What is our trajectory in evolving all future packaging to be sustainable? Will it take five years? More? An even twenty years? The nature of our throwaway living has exacted an insurmountable toll from our global nature environments. Consider just the resources utilized to produce current packaging. Various types of energy, water, petroleum, and wood fibers are some examples of what industry uses to produce packaging. At the ground level, these resources are not only being depleted at an alarming rate, but they also generate a large part of the carbon footprint we are so desperately trying to reduce. Now we can view the end product, packaging, as a series of consumables that take up the space on store shelves, in warehouses, and most disparagingly, in our landfills.

While packaging is necessary to protect the product, I would argue that companies have grossly over wrapped their commodities. In the future, in my imagination, I can see packaging being reduced to a biodegradable bare minimum. After all, how much packaging does four ounces of pasta really need? Furthermore, the materials employed could easily be replaced with recycled, compostable, biodegradable, and environmentally safe alternatives. One example is polylactic acids derived from sugarcane or corn, which are sustainable resources. These polylactic acids, or PLA’s, are made into bio-based plastics that can easily be integrated into the packaging industry. Another biodegradable option pertains to the cardboard type of packaging, corrugated paper materials made from wood pulp. Given an environment with mild humidity and bacteria present, the expectation of decomposition is within a three-month time span.

Yet another alternative material is styrofoam-type material made from mushrooms. Ecovative Design is currently researching how to use mycelium from fungi as a building material for packaging products. To facilitate the transition to biodegradable packaging, I propose that an industry standard of retrofitting production plants with recycling facilities be adopted. While they are at it, why not have our government design more inclusive incentives in the form of tax write-offs for companies who comply to a certain minimum level out sustainable output? Currently The Business Energy Investment Tax Credit (ITC) is a federal tax credit specifically benefiting businesses that choose to build or buy new renewable energy-producing equipment. With respect to tax credits being dollar-for-dollar reductions on business tax, going green would seem to be a very attractive endeavor.

What I picture are various types of recycling machinery in most, it not all, companies that produce packaging materials. This would also afford them the opportunity to take in specific materials from other sources, recycle them, and use the output to make even more quantities of biodegradable packaging. Not only will this set the standard for a green industry, but it has the potential to make a monumental global impact in the charge to reduce packaging, as well as replacing current resources with biodegradable materials. In households, the benefits of less packaging would be seen in weekly garbage output. Hopefully, in the very near future, the packaging that is thrown out in our garbage cans will summarily degrade and be absorbed safely by the environment. I see a green future, outside as well as inside industry.

Essay by: Tonia Lynne Kembel
Northwest University

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