How can we address the problems posed by plastic packaging in a constructive way? There are five main actions the public can take.
Reduce the use – source reduction.
The most direct way to eliminate the problems that stem from producing, using, and disposing of plastic packaging is to reduce the use of packaging. Retailers and consumers can select products that use little or no packaging, and when packaging is necessary, select packaging materials that are recycled into new packaging — such as glass, aluminum, and paper. Many product manufacturers, such as water bottlers, have only recently switched from an easily recyclable container to plastic. If people refuse plastic as a packaging material, the industry will decrease production for that purpose, and the associated problems such as energy use, pollution, and adverse health effects will diminish. Established waste management groups cannot be expected to organize or support source reduction efforts. For example, the primary plastic recycling entity, the American Plastics Council, does not include source reduction in its charter and systematically overlooked it until recently, when it began promoting lighter-weight packages as source reduction. This “solution” creates the same high number of containers and tends to legitimize their production. Reducing the use lies in the hands of consumers, retailers, and elected officials.
One effective and inexpensive source-reduction technique is container reuse. Since refillable plastic containers can be reused about 25 times, container reuse can lead to a substantial reduction in the demand for disposable plastic. The direct result is reduced use of materials and energy, with the consequent reduced environmental impacts. In addition, some important indirect benefits stem from container reuse. If reuse becomes a market objective, resin and container designers will take into account the fate of the container beyond the point of sale and consider the service the container provides. “Design for service” differs sharply from the “design for disposal” paradigm underlying most plastic packaging today. As with take-back programs, reuse makes new demands on both the material and the infrastructure. Container makers can directly participate in developing a refilling infrastructure and encouraging public participation. An innovative approach to encourage consumers to choose reusable and refillable containers could be to include these containers in curbside collection services. The benefit of such an approach or any public education program that promotes reuse would be a higher level of public awareness about how their choices in consumption affect the environment.
Require producers to take back resins.
Getting plastic manufacturers directly involved with plastic disposal and waste closes the materials loop, which can lead to developing more recyclable materials and establishing an infrastructure to accomplish the reprocessing. Closing the loop stimulates designers and manufacturers to consider the product’s life cycle from cradle to grave.
Container makers can make reprocessing easier by limiting the number of container types and shapes, using only one type of resin in each container, making collapsible containers, using water-dispersible adhesives for labels, and phasing out associated metals such as aluminum seals. Resin manufacturers can limit the variety of resins within each resin type, avoid using pigments, and formulate resins to better withstand post-consumer processing. Both container and resin makers can help develop the reprocessing infrastructure by taking back plastic from consumers.
Legislatively require recycled content.
Requiring that all containers sold contain a percentage of post-consumer material reduces the amount of virgin material consumed. Although not as effective as other source reduction techniques, mandating recycled content is one way to implement primary recycling and, as a result, to close part of the materials-flow loop. Worn-out refillable containers could become a source of feedstock. Incorporating primary recycling into a system of container reuse would be straightforward, since established transportation lines exist between container makers and filling locations.
If container makers were required to use recycled material, designers would be stimulated to create containers that are more recyclable. If resin producers participated in post-consumer plastic processing, polymer materials would be altered to be more recyclable. In these ways, instituting recycled-content practices would lead to life-cycle consideration during design and manufacturing.
Standardize labeling and inform the public.
No matter what kind of program is adopted for dealing with plastics, standardized terms and labels are necessary for the sake of clarity and fairness. The chasing arrows symbol is an example of an ambiguous and misleading label. Significantly different standardized labels for “recycled,” “recyclable,” and “made of plastic type x” must be developed.
In addition, if a working definition can be found for “ecologically friendly,” an ecomark system similar to those in Taiwan and Germany could be initiated to distinguish products that conform to the definition from those that do not. An independent entity could be used to audit the environmental impact of products and certify conformance. The implementation of standards and labeling programs must be accompanied by public education.
The goal of both standardized labeling and public education is to open access to, and activate public participation in, plastic packaging practices, programs, and policies.