Pollution to any extent negatively impacts the quality of life of those living closest, not to mention the severe impacts to local wildlife. Because our waterways and oceans are interconnected, pollution here can have an even greater impact on our population and wildlife. While removing the waste already in the ocean is vital to any environmental cleanup effort, it is futile if the source of this waste is not also stopped or at least limited. Packaging accounts for about 42 percent of the world’s primary plastic use at roughly 146 million metric tons per year in 2015. Additionally about 55 percent of all plastic products produced were only used once before being discarded or placed in a landfill.[1] This type of plastic use should be the focus of reduction efforts as this would have the greatest impact on reducing the world’s pollution on land and in the ocean.

Package recycling programs help to reuse the same packaging multiple times before they are discarded, but these programs are only a small piece in the puzzle of recycling, shipping, and sustainability. For example, transportation of fragile items like glassware may require more packaging to prevent breakage. And often, companies who focus on fast delivery timeframes will ship multiple items to the same individual’s house within just a couple of days, instead of using the same packaging to send multiple items. Despite these barriers, the goal of reducing the appearance of packaging materials in landfills and the ocean should start with decreasing the use of it in the first place. This can happen in many different ways.

The use of any packaging materials may be reduced in many ways. Too often, small items like flashlights are packaged for sale in so-called “blister packs” which seem to be two or three times larger than the item itself. This type of packaging may be required for some products like medication but most of the time it is wasteful. This principle goes beyond blister packs. If less packaging were to be used on products that do not require it, there would be less of that same packaging to worry about recycling down the line.

Alternatively, biodegradable packaging materials can be used in place of traditional plastics. If the materials used to package various items would easily decompose shortly after being discarded, the environmental effect of the packaging being used in the first place would be heavily diminished. While this component would not negate the environmental effects as much as simply using less packaging in the first place, it would certainly help to reduce the permanent environmental effects of packaging waste.

Lastly, packaging materials should be recycled and reused multiple times before they are dumped. The majority (about 55 percent) of plastics used today are only used once before being quickly disposed of.[1] If the same packaging could be used for at least two seperate items, we should be able to cut down the amount of waste that reaches landfills or oceans by about half. This practice should cut down on the amount of packaging materials initially produced, which in turn will reduce water pollution as well.

If all three of these ideas were utilized simultaneously, we would see a greater impact toward reduction of ocean pollution at each stage in the process: packaging would be limited, would be reused multiple times, and would decompose once discarded. Even though the implementation of all three of these practices might not be able to entirely clean up the oceans, any change that would have positive effects on our waste production should be considered.

Essay by: Richard Matthew Steinke
Arizona State University

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