Creating sustainable packaging can create jobs as well as mitigate pollution. Where present, the collection of recyclable material to process sustainable packaging is its own cottage industry. Instead of using labor to extract raw materials, or using chemicals to process hazardous waste by-product, we can use labor to collect recyclable material on a larger scale.

A huge benefit to sustainable packaging is pollution reduction. Rerouting waste will minimize expansion of landfills that can cause soil and water pollution. Rerouting waste will also minimize the continued use of incinerators that can cause air pollution. Additionally, using recyclable content will reduce the need for processing petrochemical by-product that can cause soil, water, and air pollution.

One example of processing petrochemical by-product is the Shell Polymers Monaca plant down the river from my home in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. According to KDKA, CBS news article from November 15, 2022 (1), the refinery “will produce 3.5 billion pounds of polyethylene annually when it ramps up to full production.” It produces this polyethylene by bringing in “ethane from natural gas wells and chemically ‘cracks’ the liquid fuel by heating it in furnaces to create ethylene, which is used to produce everything from plastics to tires to antifreeze.”

Although the construction of this facility was welcomed as an economic boost by most and was built on the “site of a former zinc smelter” (1) (which is called brownfield remediation in sustainable building terms), it has met some resistance from the local population. This region of the country, called the “Rust Belt”, has a reputation for rampant pollution committed by large industries with little oversight or consequence given for EPA violations. The most recent, and egregious example of this so far, is the Norfolk Southern train derailment 50 miles northwest in East Palestine, OH. According to Becky Sullivan at NPR, “five of the derailed cars were carrying vinyl chloride, a manmade substance that is a key ingredient in PVC, the hard plastic resin used widely in construction and health care.”

There are many more recent and historical examples of pollution to my region’s air, soil, and water since industry developed here in the late 19th century. However, I want to focus on how we can rely less on creating new plastic packaging and more on creating sustainable packaging.

For starters, instead of having a few large plants in the nation and relying on long-haul transporting goods by truck or train, have small sustainable packaging facilities throughout the country that serve local populations within a smaller radius. A smaller facility will require a smaller footprint of land, which will open more possibilities with regards to real estate available and may reduce the possible push-back by locals with a NIMBY (Not In My Back Yard) attitude. A smaller facility that serves a local population may also be more welcome to the community, as it could be more intimately connected to it economically than a large facility that serves a remote, widespread consumer base. Another way it could serve its community is by partnering with local waste management companies to collect recyclable waste used in processing sustainable packaging. Collecting waste locally and distributing goods locally can provide a closed-loop system where transportation of goods is reduced significantly, thus reducing pollution via gasoline exhaust and gasoline or diesel consumption. Local businesses and consumers can use these sustainable packaging products for their own purposes, either with local businesses and manufacturers using the packaging for their products or for individual consumers using for their own household’s daily activities.

This proposal does not have to be limited to our national scale. This can be expanded on a larger scale if the packaging industry encourages a global market for recycled goods by partnering with cities in developing countries to create small scale sustainable packaging facilities, or any facility that recycles waste responsibly for that matter. Currently, this is called the “informal recycling sector in developing countries” according to Martin Medina with The World Bank (3) informal recycling is where people part of the urban poor use waste picking, or individual collection of waste, to earn an income. According to Medina, “studies suggest that when organized and supported, waste picking can spur grassroots investment by poor people, create jobs, reduce poverty, save municipalities money, improve industrial competitiveness, conserve natural resources, and protect the environment. Three models have been used to organize waste pickers: micro enterprises, cooperatives, and public-private partnerships. This can lead to more efficient recycling and more effective poverty reduction.” (3) The local facility model can be explored in these developed countries, so a closed-loop material collection and distribution of finish goods can thrive.

The future of sustainable packaging can incorporate improved waste collection that reduces pollution and poverty. This can reduce pollution by providing a safe, durable packaging system that protects products and equipment that is competitive with new plastics industry. It can also provide employment to those struggling with poverty, in our nation and in the world.

Essay by: Denise Rector
Arizona State University

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