Twenty-five years after McDonald’s, working with the Environmental Defense Fund, agreed to get rid of foam clamshells for its burger–in what is now called the first corporate environmental partnership–the problem of wasteful, polluting, throwaway packaging is, if not worse than ever, no better.
With industry leaders like McDonald’s, Starbucks, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola have invested in more sustainable packaging, others have failed to follow. This is the conclusion of a thorough packaging study released last week by As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council that I covered for the Guardian.
Here’s how my story begins:
Big brands, including Burger King, Dunkin Donuts, KFC, Kraft Foods and MillerCoors, are wasting billions of dollars worth of valuable materials because they sell food and drinks in subpar packaging, according to a comprehensive new report on packaging and recycling by the fast food, beverage, consumer goods and grocery industries.
The 62-page rank-‘em-and-spank-‘em study, Waste and Opportunity 2015, was published Thursday by advocacy nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council. They found that few companies have robust sustainable packaging policies or system-wide programs to recycle packages. Indeed, no company was awarded their highest rating of “best practices.”
The environmental groups did identify a number of leaders, albeit flawed ones. In the beverage industry, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters and PepsiCo won praise. Starbucks and McDonald’s are said to be a cut above their competitors in fast food and quick-serve restaurants. As for consumer goods companies and grocery stores, the report offers qualified praise for Walmart, Procter & Gamble, Colgate-Palmolive and Unilever.
Broadly, though, this study paints a discouraging picture. What progress has been made is incremental and spotty, not comprehensive. As often than not, single-use packages of food and drinks are made from virgin materials and then tossed in the trash.
As the report notes, with an overall recycling rate of 34.5% and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51%, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14% of plastic packaging — the fastest-growing form of packaging — is recycled. Recyclable post-consumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4bn is wasted annually.
The interesting question is, what have we learned from NGO and government efforts to curb packaging waste and pollution? I’m not quite ready to give up on voluntary corporate efforts–not yet, anyway. Walmart reduced packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent between 2006 and 2013; that’s a big deal. It’s now pushing suppliers to use more recycled content.
An alternative approach is increased government regulations–deposit bills on bottles and, more recently, plastic bag bans and taxes. (New York City has just banned polystyrene packaging, joining 100 other jurisdictions, reports Mark Bittman.) But these are also halfway measures.
Bolder would be an economy-wide effort to impose Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) rules, which are in place in much of the EU. I don’t know enough about how these work and what they cost to have an informed opinion.
I did buy a set of headphones for my iPhone the other day and had the hardest time getting them out of the ridiculous plastic package. Surely a company that’s as good at design as Apple can do better. But what’s the incentive for them to do so? Saving a few pennies from a $29.95 (!) set of headphones clearly isn’t enough.