The environmental implications of consumer packaging are an increasingly important component of corporate sustainability programs. Because of finite and dwindling raw material sources, and because wasting materials with significant economic value is an inefficient use of those limited resources, brands that place packaging into commerce need to take more responsibility for its life cycle impact. This study examined the current packaging practices of three sectors: quick service restaurants (QSRs, or “fast food”), beverages, and consumer goods/ grocery. We found that most companies have not sufficiently prioritized packaging source reduction, recyclability, compostability, recycled content, and recycling policies. Increased attention to these key attributes of packaging sustainability would result in more efficient utilization of postconsumer packaging, higher U.S. recycling rates, reduced ocean plastic pollution, new green recycling jobs, and development of a circular materials economy ensuring a stable supply of postconsumer materials for new feedstock.
With an overall recycling rate of 34.5 percent and an estimated packaging recycling rate of 51 percent, the United States lags behind many other developed countries. Less than 14 percent of plastic packaging—the fastest-growing form of packaging— is recycled. Recyclable postconsumer packaging with an estimated market value of $11.4 billion is wasted annually. Recyclers have been unable to substantially increase recycling of materials in high demand, such as PET plastic, primarily due to lack of funding to expand curbside programs and modernize recovery facilities in many communities, weak materials markets, and lack of a strong recycling policy framework in many states and municipalities.
As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council distributed a survey to learn more about packaging environmental attributes and end-of-life policies at 47 quick service restaurants and beverage, consumer packaged goods, and grocery companies. Our survey and related research were designed to recognize initiatives taken by companies to use environmentally preferable materials in manufacturing packaging, to use high levels of recycled content, to design materials to be recycled or composted, and to encourage proactive policies and practices that would significantly increase recycling or composting of postconsumer packaging.