Could better packaging help save our planet?
Claire Koelsch Sand // WTF FOOD
Packaging plays a critical role in selling, transporting, storing and protecting our food. But too much packaging (including recyclables) is still ending up in landfills where it can take hundreds of years to break down. When Sand thinks What the Future, she wonders how the packaging industry could help consumers recycle more. It’s a challenge that she believes could save our planet if policies and communications made recycling more intuitive and simple.
GenPop: You asked whether consumers trust the process of recycling and whether the rules for recycling are clear, easy and convenient for them to follow. Respondents showed high confidence in the process and their understanding of the rules. What do you make of that?
Claire Koelsch Sand: If people in the survey were recycling at the levels that they said they were, we would have much higher recycling rates in our country. We have a lot of what’s called “hopeful recycling” in our country, where people think something is recyclable but they’re not sure. For example, pizza boxes that have been in direct contact with pizza are not recyclable. Yet most people throw their pizza boxes in the recycling bin. If you talk to recyclers, there’s a big problem with hopeful recycling, so we do have a consumer disconnect.
GenPop: Why did you want to ask this question?
Sand: In the future, if we don’t want consumers to push for reductions or bans on certain types of packaging—typically plastics—we need to build more value into the packaging. That’s not just when the consumer uses the package but when they dispose of, reuse and recycle packages. One way is to make it what I call “recycle-ready,” but it also involves clearer communication to consumers about how to recycle that package.
GenPop: Why does this need to happen?
Sand: We can see the future of sustainable packaging in two different ways. One is an industry that is not able to protect our food supplies the way that we protect them now because consumers see packaging as waste. If the industry must respond with less packaging, that means more food waste because the food won’t be protected as much. Everything would have to fundamentally change in our food system unless consumers start having a more positive relationship with packaging. The other scenario is where we recycle [at much higher rates]. We sustainably source materials from our planet, and we reuse them like we do with aluminum cans. But we don’t have that same type of relationship with plastic packaging.
GenPop: What else could we improve on in the future?
Sand: We’re the only industrialized country not to have post-consumer packaging legislation. Most countries have “extended producer responsibilities” so that the cost of disposal, whether it is recycling, composting or reuse, is built into the cost of manufacturing the package.
GenPop: Are there examples of where recycling is done well that we could model?
Sand: The Sustainable Packaging Coalition based in Canada has a voluntary industry program called “How2Recycle.” It takes the components of the package and tells consumers if it is recyclable or not. Now companies are considering QR codes to provide recycling as well as ingredient information to consumers.
“We have a lot of what’s called ‘hopeful recycling’ in our country, where people think something is recyclable but they’re not sure.”
While generic in many ways, Americans trust the “green” product labeling.
When you see the following terms on grocery food packaging about their impact on the environment, how do you compare that packaging to food packaging that doesn’t use these phrases? (Better net)
Made from recycled materials
Americans see the value in environmentally friendly actions.
Please indicate how much you agree or disagree with each of the following statements. (Agree net)
I’d like to be able to recycle more packaging from fast food or delivery restaurants.
I trust that what I put in the recycling bin actually gets recycled.
It’s important to recycle at home.
It’s important to compost at home.
Rules in my community for what can and cannot be recycled are clear and easy to understand.
Rules in my community for what can and cannot be recycled are easy and convenient to follow.
I’d like more food packaging to be made from recycled materials.
I’d like more food packaging to be made from recycled materials.
(Source: Ipsos survey conducted between Oct. 10 and 12, 2018 among 2,010 adults in the U.S.)
GenPop: Ipsos research shows there are four moments of truth for packaging and one is recyclability. How can recyclability factor into those moments of truth more effectively?
Sand: Recyclability and sustainability must be obvious. Just like consumers see labels on a product that the package conveys healthy, organic, GMO or non-GMO or some other benefit, recyclability and sustainability benefits need to be intuitive immediately. It can’t be complicated directions. One of the things with recycle-ready is separable packaging – packaging that consumers can take apart. For the clamshell container with paper, for example, the paper can and needs to be separated, so the consumer can do that themselves.
GenPop: Can you paint a picture for us about other ideas that could inform the future of packaging?
Sand: In different spots in your refrigerator there are better places to store produce versus, say, cheese. So, we’re trying to design our packages to fit only in those spots, so consumers don’t have a choice. It can make the product last longer, but it has to be intuitive. It’s kind of like when Ziploc bags came out, people knew exactly what to do with them for shredded cheese. That was a very successful innovation in packaging. It’s obvious how to recycle bag and box wine. You take the bag out, and people do separate the paper versus the plastic. You might see technologies like time or temperature indicators that tell you when your product has gone bad or is OK to eat.
GenPop: Are there other ways we could improve package sustainability in the future?
Sand: One is for the packaging industry to communicate that packaging can reduce food waste. Thirty percent of food waste happens in the hands of consumers in their homes. Something like 40 percent of produce is thrown out in consumers’ homes. But we can have packaging that makes those products last longer and communicates that value to consumers. Reducing food waste 5 percent or 10 percent will help us feed the world.