After a couple days of waiting in anticipation, my new set of razors from Amazon had finally arrived in the mail. Excited to shave off my quarantine beard, I opened the cardboard box (which takes a minimum of three months to decompose), only to reveal a sheet of 10-15 air pillows and a bubble wrap envelope enclosing my razor set, both composed of plastics that can last well over 500 years in a landfill. It was hard to fight off the wave of guilt that overcame me as I floated among the sea of packaging I had received. Purchasing such a simple, necessary tool should not have an environmental impact that can outlast entire generations.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, we have made a larger shift toward single-use packaging to combat the spread of the disease. Instead of going out as often, people are opting for take-out meals and buying their essentials on Amazon. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as it protects the most vulnerable in our communities from a potentially fatal virus. However, if we don’t stop to consider the long-term environmental impacts of our actions, our society’s future could be at stake, likely facing even greater danger than a lethal pandemic.
Packaging makes up almost 50% of municipal (non-industrial) waste. According to the U.S. government, over 50 billion pieces of litter can be found on U.S. roads across the nation, and much of this trash inevitably disrupts fragile ecosystems. Some even return to us in the food we eat. For example, litter often ends up in the ocean, where aquatic life might mistake a piece of plastic as food, ingesting and breaking down the plastics into toxic chemicals. Though these chemicals may not be immediately dangerous to the first organism that consumes them, the microplastic bioaccumulates in larger fish, such as tuna, increasing in concentration as you move up the food chain. Organisms can spend their whole lives ingesting these pollutants, which build up in fatty tissues. This means the more or higher up on the food chain an animal eats, the more pollutants they ingest. Eventually, these larger fish might be caught and sold, and those concentrated toxins end up being consumed by an unsuspecting family; a perfect example of how we reap what we sow when it comes to environmental practices.
Proper disposal and recycling of packaging waste isn’t the complete solution. The process itself of creating the packaging requires many resources and releases significant amounts of pollution. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, the major source of plastic production comes from natural gas and crude oil, which release harmful greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. Consequently, plastic production in 2019 was responsible for 850 million metric tons of greenhouse gasses. This is the equivalent output of 190 coal power plants. Every effort to decrease emissions is crucial to preventing uncontrolled climate change, which has widespread consequences across the globe, from prolonged droughts to rising sea levels and flooding.
While packaging can seem like an environmental catastrophe with far-reaching consequences, it’s hard to say what we would do without it. Without packaging, our food would rot, shipping fragile items would be difficult, and we would need to find an alternative sanitization method to control the spread of diseases like COVID-19. Packaging, as it exists, is certainly unsustainable, but companies are finding alternatives and beginning to “go green.” For example, companies that produce packaging can make the largest difference by opting to use recyclable or low-impact materials, avoiding ones that require oil and natural gas to manufacture. These efforts would help people around the globe by slowing global warming, improving air quality, and reducing waste in our environment and food sources.
However, “green packaging” is not the solution to all our problems. According to the EPA, the United States generated 80.1 million tons of packaging in 2017. 50% of the paper waste was recycled, while only 13% of plastic waste received the same fate. This means that each year, we fill our landfills with millions of tons of excess packaging, packaging that could be recycled. To make matters worse, landfills cannot sustain this level of waste production. Global Citizen, an advocacy organization, predicts that in 18 years, all U.S. landfills will be full. Incineration has been used as an alternative to landfills, but the method saves space at the cost of releasing harmful air pollutants. By recycling, we can make a huge difference: one ton of recycled paper saves 17 trees, 380 gallons of oil, and 7,000 gallons of water. Increasing our recycling rate can save many resources—natural and financial. Unfortunately, many companies fail to recognize that environmentally friendly packaging consists of more than making goods recyclable, compostable, less resource consuming, etc. It also includes a level of consumer education about sustainable practices and their importance. Recyclable products mean nothing if people don’t actually recycle them. Although it may seem a simple step, this could potentially have a large influence on the environmental impact a company leaves.
Next time an international pandemic causes my facial hair to grow out of control, I hope that I’ll be able to buy a razor without fearing the environmental impacts of a good shave. In a perfect world, all of my packing would go into the composting or recycling bin, and not into a landfill, incinerator, or ocean. Choosing to go green has widespread benefits in every facet of our lives: we can save millions of species threatened by rapidly degrading habitats, protect humanity from the perils of climate change and pollution, keep our food chains safe, on top of accomplishing simpler things such as beautifying our neighborhoods and increasing our collective sense of environmental responsibility. We can not only create a better world for ourselves, but guarantee that our future generations inherit a healthier, happier Earth.
Essay by: Kyten C. Arthur
Arizona State University