It is undeniable to say that unsustainable packaging is an integral part of many people’s lives. Especially given the pandemic creating more demand for disposable items and many stores refusing to use reusable containers, it is unlikely this pattern will shift anytime soon. So how is a need for sustainable packaging meant to work in a world that cannot have reusability for the foreseeable future? This is where the potential of buyback programs and biodegradable packaging shines the brightest. If done properly, both can be economically viable and sustainable to relax the tide until reusable packaging is possible once again.
The issues stacked against recycled packaging can be boiled down to one thing: Cost and Convivence. Due to the demand of recycled plastics and the low cost of oil, it became significantly cheaper for corporations to create virgin plastics than to purchase recycled plastic. Traditional recycling, for this reason, is not a corporation’s top priority. Part of the steep cost of recycling programs is the labor dedicated to separating and sorting items into their designated areas. With a Buyback Program, this labor can be reduced or even eliminated. For a given reward, consumers can bring the packaging to a specific area to be returned. The reward can be anything from points to be collected to sums of money per weight. This program, at least partly, removes the costly sorting process by having the consumes deliver the items presorted, as well as the bonus of building brand loyalty. While Buyback programs are not uncommon, a very well-known example to point to is aluminum cans. I vividly remember people asking for cans outside of events and it was a staple of my childhood to visit the plant to return the cans. As I type this, there are three full containers of cans sitting in my backyard, patiently awaiting their day to be taken away. The transition from collecting only one kind of recyclable material to collecting others, such as plastic bottles, would not be difficult for many individuals.
However, when recycling items is not an option currently, such as takeaway and airports, buyback programs may not be applicable. The convivence of the item cannot be removed, which makes recycling options scarce. Biodegradable single use packaging may be the solution to reduce damage to the environment in this aspect of life. There are a plethora of biodegradable plastics in the works, such as plastic made from cactus juice, that could certainly become cheaper as technology and technique improves. A big contender would be repurposed biomass degradable plastics, as they use items previously discarded and fix two wastes with their creation. For example, there is a biodegradable plastic made from the trash of a cotton gin, or the items removed during the process of separating cotton fibers for the fashion industry. While these items such as seeds and stems of the cotton plant, would normally be thrown away, they are repurposed and given a second life.
The future of sustainable packaging is closer than previously thought, and by starting small, changes are guaranteed to be made. While single use packaging should be reduced over time as the world discovers more sustainable methods of existing, this near future shows the best of both worlds while working through these confusing and uncertain times.
Essay by: Sara Weaver
Arizona State University