Q&A: What happens to my packaging?

ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-002        A very good question posted by our visitor can reveal the complexity of packaging topic. On the surface, we might assume that everything is recycled and everything is taking care of. I would be more than happy to say that packaging is reused and new products are made of it. But I can’t, and no one can for that matter. The basic most honest answer is: we don’t know. In order to provide the appropriate answer we need to dig deeper, and then there are as many sub-questions as one can think of. First of all, it all depends on what you consider as “my packaging”. Looking at the question from a consumer perspective, it all comes down to the point (location) where you are unpacking the item. Majority of consumer products are received and unpacked in the following environments:

– at the shop (at the point of sale) – at home – at work – at entertainment venues – at public spaces

The point of unpacking determines your actions and how you deal with packaging. This means that to a large extent we as consumers are the initial filter on where the particular packaging will end up. At the point of unpacking the packaging itself (should have) served its consumer, item protective, function. Therefore, product packaging cycle is closed, but the total packaging cycle is still ongoing. This ongoing packaging cycle is triggered by us as consumers each time we dispose of our packaging.

Waste management

Once the packaging is disposed to a waste bin (the complexity of it is described below), the waste management facility (WMF) starts processing it. They either start or continue the process of base material separation. This means that their goal is to separate the waste packaging to the packaging base materials that could be reused. After separation, they grade the final (separated) packaging waste. They grade the quality of paper stack, the quality of plastics, the quality of metals, etc. The more the certain material is pure, the higher is its value, as well as the recyclability potential. The sorted materials are then furthermore prepared for use as recycled content; This preparation can occur in WMF, at base packaging material mill, or at the specialized third party entity. The goal of this process is to prepare the gathered waste (recycling) materials for a final stage – re-usage of the recycled base material content in new products. The last public reports show that we are reusing only a third of all packaging materials that are being used are re-used. The more alarming fact is that one-third of waste packaging is not even collected, and this relates to my initial (first paragraph) answer.ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-001 The image is courtesy of Eurostat, where you may find many other details into European packaging reports. The similar results are coming also from the other regions of the globe, some are even more alarming. This is one of the very important aspects of the packaging problem: misinformation. The marketing push in the media gives us a feeling that we are actively working on the problem, but the real situation is far from what we are delivered through marketing campaigns. Even more, so that wast resources have been poured into the waste packaging management, but the results are minimal. That does not mean that we should stop all our efforts. It only means that all of us should start contributing to better waste packaging management. Since the question came from the consumer, we will start explaining the process from the consumer point of view. From the point of contact with packaging to what happens with it after disposal. Here a bit more insides that might answer your question more into details, from the point of consumer packaging contact and disposal options.

Unpacking at the shop

There are many products which we as consumers are unpacking directly at the point of sales (POS). The main reason is that people are fed up with the amount of packaging they bring home. Depending on the local arrangements it can even be hard to dispose of larger packagings. Large TV boxes or large home appliances are usually packed in large and bulky packaging. This does pose a problem for a buyer since many residential areas have now a limited space for such packaging materials disposal. ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-003Aside to large items being unpacked at the POS, many people are unpacking also other items like shoes, shirts, electronics,… Any items that are not bound to easy wear and tear are more and more often unpacked at POS. Any shop should (but are not obliged to, with exception to certain specific local regulations) accept and take back the packaging they have sold. (You can read more about this topic here >>>). Most shops do understand that accepting packaging back is a part of positive consumer experience. The reality is that most smaller shops (POS) are never complicating about packaging. The problem mostly occurs in larger POS locations, with larger consumer traffic. In these cases, it is almost impossible for retailers to have a good and effective way of accepting packaging back. Of course this point of deep debate and it is also one of the political topics out there (as in Ireland, for example >>>). This means that unpacking at the shop is not regulated and it is only a matter of goodwill of merchant to accept the packaging back. The reason for that is that in accordance with the EU Packaging Directive (>>>) it is not clearly stated that retailers are not responsible for packaging. EU Packaging Directive posts item manufacturers as the main entity responsible for packaging disposal. Waste Packaging Recycling Potential: High

Unpacking at home

ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-004Packaging that we are collecting at home is being processed in accordance with local regulations. These regulations are often micro handled my local municipalities but are based on regional, state or national regulations. These national regulations are a subject of compliance with international laws and directives. Residential waste packaging is done in multiple ways. It is constantly being adopted in accordance with good practices and analytics across the whole recycled resource chain. That being said, it strongly depends where you reside. Majority of municipalities have following segmentation of waste packaging: – paper products – plastic packaging – glass packaging Some municipalities also separate metal and EPS packaging, but such instances are rare. The problem occurs when people do not know where to dispose of waste packaging. The fact is that the general public is not educated enough of what packaging materials are actually being used. Food packaging and other fast-moving consumer goods are often packed in complex materials, and the public is facing a dilemma. That is why some municipalities simplified these procedures. Some (like San Francisco for example) are taking all of the residential waste in one lot. The sorting is then done by waste management facilities. On the other hand, the majority of waste packaging is separated from other residential items, and then this packaging waste materials are being sorted by waste management facilities. Waste packaging recycling potential: Medium – Low

Unpacking at work

When we are unpacking items at work, we fall in the bracket of business waste management. Once again the whole process strongly depends on local regulations, but it is usually easier for the consumer (user) to sort the packaging. The second part of the consideration is the question of what kind of business are you in in the first place. If you are in the manufacturing industry you most probably have the sorting system. If you are in an office environment, you most probably need to follow the guidelines that are more or less similar to residential ones. Waste packaging recycling potential: Medium

