Look around your home, office, or workplace. Take a closer look at the kitchens, bathrooms, and storage closets. How many consumable products do you spot without the universal recycling symbol (?) on their packaging? It’s a simple rule: if the package lacks the recycling symbol, it is not recyclable.

Since February 2023, the necessary technologies have been available for manufacturers of nearly all everyday consumable goods to produce products with 100% recyclable wrapping and packaging materials. In fact, most of these technologies have been in existence since the 1990s.

Yet, there remains a significant number of products packaged in non-recyclable materials. Two primary factors contribute to this trend. Firstly, many manufacturers find it more cost-effective to continue using non-recyclable materials for production and packaging. Secondly, the administrators responsible for product design and packaging may underestimate the level of concern among consumers regarding this issue.

When people shop, whether in-store or online, their attention is typically focused on the products themselves, rather than the packaging materials. Consumers want assurance that their purchases will reach them undamaged, whether from a physical store or a warehouse. If the product packaging is recyclable, people are more likely to recycle it. However, if it is not recyclable, it is often discarded. The recyclability of packaging materials is typically not a prominent consideration for shoppers.

crop person using recycling app on smartphone against coffee
Photo by Sarah Chai on Pexels.com

Every item we discard eventually finds its way to landfills. In recent years, numerous government agencies, colleges, universities, and environmental organizations worldwide have conducted extensive studies on pollution in land and bodies of water. While precise pollutant levels can be determined in various locations, identifying the specific origins of each contaminant proves to be a complex task. Different groups of climatologists, oceanographers, and biologists employ diverse methodologies to trace the sources of pollutants, contaminants, and particulate matter found in soil, groundwater, and bodies of water. Consequently, ongoing research studies yield varying figures and conclusions regarding the percentage of pollutants attributed to non-recyclable product packaging.

Instead of delving into specific figures and divergent methodologies employed in different studies, I will adopt an approach less frequently utilized by journalists when addressing this issue.

Witnessing the Transformations: A Glimpse into the Past and Present

Take a moment to search for photographs of your local area, workplace, or a place you’ve enjoyed traveling to. Seek out images that are at least 50 years old and compare them to present-day pictures. Popular search engines’ “images” feature can yield numerous results within seconds. Additionally, history museums, historical societies, or local archives, often housed in public libraries, can provide access to more vintage photos. Observe how much vacant land existed half a century ago and how extensively natural woodlands, deserts, or swamps have been developed since then.

The effects of the past 50 years of development have become increasingly undeniable. The transformation is visible in the changing landscape.

Consider recent events that highlight the impact of human activities on our environment. In the summer of 2020, some of the most devastating wildfires in recent history ravaged several western states in the U.S. The summer of 2021 witnessed record-breaking temperatures in various locations throughout the western states and provinces of Canada since accurate weather records began in 1869. Last summer, in 2022, several European countries faced the most severe drought they had experienced since the 16th century. Furthermore, the ongoing winter of 2023 has become the warmest winter ever recorded in North America.

 The Population Division of the Department of Economic and Social Affairs of the United Nations Secretariat estimates that the population of the world will approach 9.2 billion by 2040, the population will exceed 9.7 billion people by 2050 and they estimate that the population of the word will exceed 10.8 billion people by 2080.  

A Step Towards Sustainable Land and Oceans

The UN Biodiversity Conference (COP15) held in December 2022 resulted in a landmark decision. Representatives from countries party to the 1992 UN Convention on Biological Diversity reached a consensus: by 2030, 30% of the world’s land and 30% of its oceans will be dedicated to preserving natural ecosystems.

The “30 by 30” goal, arising from COP15, has garnered extensive coverage in publications worldwide. However, few articles have highlighted the potential for exceeding this target if managed wisely. The preservation of land for reforestation and habitat protection could extend beyond the stated 30%.

An overlooked factor in land preservation is recyclable product packaging. Legislation promoting the use of recyclable packaging materials by companies could significantly contribute to preserving additional land. By making it cost-effective for businesses to adopt recyclable packaging, governments at the federal and state levels could designate more areas as parkland and wilderness.

As the global population approaches 9 billion and eventually 10 billion, the need for expanded housing, infrastructure, and industrial facilities is evident. This expansion will inevitably lead to the creation of new landfills in nearly every country. However, the extent of land required for landfills remains within our control.

