Why it can be so hard to figure out which scientific studies to trust.
Companies Try To Reduce Packaging Waste Without Jeopardizing Products
In 2012, containers and packaging made up the largest category of garbage in the United States, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. While packaging plays an important role in protecting products, companies and consumers are looking for ways to make it more sustainable.
Inside a West Phoenix warehouse, Ron Paradis shows off a tall stack of cardboard boxes.
"They'll be packed this afternoon and then our drivers will reach our facility at midnight, and then they'll be out delivering until 7 in the morning," he said.
Those boxes will be packed with organic produce from local and regional farms. Paradis is president of Nature's Garden Delivered, which has a few hundred customers in Phoenix and Tucson. He shows me the walk-in freezers where they store the fruits and veggies before delivery.
"Right here we have broccoli that's been all iced down. No packaging around it besides the box that it's contained in, broccoli being very durable, something that can withstand cold temperatures."
But some produce, like mushrooms or peaches, needs more substantial protection to survive the trip from the farm. Paradis said he's had vendors that don't package well enough.
"We have found over the years that probably about 40 to 50 percent, in the most extreme cases, ends up having to be either thrown away or sold at a lesser price because it's been damaged," he said.
That gets to a key question when you talk about packaging waste: How do you reduce as much as possible while keeping your product safe? Nina Goodrich directs the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, based in Virginia.
"The job that we hire packaging to do is to protect the product, and very often the footprint of the product is much higher than the footprint of the package," Goodrich said.
That's the carbon footprint — meaning if you don't package the product adequately, wasting what's inside is actually worse for the environment.
Goodrich's group has three packaging principles: "The first is designing with responsibly sourced materials. The second area would be optimization," or making sure you've got the right amount of packaging.
"And then the third area is recovery," Goodrich said. Meaning, what becomes of the container once your product is no longer inside of it?
Packaging touches every part of our life, from the food that sustains us, to the wine that, for some of us, is just as important a source of sustenance. I went to the Oak Creek Vineyards and Winery in the Verde Valley to meet Dave Williamson, who showed me around the vineyard.
"This is the trellis, this is how you train the vines to grow. You can see the little grape clusters starting to form," Williamson said. Soon, the wine made from those grapes will be stored in sustainable packaging Williamson designed. First, he plans on rolling out a wine keg to sell in lieu of individual bottles, especially to restaurants.
"Glass is the largest waste produced from a restaurant, and it's also a big part of our landfills, and it's also very costly," he said.
That cost is originally what got Williamson thinking, back when he worked at a brewery. He realized reusable packaging could save a lot of money. So he developed the refillable keg, then he came up with wine bottles customers can return for a wash and a refill, which Oak Creek will soon be selling.
While Williamson was originally driven by money, there are also environmental benefits. A group of graduate students at Northern Arizona University studied a previous business where Williamson sold reusable wine bottles.
"On my little one-man operation, I averted 7.2 metric tons of CO2 from going into the atmosphere. So if a winery like Gallo, which is monstrous, teamed up with somebody like Wal-Mart and adopted sustainable packaging, how much CO2 would they avert?" he said.
Inside another Phoenix warehouse, Peter Johnson shows me stacks of pallets fabricated to carry Tesla car batteries. Johnson is president of EcoPACT, which makes the aluminum shipping pallets.
"They hold quite a bit of weight, as well. Each container's going to have about a 1,400 pound battery in it," Johnson said. "Very durable containers, but also lightweight."
This is sustainable packaging on a huge scale. Johnson said his pallets are made from at least 75 percent recycled aluminum. They're more expensive than wood pallets, but those only last a few uses. EcoPACT is just a couple of years old, but Johnson expects his pallets to last a decade. Even if a customer's pallet doesn’t hold up that long, "they take it, they smelt it down, there's value in the scrap aluminum, and the cycle starts all over again because 100 percent of our product can be infinitely recycled."
And remember that EPA study than found packaging was the largest single category of trash? Well, it also found that packaging has the highest rate of recycling. Goodrich said the ideas these three companies have put into action are good examples of manufacturers doing their part.
"But then for the package to end up in the right place, the consumer is responsible for that," she said.