“Should the global population reach 9.6 billion by 2050, the equivalent of almost three planets could be required to provide the natural resources needed to sustain current lifestyles.”[1] Knowing this, even if we colonize Mars by 2050, we’ll still be one planet short on supplies. And despite this bad joke, the statistics aren’t one. If we do not reduce our footprint, this struggle will become our reality. That is why the future of sustainable packaging is so important. Sustainable packaging is the “development and use of packaging” that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” There are many exciting future prospects to consider on the topic, including replacing plastic with bioplastics and paper, slimming down the amount of packaging needed, and increasing recycling efforts, but ultimately the future of sustainable packaging will be affected most by one major thing: affordability.

A report by Pew Charitable Trusts found that 71 percent of Americans were concerned about having enough money to cover everyday expenses. Understanding that America is largely considered one of the richest countries, and U.S. families have a net worth of more than $40,000 compared to the next richest country, this percentage does not translate well to the rest of the world. This overwhelming lack of wealth among persons of the world means that if companies aren’t producing sustainable packaging that is equally if not more affordable as traditional methods, then the future of sustainable packaging will be in peril.

The worry for the future without affordability isn’t unfounded. Sustainable packaging may be an initial company cost, but generally if it costs more to produce or package an item, companies will raise their prices to cover the cost. A good example of this is organic food. More labor is required to maintain organic farms versus conventional farms, and that cost is transferred to the consumer’s wallet. [8] The trend continues, “eco-friendly straws, sneakers, garments… are often pricier than their conventional counterparts, leaving poor and middle-class people with not much of a choice.” Further, when consumers are forced to choose between their own desires and needs for conventional items versus environmentally healthy ones, “the environment almost never wins.”

Thankfully, just because affordability is the problem, doesn’t mean there isn’t a solution. Despite the average family struggling to afford ecologically friendly products currently, the future may look different. Slowly consumers are demanding green companies, products, and packaging, and boycotting those that do not comply. Businesses around the world are responding to this and global imperatives, and going green in spite of the costs. In addition, if packaging sustainability’s focus is on re-use, then using the same material over and over will actually reduce the costs for companies, and they will be able to pass these savings on. Ultimately, when the packaging is in high enough demand, bulk supply will be available, which should reduce costs as well.

Legislation may be able to solve the problem as well. In the U.S., 16 states have enacted regulations around packaging waste. More state regulations following this could lead to two kinds of legislation. First, if the regulations require more stringent recycling rules, it could push companies to move into re-usable packaging to avoid the hefty fines that might accompany breaking them. Second, if the regulations require sustainable packaging, companies would need to adhere to the new laws. Some other countries are already doing this, with places like France, Germany, and the United Kingdom setting higher recycling targets or implementing fees for introducing non-recyclable packaging.

Good intentions or not, consumers cannot support what they cannot buy. If the future of sustainable packaging does not focus on affordability for the masses, then its future may not exist. Fortunately, the move towards sustainability does seem bright with companies taking the leap and legislation pushing for a change. We may not have a third planet to inhabit by 2050, but if we do this right, we won’t have to find one.

Essay by: Lauren Burris-Boyce
Arizona State University

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