Hooray! Your items have finally arrived! You excitedly dig in, tearing away layer after layer of packaging until you finally reach your prize. As you savor your new goods, you turn to face the mess that has been left behind. What will you do with all of that packaging?

As consumers, we have little say in the way our items are delivered to us: the companies decide. However, modern packaging is often excessive, and is detrimental to the environment. Beyond the energy required to produce the packaging, packaging is often made of non-biodegradable materials. After all, around 40 percent of plastic produced is used in packaging. Plastics are petroleum by-products, linking it closely to the fossil fuel industry. As the demand for plastics increases, fossil fuel extraction is stimulated. One of the most harmful techniques for extracting petroleum and natural gas, fracking, can contaminate groundwater, produce large amounts of air pollution, and even cause earthquakes. Once in the consumers’ hands, packaging’s disposable nature means it is swiftly disposed of: around 65 percent of a household’s trash comes from packaging. Part of the packaging’s wasteful nature can be contributed to the size of the products. Companies often produce “single-serving” sizes, which waste more materials than larger serving sizes and are more difficult to recycle. By packaging their goods into larger containers, the same volume of goods could be sold to individual consumers all while using less packaging, particularly for food items. Consumers can then dole out their desired amounts on their own.

Packaging typically makes its way into a landfill. In 2017 around 32.1 million tons of packaging went into landfills in the US. There, the non-biodegradable plastic and other components can wreak havoc upon the local environment for thousands of years. The plastics’ chemicals can make their way into peoples’ and animals’ bodies. Plastics that reach the ocean can degrade into microplastics, clogging organisms’ gills, and never mind the danger it poses to their diets and overall safety. It is alarming that by 2025, there will be three times more plastic in the ocean than fish. Although recycling is a possible solution, additional energy is required for processing, and many parts are not recyclable. Companies can invest in providing reusable packaging, reducing the amount of single-use waste their products produce. For example, Starbucks and other chains offer reusable cups and packaging to reduce the amount of plastic waste produced. Additionally, the rise of online shopping has also with it brought a huge packaging issue. Many items come in wasteful cardboard boxes filled with plastic protection. Companies could instead continue to invest in more environmentally-friendly ways to protect their goods, such as using fungus-based materials.

With the health of our planet in at stake, we together must consider the effects of our decisions. As more and more goods become available to consumers, the effects of packaging upon the environment become greater. With advances in biodegradable materials, and redesigned packaging companies can reduce the strain they place on the environment. There is hope for us all.

Essay by: Cindy Zheng
Brown University

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