Why Does It Matter?
When we look at these examples of the impacts of making and using packaging, who could argue against embracing truly sustainable solutions?
40% of all the plastic made each year goes into packaging, most of it throwaway packaging. Plastic packaging waste is deadly to animals when they get tangled in it or ingest it. Hundreds of thousands of animals — many endangered — are killed each year after ingesting plastic or getting entangled in it. Learn more here and here.
Globally only 9% of all the plastic ever produced has been recycled Learn more here and here. Most goes to landfills, incinerators, or the environment, putting toxic pollutants into soil, water, and air, and massive amounts of waste in communities, beaches, rivers, and the open ocean. Almost all plastics are made from fossil fuels and their production, use, and waste create greenhouse gases and toxins every step of the way. Learn more about the climate impacts here and here, and the toxic impacts and how communities of color are especially impacted here. Making virgin plastic relies on extracting and transporting fossil fuels, and then on manufacturing plastic which creates pollution that is very toxic to surrounding communities.The boom in natural gas production in the US has led to a price drop in plastic manufacturing, and chemical and fossil fuel companies are building major new manufacturing facilities, with toxic repercussions for surrounding communities The microplastics that are formed as plastic breaks down in air, water, and soil have recently been found in human organs. Communities of color are most likely to be affected by plastic packaging at every step because plastic manufacturing, landfills, and incinerators are most likely to be sited in areas where large numbers of people of color live.
“Microplastics are ubiquitous in our environment. Studies show that we eat, drink, and inhale them. In the body, they travel across cell boundaries, accumulate in major organs, and raise concerns about causing inflammation, chronic disease, cancer, and autoimmune diseases. More research is needed. But none of us consented to being part of this plastics and human health experiment.”
Over 50% of all paper made each year is used for packaging. Three billion trees are logged every year for paper packaging.Throwaway coffee cups alone take 6.5 million trees each year. Paper packaging is driving forest loss, including loss of ancient and endangered forests, with terrible repercussions for forest communities, wildlife, climate, and human health. Intact forest landscapes around the world have shrunk 7.2% since 2000, with the rate of loss tripling between 2003 and 2013. Timber harvesting, including for papermaking, is responsible for 37% of this loss. Forest loss means people are exposed to new diseases like Coronavirus.
The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) says that 75% of all emerging infectious diseases in humans are zoonotic (jumping from other animals to humans) and are closely related to the health of ecosystems. Only about half the pulp that goes into paper packaging is recycled, and much of it is not or can not be recycled after it is used. The pulp and paper industry is one of the world’s biggest polluters, as well as one of the heaviest users of fresh water. Large amounts of energy, water, and chemicals are used in the pulp and paper manufacturing processes. Communities near the mills are exposed to a great deal of pollution. Learn more here and here. Many human rights abuses have been documented that are connected to pulp and paper mills. Many paper and fiber products used for food packaging and food service ware in retail and in restaurants are treated with chemicals to make them resistant to water and grease. These chemicals, known as per- or polyfluoroalkyl substances, or PFAS, are toxic and persistent, meaning they don’t break down. They may leach into food, and also leach into the environment when the packaging is thrown away. They have been linked to many health concerns in children and adults. Learn more about PFAS chemicals in food packaging and service ware with these resources: From the Center for Environmental Health, here and here. From Safer Chemicals, Healthy Families, here, here, and here. From Toxic Free Future. The chemicals have been found in the blood of people around the world, and in 99% of people in the US who have been tested.
“These toxic PFAS chemicals (used to treat food packaging made of paper and other fibers) continue to contaminate people and pollute the environment long after the disposable packaging is discarded. The packaging is used once but the chemicals can last forever in the environment.”
“The problem is that (PFAS chemicals) can stay around in our environment for thousands of years, which is why they have been nicknamed “forever chemicals.” This group of chemicals is associated with an array of adverse health effects such as hormone disruption, increased cholesterol levels, effects on the immune system, and increased risk of cancer. Needless to say, these chemicals are an existential threat to the health of every human on Earth.”
Aluminum is made with bauxite which is extracted through open-pit mining on bull-dozed land. (See Here) The mining and refining of bauxite and the smelting of the aluminum use vast amounts of energy and water. The process creates air, water, and soil pollution that are harmful to surrounding communities and the environment. While recycling rates for aluminum are higher than most of these materials, aluminum recycling is still below 70% globally and it’s much lower in some of the highest consuming markets.
Stainless steel is made from iron ore and mining it produces water pollution, including drainage of heavy metals and acid that can continue for thousands of years after the mining has ended, as well as air pollution. The mining of iron ore also requires a great deal of energy. Stainless steel is recycled the most globally of all these types of packaging, but even its recycling rate varies a lot depending on products and regions.
Glass is made from sand and extracting sand is the largest mining endeavor globally, the least regulated, and has been described as “quite possibly the most corrupt and environmentally destructive,” with deadly impacts on endangered ecosystems, plants, and animals. Glass manufacturing creates carbon dioxide and other air pollutants and can cause the release of particles into the atmosphere. Globally less than 35% of glass is recycled.Learn more here and here.
Wood packaging drives forest loss just like paper packaging does. The U.S., for example, has nearly 2 billion wooden pallets currently in circulation and a majority of them are replaced each year with new pallets. As a result, an estimated that half of the U.S.’s entire harvest of hardwood each year, about 7.6 billion board feet of lumber, goes into making new pallets for packaging.
No matter what kind of packaging it is…
making new packaging drives climate change and takes significant energy. For most types of packaging, making and wasting it puts toxic pollutants into the air, water, and soil, harming communities and wildlife.
“Of the 12,000 chemicals approved for use in food contact, at least 63 are known to be hazardous to human health and known to migrate from packaging into food. Communities that lack access to fresh food- often rural, low income, or communities of color- are more polluted by food packaging because they eat a higher proportion of packaged food.”
The financial impacts of packaging:
The global packaging industry is predicted to reach a value of $1 Trillion by 2021. As the packaging industry grows quickly, human and workers rights suffer along with sustainability. There are significant business opportunities in developing reusable packaging and in moving to more sustainable packaging. Learn more here and here. The public ends up paying for the packaging crisis, not only through all these other impacts but financially, at cash registers, at tax time, and at community clean ups around the world. Local governments in the U.S., for example, spent almost $13 billion to manage waste in 2019. The incineration that is part of waste management in many places damages the sustainability work and credibility of businesses and local governments. In the U.S., out of every $10 spent buying things, $1 goes for packaging that is thrown away. Learn more here and here.
Join us in the movement
for sustainable packaging!
We are grateful to the following organizations for their contribution to the creation of this resource
and for their ongoing work to make packaging more sustainable around the world.
Click To Learn More And Get Involved: