Plastic waste, and in particular plastic packaging waste, is an issue in society.
In this guide, we look at ideas and solutions for reducing and better managing plastic waste.
Summary – How To Reduce & Better Manage Plastic Packaging Waste, & Other Plastic Waste
There’s two ways to approach this – depending on the country and part of the world we are talking about.
Parts of Asia, East Asia and the Pacific may need to mainly focus on adequate plastic collection and plastic waste management systems in place to deal with mismanaged and uncontained plastic (such as secure/properly contained landfills).
On the other hand, other countries that already have adequate waste collection systems (that are able to contain waste better – such as secure landfill sites) need to focus on specific strategies and solutions where various parties have to work together to make systems work better.
When it comes to plastic packaging waste – there may be some emphasis on reducing the unnecessary use of single use and short life span plastic packaging in the first place – which is going to lead to less waste to manage, and less littering as a result.
Re-use and recycling may be the second options on the hierarchy.
But, disposal to landfill, and burning plastic for energy (and gasification, pyrolysis, and other plastic burning options) should be looked at too to see the pros and cons of these disposal options too.
There’s other specific solutions that might be considered, with just a few being for example reducing food waste and loss (which can help limit plastic food packaging), buying products in bigger volumes with less packaging (such as one large bottle as opposed to several smaller bottles – all with the same volume of beverage in them), using reusable cutlery and bottles where possible, and so on.
Another specific example might be extending the shelf life of certain foods so the waste rate of plastic isn’t so high (is this where we look at technology like GE as long as it’s safe?).
We might also:
- Look at the different sectors that use plastic packaging – residential, commercial, industrial, agricultural – where is the waste coming from, and what are solutions to address it
- Consider how companies and businesses individually can assess their plastic waste footprint
Some sources indicate compostable or biodegradable plastics might be an answer, but, plastics with these alternative chemistries tend to have their own set of issues and currently aren’t a magic bullet solution.
Other Solutions & Ideas For Reducing & Better Managing Plastic Packaging Waste, & Other Plastic Waste
Asia, East Asia and the Pacific
- East Asia and the Pacific contribute to 60% of global mismanaged plastic (improperly disposed of or not fully contained plastic), and Asia is responsible for 86% of rivers that carry plastics into the ocean.
Countries and cities in these regions and continents need to first focus on achieving a fundamental level of plastic management and plastic containment.
This can be done with more financial investment and organisation/setting up of waste collection, waste processing, and waste disposal, recycling, incineration etc.
Countries With More Organised & Contained Waste Management Systems
For other countries (US, UK, European countries, Australia, Canada etc.) with more plastic management and containment, there are more specific ideas and solutions that need to be explored.
An overall hierarchy to follow though might be to:
- first – look at reducing unnecessary plastic waste and plastic packaging to stop so much of it getting into the waste stream
- second – re-using more plastic waste where possible
- third – recycling more plastic waste where possible.
- After that – disposing of plastic to landfills and incineration or burning plastic for energy might be options
*But, it really depends on the social, economic and eco pros and cons of each option. There will inevitably be trade offs to be made.
The way this is done takes all stakeholders and parties working together:
- To truly maximise the positives and reduce the negatives of packaging, collaborative innovation in the complex economic and technical ecosystem is essential.
- All the players in the extended supply chain must be involved: plastics producers, packaging converters, brand owners, co-packers, logistics companies, retailers, waste collectors, and recyclers.
- We need to take a system approach, and tackling system challenges is never easy.
- [Overall, improving the plastic packaging waste issue] requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain.
- This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector … [there needs to be a] willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving
Below are some specific ideas and potential solutions to reduce plastic packaging waste…
Consider the merits of investing in the design and chemistry of plastic to make it better or easier to recycle or dispose of in terms of biodegradability (bio plastics may be one such way)
Find ways to reduce packaging of fruit and vegetables that have natural skins and protective barriers without increasing food waste
Introduce levies and penalties on using single use plastics like plastic shopping bags – policies such as the UK’s 5p carrier bag charge, which has driven an 80% reduction in single-use bags.
Reduce food waste of food that comes in plastic at the household level
Look at how plastic taxes, discounts, incentives, deposits and other financial tools can impact how we use and consume plastic, and produce plastic packaging waste
Consider charge as you waste schemes for households and waste that goes to landfill (and monitor how much of this is plastic packaging waste)
Personal actions – Buy non packaged food, and bring it to work in a washable/reusable container, instead of purchasing take out food that comes with plastic packaging. Drink without a straw, or use a paper or metal straw instead. Use reusable and washable cutlery, plates, and cups instead of plastic. Use re-usable and washable drink bottles and containers instead of throwing them out (even for recycling). Bring reusable bags shopping instead of using plastic shopping bags.
