Packaging in general, and plastic packaging in particular, has a long way to go in terms of recycling, according to a pair of environmental groups.
The Natural Resources Defense Council and As You Sow are out with a new report that they say shows there's plenty of room for improvement when it comes to packaging used by quick service restaurant, beverage, consumer goods and grocery companies.
“Our major finding is that leading fast food, beverage and packaged goods companies are coming up significantly short of where they should be when it comes to addressing the environmental aspects of packaging,” said Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president at As You Sow.
“We believe that brand leadership is sorely lacking,” the report's author said in a Jan. 29 conference call to discuss the findings.
The two groups analyzed the packaging habits of 47 different companies, and as a whole, came away unimpressed.
“These companies, none of them really have sufficiently prioritized packaging source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content and related recycling policies,” MacKerron said.
The report, Waste and Opportunity 2015: Environmental Progress and Challenges in Food, Beverage, and Consumer Goods Packaging, looks at all types of packaging. But the growth of plastics is clearly a continuing factor in that sector.
“Plastics is eating the lunch of many other packaging materials. It's growing in a huge way and there's many good sides to that. Some of those attributes protect the materials and they are produced using fewer greenhouse gas emissions and fewer materials,” MacKerron said.
“That's the good side. The bad side is often the end-of-life piece is ignored,” he said. “As plastics moves to become a pre-eminent form of packaging, we're not keeping up here with [recyclability].”
The report author pointed to the relative success of PET bottle recycling, but also said that success also can be viewed differently.
“It's sad that our most successfully recycled package is really only at about 30 percent nationally, even though PET is great demand by the textile industry and others,” MacKerron said.
While the two groups said no company obtained what they call “best practices” status, there are a couple of quick service restaurants — Starbuck's and McDonald's — judged to have “better practices.” Coca-Cola Co., Nestle Waters North America Inc., PepsiCo Inc. and New Belgium Brewing Co. also were cited for having better practices.
Regarding consumer goods companies, the report did not pass judgment in that sector and instead opted to highlight what it called proactive steps in packaging. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Procter & Gamble Co., Colgate-Palmolive Co. and Unilever were acknowledged for various efforts to increase recycling and recyclability and reduce packaging.
Highlighting marine debris
The report also called plastics packaging a major source of ocean pollution.
Darby Hoover is a senior resource specialist and packaging report project editor at NRDC.
“Of increasing concern to consumers is the growing problem of plastic pollution in the oceans. And they are perceiving, correctly, that that problem is linked to a high use of single-use food and beverage products,” she said.
Those items, Hoover said, “are among the most common products found in beach cleanup.” And that means they are common items finding their way into oceans, she said.
“All of this comes down to responsibility,” MacKerron said about the report. “It's instilling a sense of a culture of responsibility on brands that don't feel they have it. Brands will tell us we're not in the waste business.”
“We feel that environmental responsibility must encompass this in the future and so that new or hard-to-recycle materials that they are putting on the market, they need to have thought this through. They just can dump this on the market,” he said.
The United States has an overall recycling rate of 34.5 percent and an overall packaging recycling rate estimated at 51 percent. Plastics packaging, however, has a recycling rate of less than 14 percent, Hoover said.
“Recycling packaging and making it from recyclable or compostable materials, including recycled content, are important steps that companies need to take in order to more efficiently use our natural resources and help increase recycling rates,” she said.
The report is available at www.asyousow.org/recycling.