It was a normal day of putting the weekly groceries away. As I was taking them out of the plastic bags and setting them on the counter in their various paper, cardboard, glass, and plastic packaging, it finally dawned on me: these would all be going into the trash after using them, and directly into our landfill. Ever since this realization, I decided to commit towards living a better lifestyle. Whether that was switching to reusable bags, shopping for produce locally at farmers markets, researching marketplaces that are working toward sustainability, and switching to better products such as bamboo toothbrushes and biodegradable soaps and cleaning products, I have been able to direct my family and friends towards making better choices.

My example is the same story for the 122.8 million households in the U.S. You go through products, throw them away, and buy more all without realizing where they lead to. Annie Marie Leonard, a long-time American activist for sustainability and executive director of Greenpeace USA, a non-profit that increases the public understanding of environmental issues through research, reflected. “There is no such thing as ‘away.’ When we throw anything away it must go somewhere.” When we throw trash away in the trash can, it does not just magically disappear once we throw it out.

Let us discuss the main components of future sustainable packaging that should encourage not only companies, but ourselves, to get involved. Fittingly, they spell out the word SUSTAIN: Seek, Understand, Self-reflect, Transform, Act, Inform, and Nurture.

When we think of the 7.8 billion people that inhabit the world with us, we may feel like our actions play little to no role in creating lasting change. According to the New York Post, a study by 2,000 Americans showed that “…while people are taking environmentally friendly actions, a substantial number (44 percent) believe their actions are too small to help stop climate change and a third (32 percent) don’t feel knowledgeable about the actions they can take.” While many are seeking to make improvements in how they consume, there is still almost half of the population that is affected by this misconception. Which is dangerous, because if everyone believed that their actions were meaningless, innovation and advancement would be two words of the past.

While looking for ways to redesign the packaging of tomorrow is necessary, understanding why half of the battle is just as important. If producers and consumers alike do not understand the consequences of what they make and buy, they will not feel inclined to change their patterns of action.

It is also important to note that not all items on the market are eco-friendly. While it may use key words such as eco, certified green, nontoxic, chemical free, and natural, these are a way for companies to give the illusion that they are helping the environment, while keeping their harmful practices. Coined by environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, this term is known as Corporate Greenwashing. To gain a clear picture of the future of sustainable packaging, we must implement the third component in our acronym: Transform. When businesses are not transparent about their operation, it prevents us from learning and growing, as consumers will continue to buy these products thinking they are doing the right thing. On the other hand, if corporations were honest about their services, and created a plan to become more environmentally sustainable in the future, we could make more progress without falling for false claims.

Research students at the University of Maine are looking to change the future of packaging through action. Becoming the first university in America with a machine that converts pulp into paper plates, bowls, and cups, the NatureFormer has redesigned the way we see plastic packaging replacements. It is especially important in the state, as this development will be used for their forest products industry. Colleen Walker, director at the Process Development Center, said, “This partnership is significant for both UMaine and the state of Maine,” Walker said. “With Kiefel’s Natureformer, our researchers can explore new value-added uses for Maine wood fiber in sustainable packaging applications, and the PDC will meaningfully contribute to the growth of fiber thermoforming knowledge in Maine and beyond.” This brings us into the next component of our acronym: Act. We need more stories like these, because it starts with people like you and me who are passionate and dedicated enough to make ripples in the sea of progress.

The last two go together, and they are: Inform and Nurture. When we create an environment that is centered around progress, not perfection, we can work together to hold businesses and ourselves accountable. Sustainability is not having it right every time, but sticking with it, and making small but lasting changes.

Let us put the SUSTAIN in Sustainability. Ask yourself these questions. 1). What am I buying today that will contribute to my social and environmental responsibility? 2). Is there anything I can do the next time I shop? 3). How can I inform others of what I have learned, and the importance of paying attention to labels and packaging? We all have a part to play, whether it is in your own household, community, school, or place of work. It only takes one step in the right direction to lay the foundation for what is to come. Our service can be incredibly rewarding-and it starts with you. How will you begin?

Essay by: Ava Armbruster
Los Osos High School

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