Buy local products where possible as less transport packaging and plastic has to be used
Buy from zero waste shops (bring your own containers, bags etc.)
Consider the use of plastic material alternatives where plastic packaging might already be used (as long as the manufacture of these materials is environmentally sustainable)
More bins available for plastic packaging disposal out in public – especially in areas that workers have lunch breaks, or weekend or weeknight areas where people hang out for recreation or get togethers
More focus on what to do with contaminated plastics (as contaminated plastics can’t be recycled, or at least can’t be cleaned efficiently)
Better investment in recycling facilities worldwide to handle more types of plastic
Working with manufacturers, transport/distribution sector and shops (such as supermarkets) to figure out a better system for delivering products to consumers with less waste
More education and awareness in schools and workplaces on how to minimise/reduce and recycle plastic waste
Explore using composites and laminates could improve protection with the minimum amount of packaging (this can make recycling harder though)
Explore integrating sensors and communications using printable electronics to make each pack part of the Internet of Things.
- [a portion of plastic entering the ocean is plastic packaging]
- [Plastic isn’t a problem by itself – it helps us achieve things like reducing food waste, and in this way it’s of value to the consumer. We need to look at how we use plastic]
- [Instead of reducing plastic packaging – we have to look at better ways to integrate it into society …]
- [Plastic helps us do things like extending shelf life of goods, and protecting goods while being transported]
- … the sophistication and complexity of plastics can also make them harder to recycle
- Some specific ways to improve the benefits of plastic and minimise the negatives are to:
- Design plastic with recycling in mind
- Developing plastic with more desirable properties
- Look at biodegradable plastics that come from sustainable resources
- Improving recycling collection, sorting and processing systems to better deal with plastic
- Explore use of plastic with a single polymer type
- Overall – any changes to the system involve social, economic and environmental factors that need to be considered
Brands like Walmart are tackling plastic packaging waste:
- [Walmart is] partnering with its private labels on a number of initiatives including achieving 100% recyclable, reusable or compostable packaging for private brands by 2025, and achieving 20% post-consumer recycled content in private brand packaging by 2025
- It also wants to label all food and consumable private brand packaging with the How2Recycle label by 2022, eliminate the non-recyclable packaging material PVC in general merchandise packaging by 2020 and decrease private brand plastic packaging.
So, we see that private partnerships are a strategy.
- Almost half of Australia’s packaging waste is not being recovered for recycling
- Only 32% of plastic packaging was recovered for recycling …
- Australia needs to better focus on which packaging materials can be reclaimed, reused and recycled instead of thrown away.
- Data shows that households are throwing a significant portion of recyclable packaging in general waste bins
- … there is a clear opportunity to improve local waste management practices [to recycle more plastic waste packaging] and grow local demand for products that contain recycled materials … as well as avoiding packaging waste altogether where possible
- Bigger brands and companies committing to locally sourced recycled plastic is another strategy to minimise plastic going straight to landfill
- Better source separation is important and this requires consumer education and awareness raising, as well as smarter design of packaging to make it easier to recycle
- What we also need is more and better data on packaging consumption and recycling infrastructure capabilities
- [Overall, improving the plastic packaging waste issue] requires coordinated action across the whole supply chain. This includes manufacturers, brand owners, consumers, and the resource recovery sector … [there needs to be a] willingness of all stakeholders to develop a collective, consistent and proactive approach to information sharing and problem solving
- [in terms of plastic packaging – the most environmentally friendly option is the more sustainable use of plastic packaging, and not using alternative materials to plastic]
- Single stream [a one bin system] can make it much easier for businesses to recycle plastic packaging waste
- Plastic film, Pallet shrink wrap, Stretch wrap and Polystyrene packaging are common plastic packaging wastes collected by industrial bin services
Rubicon Global has the DIVERT strategy for businesses and industrial organisations:
- Determine – what waste you produce, and what waste your local recycler accepts
- Initiate a Plan – order the right size bins for the waste you produce, and make sure bins are set out in the right places at the place of business
- Vocalise – educate employees and stakeholders on how to properly dispose of waste and recycle
- Eliminate – food waste, disposable items like tableware, cups, plates and to-go containers. Replace them with re-usuable items. Also, replace individual items like individual drink cans and bottles with taps and drink dispensers from one re-usuable source (coffee machines, filtered tap water, bulk dispensers etc.).
- Roll Out – put bins in place, and make sure they are color coded for waste, compost and recycling + any specialised bins
- Track – track your waste, assess data and make adjustments, assess reports and goals regularly