According to America’s Plastic Makers , today’s recycling rates are dismally low. For example, plastic bottle recycling is at 29%, glass bottles at 27%, aluminum cans at 49% and HDPE plastic ( i.e. Milk jugs, detergent bottles) are recycled at a rate of 31%.

The good news is that there has been a huge paradigm shift to being more aware of our impact on the planet than ever before. Packaging is on the forefront of this change and companies are taking strides to reduce the number of non-recyclable materials.

The common theme around sustainable packing centers around a “Circular Economy.” This is defined as the philosophy of designing packaging so materials comeback into circulation and the end of their life cycle instead of being incinerated or buried.

Two designs that I researched included biodegradable packaging and flexible packaging. Biodegradable packaging is a way to design packages that use biomaterials. These materials breakdown in very short period of time. Flexible packaging uses paper, plastic, aluminum and film to make bags. These bags extend the shelf life of food products. It is encouraging to read that many international companies have announced sustainability-focused pledges. The US Plastic Pact ensures that all plastic packaging will be 100% reusable, recyclable or compostable by 2025.

Two companies making important innovations are IKEA and NIKE. IKEA is generating 100% biodegradable packing made from mushrooms and NIKE is using packaging from recycled materials. Other companies like Bennett Packaging is using 3D printing to make more sustainable packaging. The use of 3D printing allows for a significant reduction in waste, helping companies save resources. McDonalds has made a commitment to making all their packaging recyclable by 2025.

Next, it’s important to look at the Traditional and Advanced Recycling. Traditional recycling is our nation’s existing system. Plastic bottles and containers are cleaned, and processed into recyclable pellets for new uses. Traditional recycling is an aging system. I believe more investment money should be spent on Advanced Recycling which is new technology that converts many types of plastic packaging back into their original building blocks, creating a circular loop. Making plastic packaging easier to recycle is the key to success.

What else is on the horizon? First, more education on learning what is recyclable and what is not in each of communities. Second, encouraging the construction of advanced recycling facilities. Third, encouraging our elected officials to incentivize new technologies and help improve our nation’s waste infrastructure.

Lastly, much progress still needs to be made. There will be ongoing pressures for consumers and governments to act as good stewards of our environment. Research dollars need to be allocated to continue to find innovative ways of sustainable packaging. One thing for sure, the future of sustainable packaging which be much greener. Currently things like corn-starch and seaweed are being investigated.

Jacob Wodka
Olympia High School

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