Product Packaging Reform Vital to 75 Percent Recycling and Less Reliance on Export Markets

CalRecycle estimates that about 25 percent of our waste stream is discarded product packaging. To reduce the amount of waste we generate and subsequently need to recycle or landfill, reducing product packaging and increasing its recyclability are essential. In fact, it is unlikely we will meet the state’s goal to reduce or recycle 75 percent of our waste if we do not tackle product packaging head on.  

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Although individual recycling efforts are vital, consumers have little control over the recyclability or volume of packaging, so change within the manufacturing industry is necessary in order to see a significant impact on this part of the waste stream. Manufacturers use packaging to ensure the safe transport and extend the shelf life of their products. However, even casual observers might sometimes conclude product packaging can be excessive. Most of us have bought a small, two-inch flash drive wrapped in 6 x 8 inch or larger hard plastic package designed to be hung directly on a retail hook. Or consider the gift card rack at large warehouse stores—a small card is often swallowed within a 12 x 18 inch plastic package. Packaging has evolved with the way products are marketed and sold, so manufacturers are necessarily vital in solutions that build waste reduction and recyclability into their packaging designs. 

A friend of mine recently posted an

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as she opened a box of cosmetics she ordered from a trendy company marketed toward millennials. The product’s packaging aims to give the consumer a special experience while opening their items. But there’s a downside to that. The 12 x 12 x 5 inch shipping box my friend received contained an 11 x 11 x 4 inch, fully branded, beautiful, and glossy hard-shell gift box. Within that box, she found her order form, a catalog, a sheet of pretty logo stickers, and a 6 x 4 inch pink mesh bag with her products inside. The pink mesh bag contained three small products: a lipstick, a mascara tube, and a lip gloss. Some online retailers rely upon fancy packaging to communicate the quality of their products. Although the packaging is visually impressive, my friend was faced with recycling and disposing of an armful of packaging for a handful of products. She’s gathered a few friends together to draft a letter to the company to voice her concern over how they market and package their products.

Recent changes to China’s scrap import policies will also impact California’s recycling industry and the ability to achieve our recycling goals. In 2016, 62 percent of the 15 million tons of recyclable exports that were shipped from California were sent to China. However, China has recently implemented a new campaign called National Sword and restricted the import of recyclables. Minimizing our own packaging waste and increasing its recyclability will help reduce our dependence on export markets for managing our discards. CalRecycle is proposing a statewide framework that addresses pre- and post-consumer life of packaging, identifies priority packaging recycling throughout the state, and factors in the overall environmental impact of packaging on our state (like waterway and marine debris).

CalRecycle held a packaging reform workshop in October 2017 to hear from stakeholders and to identify and explore opportunities related to packaging as one part of a comprehensive set of strategies to reach the statewide 75 percent goal. CalRecycle is aiming to finalize the packaging policy model in the coming weeks.

Click here to read more about CalRecycle’s overall efforts to manage product packaging.

— Christina Files
Posted on Jan 29, 2018

Summary: CalRecycle estimates that about 25 percent of our waste stream is discarded product packaging. To reduce the amount of waste we generate and subsequently need to recycle or landfill, reducing product packaging and increasing its recyclability are essential. In fact, it is unlikely we will meet the state’s goal to reduce or recycle 75 percent of our waste if we do not tackle product packaging head on.