Fighting the Myth of Packaging Waste

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By Bob Lilienfeld, Director of Communications and Editor, The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report.

Twenty years ago, on January 21, 1995,  The New York Times published an Op-Ed piece I wrote with Dr. William L. (Bill) Rathje. Entitled Six Enviro-Myths, it discussed the need to base environmental decisions and policy on facts, not faith. The article was picked up by many domestic and international newspapers, and led to the publication by Random House of our book, Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are.

Not much has changed in 20 years. The public still seems to have the same perspectives we’ve always had regarding packaging and the environment. So, let’s look at how things have progressed over the last 10 years.

You can see in the chart below that between 2001 and 2011, both the U.S. population and number of households grew between 9-10%. As expected, solid waste generation grew at about the same rate (9.2%).

EPA Chart

What’s interesting is that the amount of municipal solid waste recovered has grown dramatically, by almost 28%, meaning that the amount we throw away only grew by 1.4%. From a landfill usage standpoint, this is very good news.

Now, let’s look at packaging. The amount of used packaging generated only grew by 2.9%, significantly less than population or total solid waste growth. Given that growth in gross national product during this period was 21.6%, faster than population or household growth, this slower packaging growth must be largely related to increased focus on source reduction.

And, thanks to dramatic increases in recycling, the rate of recovery increased by a whopping 36.3%. In fact, used packaging actually declined by 17.8%, leading to a decline in packaging’s share of overall solid waste discards, from 28.2% to 22.8%.

To summarize, used packaging discards have been significantly reduced, thanks to a combination of light-weighting and increased recycling. While this finding is counter-intuitive to many, it is a sign that we can win the war on waste reduction; and that the efforts of packaging designers, producers, consumer products companies and retailers continue to play a major role in the battle.

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