How Global Trends Are Shaping the Urgency for Reusable Packaging Systems

Single-use packaging and a throwaway culture have led to waste crises at a global scale. Speaking at PACK EXPO 2018 International in Chicago, Tim Debus, CEO of the Reusable Packaging Association took a global perspective, exploring how macro trends are directing us towards a more systems-based approach to designing and managing packaging.

Climate Change

“There is no doubt we are seeing some rapidly changing conditions out there,” Debus remarked.

“Higher average temperatures, the severity of storms, new regions exposed to droughts, rising sea levels, and flooding–the urgency for action is now heightened.”

The Earth has already warmed 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit) since the 19th century. Now, a major new United Nations report has looked at the consequences of jumping to 1.5 or 2 degrees Celsius. According to U.S. EPA, about 42 percent of all U.S. greenhouse gas emissions are created in the process of extracting resources, producing goods, disposing of waste, and transporting materials at every stage of that process.

“Half a degree may not sound like much,” Debus said, “but as the report details, even that much warming could expose tens of millions more people worldwide to life-threatening heat waves, water shortages, and coastal flooding. Half a degree may mean the difference between a world with coral reefs and Arctic summer sea ice and a world without them.”

Debus stressed that “through reuse and more efficient management of packaging materials, you can lower your greenhouse gas emissions and environmental impact.” Reusables will prevent the need for continuous raw material sourcing and manufacture of single-use products, helping to cut down on industrial emissions.

Evidence of such comparative impact in a comprehensive life cycle analysis was published by RPA member IFCO Systems, showing reusable plastic containers (RPCs have a 31 percent lower global warming impact than expendable alternatives.

Solid Waste

The U.S. produces 20 percent of the planet’s total municipal solid waste, Debus noted, though it is home to only 4 percent of the world’s population. Americans throw out over 4.5 pounds of materials per person every day, yet only about one-third of that gets composted or recycled.  About 30 percent of all U.S. “garbage” is packaging, which is of little use to consumers and is typically thrown out after a product is purchased.

“We are in a waste crisis around the world, and it is projected to become substantially worse over the next few decades as rising populations demand more resources and consume more products,” he noted.

“We are at a spot where waste continues to accumulate, and we have to start figuring out not how to manage it, but how to prevent it–how we can do more Reduce and Reuse as a means of waste prevention versus trying to figure out how to recycle  and manage all of the single-use trash.”

Plastic Pollution and Recycling

The market challenges and inefficiencies of recycling versus higher priority outcomes such as reduction and reuse are becoming increasingly understood. To the extent that new resource extraction and the continuous production of new goods can be eliminated through reuse, there are positive sustainability outcomes versus recycling. And to make the present state of affairs even more urgent, recycling rates are modest.

The overall recycling rate for plastic bottles in the U.S. is 31.1 percent, and the overall recycling rate is a “stagnant” 35 percent. Plastic drinking bottle generation is staggering, with 480 billion units being sold around the world in 2016 (one million bottles purchased every minute.) When plastic is not recycled it ends up in landfills or the environment, Debus observed.

Plastic pollution, and ocean plastic, in particular, has become a hot-button issue, with a total of 8 million tonnes of plastic ending up in the world’s oceans every year, according to unenvironment.org. And much of plastic ocean pollution is packaging, Debus noted, with nine of the top 10 items recovered by the Ocean Conservancy’s annual coastal cleanup being some form of packaging or fast food dining supplies. Transforming how we design, use and manage packaging products into more systems of reuse will help keep materials out of the environment and maintain their intended purpose over a long period of time.

Population Growth and Resource Scarcity

The imperative for resource conservation through source reduction and reuse has become heightened as the global population grows, and as more people aspire to higher levels of consumption. World population passed 7 billion on October 31, 2011, according to the United Nations. United Nations and a University of Washington study in the journal Science says it’s highly likely there will be 9.6 billion Earthlings by 2050 and a staggering 11 billion or more by 2100.

Total population growing, Debus emphasized, and so is urbanization. He noted that over 80 percent of U.S. people are now urban dwellers. “This trend requires us how to operate in tighter spaces, and how to efficiently move goods and materials in and out of cities,” he said. Innovative reusable packaging systems have been developed to help facilitate the delivery of goods in cities without the generation of mountains of packaging waste.

At the same time, Debus stressed, human consumption of the Earth’s natural resources has tripled in 40 years. A report produced by the International Resource Panel (IRP), part of the UN Environment Programme, says rising consumption driven by a growing middle class has seen resources extraction increase from 22 billion tons in 1970 to 70 billion tons in 2010.

Politics and Economics

Debus is quick to emphasize the EU’s Circular Economy package, as countries in Europe work to increase mandatory source reduction and recycling rates, including those for packaging. Member States will be required to ensure that 65 percent of overall of product packaging is recycled by 2025, and rising to 70 percent in 2030 (within this there are individual packaging materials targets; for example, the target is 30 percent for wood, 55 percent for plastic, 75 percent for glass and 85 percent for paper in 2030).

Around the world, however, government bodies are taking more decisive action to reduce waste. For example, California has set an ambitious goal of 75 percent recycling, composting or source reduction of solid waste by 2020 calling for the state and the Department of Resources Recycling and Recovery (CalRecycle) to take a statewide approach to decrease California’s reliance on landfills. To reach the goal, an additional 23 million tons will need to be recycled, reduced or composted in 2020. That is based on an estimated 80 million tons of solid waste generated in 2020.

“We need to look at the management of materials and their reuse in order to prevent waste, so we can better conserve our resources, and in return, we know that effective reuse systems can lead to cost reductions, environmental benefits, and higher-quality products,” Debus stated.

“Pursuing reusable packaging usage isn’t just about helping the environment, it is also helping your business,” he continued. “It becomes a win-win for companies moving into the reusable packaging space. It can help businesses to improve their supply chains while bringing innovative solutions to help mitigate all of these problems around the world today.”

Be sure to visit the Reusable Packaging Association and its members at upcoming trade shows, including PROFOOD TECH 2019, ProMat 2019, and PACK EXPO Las Vegas.

For more information, visit reusables.org and switchtoreusables.org.