction? Another example of Yvon strengthening what I call organizational myths–things leaders say (and do!) that reinforce culture and beliefs within the organization. These myths are stories that help define what is important to a culture. That organizations and their leaders don’t always live up to the myth isn’t necessarily a bad thing. People are human, they don’t always do the right thing. As long as the gap between the story and the practice is not too wide or practice doesn’t deviate from the story too often, the culture will remain essentially intact. But if the gap is wide or inconsistent practices become the norm, people won’t believe in the power of the myth. The story will fall apart. The culture will change.

Myths are necessary to any organization that desires to create and maintain a high performing workforce and a relationship with customers that goes beyond price and value. They serve their purpose when they are specific and actionable. An organization can create a myth ­– tell a purposeful story – and then it has to both act and talk about their actions. Even better is to be self-critical – owning up to contradictions and failures will reinforce the power of the myth if progress, whether steady or intermittent, is being made.

A company with a reputation for quality (the story it tells) will be likely to weather a period of poor quality if it makes a concerted effort to address its quality issues and communicate openly about the issues and the remedies. If the issues are ignored or allowed to continue because of cost concerns or some other reason, the initial risk is not the potential loss of customers, but the loss of employee commitment to the organization.

Likewise, it’s easy to find organizations that have built myths around sustainability. Walmart has been the beneficiary of kudos for its sustainability commitments and the target of opprobrium for falling short in any number of ways. Yet, it still maintains its pursuit of sustainability, which provides an organizing principle and direction for at least some segments of the company.

Organizations can, and should, hear from stakeholders be they internal or external when they fall short of the myths that they tell about themselves. But we should all recognize that organizations cannot achieve much without putting these myths in place. It’s a critical part of turning “myth” into “reality.”

© 2020 by Brown & Wilmanns Environmental, LLC

Santa Barbara, California 93110