Unpacking at entertainment venues

This one is a bit tricky one since it does not talk so much about regular packaging materials. It does to some extent, but more or less it leans to many single-use packaging items intended for food and beverage. The entertainment venues have become one of the larger points of single-use waste packaging. ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-006The entertainment industry is booming and so does the generation of waste packaging at the locations of events. Practically at each and every event, there are some points of sale you can buy beverage and food and some souvenirs. Anything from large scale sports venues to small village picnics generates waste packaging which is actually really hard to sort and prepare for the recycling process. First of all, each and every item is contaminated with organic waste (food or drink), and this is often a big problem for recycling processes. ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-005The other thing is that even though we all try to dispose of certain packaging product (a cup or tray for example), it is impossible for us to sort it correctly. Purely on a base material basis, there are so many (dirty) items getting into those bins that it is really hard to say and determine in what kind of condition all of this packaging waste is gathered in. Larger venues and sports leagues did start to address this issue. National Hockey League (NHL) for example started an environmental initiative, which covers also waste packaging management. Another good example is AEG Worldwide, one of the largest entrainment businesses out there. Their understanding of CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) helped them to target waste to landfill problems through their sustainability program (read more about the program >>>). Waste packaging recycling potential: Medium-High

Unpacking at public spaces

One of the most unrated points of packaging (and waste) disposal points are public spaces. From bus stops to local parks, we as humans like to interact and hang out in public spaces. As we are doing that we are constantly generating waste, and the majority comes from packaging. ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-007Public waste management is a sum of all other major waste packaging disposal points. The mix of waste in the public spaces bins is astonishing and therefore really hard to sort out. There is no way that waste items are sorted out properly, might this be due to the bad system in place or to the lack of public interest in the consequences of wrong waste disposal. I think that we have all been in a situation where we either stuffed the packaging in a wrong bin; intentionally or not, most of us have done that. This mix of waste materials poses a big problem for waste management facilities. The municipalities like San Francisco area ones do have fewer problems where their further recycling system is prepared for such waste handling. For the other municipalities, it simply means that they receive bad waste that more often than not ends up at incineration plants. Waste packaging recycling potential: Low (for most recycling systems)

Once the packaging is gathered

When we dispose of our waste packaging on any of the locations mentioned above, it is on waste management facilities to process it. The basic goals of waste processing are:

– high recycling yield – low energy impact – zero environmental impact – minimal landfill output

These are the basic waste processing goals at this given moment in time. For many years now it is clear that waste materials are a valuable resource. The problem of waste processing is the complexity of waste itself. The systems of internal waste management facilities are less trying to get the best content out of the waste, with as less energy consumed as possible. During these processes, there are many process steps that might have a large impact on the (local) environment. Waste management facilities are trying to have zero effect on the local surrounding. In the end, there are always certain elements of waste that remain at the end of the process and these are then sorted and disposed at the proper landfill location.

The recycling of packaging

ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-008The recycling process seems like a simple one, but it is not. The more complex the packaging material is, the more complex the recycling is. For example, the paper recycling process is simpler than the recycling of liquid laminates, or plastics. In order to understand that the best way to explain it is that wooden packaging has relatively simple processing from nature to packaging product, and it is also simple to recycle. Plastics, on the other hand, has more complex processing from the natural base material (oil or any of so-called biomaterials) to the plastic packaging product, and it is also far more complex to recycle. ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-009The next challenge is then to obtain as quality recycled material from waste as possible. At the end this is one of the goals of recycling; to re-use as much waste as possible. Depending on the state of waste, and the basic packaging material complexity, recycling plants can determine the quality of recycled grade. In the paper industry, this means that the more virgin fiber base, more unprinted and uncoated there is the better is the recycled paper base. More print, laminations or coatings are put on the paper, the lower is the quality of the recycled paper base. The same thing is in plastics for example; the more of the same polymer you get in one recycled stack, the better are the plastic chips for further processing. The more there are other polymers in the mix the lower is the recycled grade of polymers. It is true that everything can be recycled into its original state, but the question is how many energy and other resources are being used in the process. Such processes can be both costly and environmentally problematic, and that is the reason why it is simply better to not perform them.

The recycled content

If we say that recycled content is the base which is then re-used, we need to outline another thing: for what is it being used for? ENP-Your-Questions-2019-03-20-010This does depend on basic material characteristics, and there are multiple aspects of it. In simple terms, each circle of use of the material decreases the material characteristics. In some materials less (glass, metals) in some a lot more (plastics). This means that re-usability of recycled materials is limited. This is one fact that is often not told to the public, and people assume that recycled is better than virgin materials. Yes, it is very important that we recycle (and a lot more for that matter), but recycling is not the end solution for the problem, it is only one step closer to it. As an example: in order for the paper-based box to have same (or similar) technical characteristics as virgin fiber boxes, the box has approximately thirty percent more content (weight and packaging material volume). This means that we will be using fewer virgin materials, but we will be shipping more weight. On one side of the equation, we solved the problem, and we have created a new challenge on the other side.

The conclusion

Packaging materials need to be handled better. Waste management did make many steps forward, but we are still far off the target and far off from the so-called sustainability ratio, which should be at least 1:1 if not better. At this stage, we simply do not know what is happening with the packaging once it leaves consumers hands. We do have the tools to monitor these missed areas, the question is are we ready to pull our weight and contribute to it.