New Report Suggests Packaging Sustainability Improvements for Fast Food, Beverage, and Consumer Goods Companies

Today, NRDC and As You Sow released a report, "Waste and Opportunity 2015: Environmental Progress and Challenges in Food, Beverage, and Consumer Goods Packaging," which analyzes the packaging practices and policies of 47 companies in three sectors: quick service restaurants (QSRs, or "fast food"), beverages, and consumer goods/grocery. The study determined that, although there are some good examples of packaging leadership, most of the companies have not sufficiently prioritized source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content, and recycling policies related to their packaging.

Packaging practices in each industry sector were analyzed based on attributes including types of material used; whether those materials are recyclable, compostable, and/or made of recycled content; and what the companies are actually doing to promote recycling of their packages, including supporting measures such as producer responsibility legislation.

The U.S. has an overall recycling rate of 34.5 percent and an estimated overall packaging recycling rate of 51 percent—much lower than recycling rates in many other developed countries. And we're recycling less than 14 percent of plastic packaging, which is the fastest-growing form of packaging. One of the biggest challenges to increasing recycling rates for food and beverage packaging is the growing use of laminated pouches and other flexible plastic packaging that cannot be readily recycled. This trend is one reason NRDC joined with the Make It Take It campaign to ask Kraft's Capri Sun brand and other consumer goods companies to take responsibility for packaging waste and to educate and mobilize citizens for sustainable packaging policies.

Recyclable postconsumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4 billion is wasted annually instead of recycled—and much of this packaging is made from plastic derived from fossil fuels, a non-renewable material. Recycling packaging and making it from recyclable or compostable materials, including recycled content, are important steps companies need to take in order to more efficiently use natural resources and help increase recycling rates. Increasing recycling rates helps develop a circular materials economy, where valuable materials are reused in manufacture instead of disposed, and adds jobs as well as helping the environment: for example, a 2014 study commissioned by NRDC from the Tellus Institute found that if we increase California's recycling rate to the state's goal of 75% by 2020, more than 110,000 jobs could be created.

Besides wasting valuable material, failing to recycle plastic packaging contributes to the problem of pollution of our lakes, rivers, and oceans, another problem of growing concern. A recent study published in the journal PLOS One estimated that 5.25 trillion plastic particles weighing about 269,000 tons are currently floating throughout the world's oceans. An estimated 60-80 percent of marine litter originates on land, and most of that is plastic. Single-use packaging, including "to go" food and beverage packaging, accounts for most of the waste that's cleaned off our beaches, according to International Coastal Cleanup Data. Plastic pollution affects every waterway, sea and ocean in the world, and has severe impacts on our environment and our economy. Seabirds, whales, sea turtles and other marine life ingest or become entangled in plastic in our oceans and waterways. Scientists are investigating the long-term impacts of toxic pollutants absorbed, transported, and consumed by fish and other marine life, including the potential effects on human health. This pollution also has huge costs for taxpayers and local governments.

The best way to stop plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways is to prevent it from reaching the water in the first place. Everyone needs to do their fair share to stop plastic pollution: individuals need to recycle and not litter, but producers of single-use plastic packaging, such as the companies highlighted in this report, also need to do more to design packaging to reduce materials, ensure recyclability, and use environmentally preferable materials, including recycled content. Producers should also help cover the costs of keeping their products out of the ocean and recycling or composting them, including supporting programs (like producer responsibility) that have been proven to increase recycling rates in other countries.

Additional recommendations and findings from the report include:

  • Businesses that place substantial amounts of packaging on the U.S. market should take a strong measure of responsibility for collecting and recycling postconsumer packaging. They must become actively involved in developing a consensus on new, state-level producer responsibility mandates or equivalent policies that will spread a measure of responsibility fairly among brands placing materials on the market; this will result in significant increases in container and packaging recycling rates.
  • Few companies have sustainability agendas providing evidence of thoughtful, reasoned packaging policies beyond lightweighting of materials, which by now should be a fully embedded strategy. Evidence of policies on recyclability and recycled content is rare, and policies to increase collection of recycling are even harder to find outside of the beverage sector.
  • Companies should set high recycling goals (75 percent or more, if possible) for all individual kinds of packaging they produce or distribute, and an aggressive timeline for meeting those goals.
  • The continued use of black plastic and the growing use of flexible plastic by QSR and CPG brands place essentially unrecyclable materials into commerce. Companies should prioritize end-of-life disposal and reduction of materials in design decisions, including creating more reusable packaging options.
  • Brands using compostable plastics could help expand the composting infrastructure for these products. They could also take steps to clearly mark these products as compostable once verified as compatible with ASTM standards for compostability and with existing commercial composting infrastructure.
  • By supporting producer responsibility laws or equivalent policies that drive more aggressive and effective collection efforts, companies can help drive an increase in available recovered materials. This can then enable them to make commitments to use far higher levels of recycled content in product packaging, which in turn supports a circular materials economy, ensuring a stable supply of postconsumer materials to use as feedstock.

About the Authors

Darby Hoover

Senior Resource Specialist, Food & Agriculture program

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