Increasing the recycling of product packaging would reduce the amount of plastic and other materials destined for landfills. Consequently, this would free up land that could be potentially conserved as natural areas or parklands, contributing to a more sustainable future.

In the coming centuries, the world will witness the creation of more landfills. Yet, through proactive measures like recycling, we can manage their size and mitigate their impact on the environment.

clear glass bottle with white cap
Photo by Stas Knop on Pexels.com

A Hidden Benefit of Recyclable Product Packaging

While product packaging was not a focal point of the recent COP15 summit, there is a critical connection between packaging and the potential for preserving lands and oceans as wilderness and wildlife areas. Legislation that promotes the cost-effective use of recyclable packaging materials can not only reduce landfill usage but also minimize the need for harvesting and mining new raw materials.

As the global population approaches 9 billion and eventually reaches 10 billion, the consumption of materials like cardboard, paper, glass, plastics, and metals will continue to rise. By utilizing recycled sources for product packaging materials, the demand for harvesting trees for cardboard, mining metals for cans, or drilling for fossil fuels to create plastics can be reduced. Even mining processes with lower pollution levels still disrupt forests, swamps, and deserts that could otherwise be preserved for habitat protection.

Sustainable Manufacturing of Recyclable Packaging

The recyclability of product packaging stems from the use of environmentally friendly chemicals in the manufacturing process. While there is no perfect method for producing recyclable packaging, as some materials still involve the use of toxic chemicals, legislation aimed at cost-effective adoption of recyclable packaging materials can significantly reduce the overall toxicity when packaging is recycled.

It is essential to recognize that implementing such legislation will not solve all the pollution-related problems associated with packaging materials. However, the amount of toxic chemicals used significantly decreases when packaging materials are recycled compared to when they are created from newly sourced raw materials.

By encouraging the widespread adoption of recyclable packaging, we can simultaneously address the issue of pollution and promote the conservation of natural resources. It is a small but crucial step toward building a more sustainable future.

What Can You Do About This Issue?

city building photography capital
Photo by Christian Catamo on Pexels.com

Regular readers of the Afterimage Review section of this publication are familiar with my concluding statement in articles, encouraging readers to write to or call politicians and candidates to express the importance of specific issues. Regarding the issue of product packaging, I not only urge you to contact politicians and candidates, but also to reach out to the companies manufacturing the products you use if you notice non-recyclable packaging. Corporate administrators understand that ignoring customer concerns is detrimental to their business; they are aware that disregarding consumer input may lead to a decline in product sales.

Most politicians currently holding federal, state, and local offices, as well as potential candidates, are well aware of the points mentioned in this article. The reasons why laws promoting the cost-effective use of recyclable packaging materials are not enacted vary. Some politicians may not believe this issue is significant to voters in their constituencies, while others may simply lack personal concern about the matter.

There are several ways to address this issue. If businesses have conducted studies demonstrating financial losses in switching to recyclable packaging materials, the federal government could offer tax subsidies to offset the transition costs. Alternatively, the government could mandate the use of certain recyclable materials for product packaging or impose limitations on non-recyclable materials like certain plastics, glass, metals, and paper.

Although progress is being made, the extent of recyclable packaging varies across countries. Technological advancements in recent years have made it less expensive for companies worldwide to utilize recyclable materials in packaging. Some countries have laws requiring recyclable packaging materials, supported by government tax credits, which make it cost-effective for companies. Despite these developments, there are still numerous products packaged in non-recyclable materials, both in the US and globally.

Even if the majority of products are distributed in recyclable packaging, it becomes futile if people do not make the effort to recycle the wrappers and packaging materials. Unfortunately, many recyclable materials end up in landfills worldwide due to the lack of seriousness or awareness about recycling in certain countries. Increasing the use of recyclable packaging materials must be accompanied by widespread public awareness campaigns. It is crucial for people of all ages, from preschool children to centenarians, to understand the urgency of responsible resource management.

Implementing a combination of public service announcements on television and radio, billboards, advertisements in public transit, newspapers, and magazines can raise awareness about the need for recycling. Additionally, I recommend incorporating recycling lessons into science classes, where not already included, through decisions made by school boards.

By taking these steps, we can collectively contribute to minimizing waste, conserving resources, and building a more sustainable future.

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Scott Benowitz

Scott Benowitz is a staff writer for Afterimage Review. He holds an MSc in Comparative Politics from The London School of Economics & Political Science and a B.A. in International Studies from Reed...

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