The Environmental Impact of Plastic Waste

Plastic packaging waste usually ends up in landfill or is incinerated. Plastic takes hundreds of years to biodegrade, and it breaks down into harmful microplastics which negatively affect reproduction, growth and also cause organ damage.

Landfill has a devastating impact on the environment: it destroys wildlife habitats with its physical presence and toxins leak into the soil disrupting land and water biodiversity as well as polluting human drinking water supplies. Landfill also creates greenhouse gas emissions (e.g., carbon dioxide and methane) which contribute to climate change. Further habitat destruction is caused by fires that occur from the accumulation of toxic gases. Plastic and microplastics end up in the ocean, killing marine wildlife.

Both landfill and incineration have a negative effect on air quality, which affects local public health, e.g., an increased risk of respiratory, nervous system and gastrointestinal disorders as well as life-threatening conditions such as cancer.

Today’s consumers will not tolerate extraneous plastic waste

Today’s eco-conscious consumers are very aware of the widespread harmful effects of plastic waste and will no longer tolerate single use plastic packaging. Given climate change is one of the biggest challenges humanity is facing, it is heartening that today’s consumers are driving a behavioural shift when it comes to packaging. Consumers expect businesses to at least be aware of their carbon footprint and ideally to be utilising sustainable packaging options and aiming to be as close to carbon-neutral as possible. Recent research found that half of consumers would happily pay more for products with environmentally friendly packaging.

What is a carbon footprint?

A carbon footprint can be associated with an individual, organisation, product, or event, and it measures the impact of behaviour on global warming. It comprises the total amount of greenhouse gases (including carbon dioxide and methane) that are directly or indirectly emitted. Carbon footprints are usually expressed as the weight of carbon dioxide emissions (in tonnes), produced per year; there are several online calculators that calculate a carbon footprint in tonnes of carbon dioxide per year.

What is the carbon footprint of various types of packaging?

Carbon footprints take into account the resources used to create the material used for packaging, the emissions associated with transport and storage and what happens to the waste. Creation of cardboard uses more energy than plastic, produces more waste materials and can result in deforestation if it is not sustainably sourced. cardboard is also heavier to transport than plastic meaning higher fuel consumption. Although recycling of cardboard is more energy efficient than plastic (due to lower water consumption), quite a lot of cardboard is unable to be recycled, for instance contaminated cardboard (e.g., with grease/food). In landfill, cardboard breaks down a lot more quickly than plastic, however, incineration of both produces toxic fumes.

How has the introduction of the Plastic Packaging Tax affected businesses?

A new tax on plastic packaging came into effect in the UK On the 1 April 2022: the UK Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT). This offers companies and manufacturers an economic incentive to use less plastic packaging. Although it may seem like the introduction of this law is to collect more tax revenue, its primary goal is to encourage manufacturers to use less plastic. This tax affects any large businesses that manufacture or import plastic packaging (there is an exemption for those manufacturing or importing under 10 tonnes of packaging per year). PPT applies to all packaging containing under 30% recycled material and is levied at £200 per tonne.

Benefits of reducing the carbon footprint of your business

Many companies are moving away from the linear model of make/use/dispose towards a circular economy model that involves reusing and recycling. Reducing your carbon footprint can future-proof your business, encourage new customers and also attract investments. Many customers expect companies to be environmentally aware, so even small steps taken to improve the carbon footprint reflect positively on your brand. Picking a measurable target that consumers can easily understand (e.g., halving your carbon emissions or achieving net zero emissions by a set date) ensures your actions are measurable.

How to reduce the carbon footprint of your business by rethinking your packaging strategy

Rethinking your packaging strategy could also reduce your business costs. There are numerous costs associated with packaging such as transport, delivery, storage and waste disposal charges, and the cost of refunds for damaged goods or returns postage. Answering the following questions can help you reassess your packaging strategy:

– Is your packaging stored in your own warehouse or off site?

– Is your packaging design as streamlined and fit for purpose as it could be?

– Could your packaging material be more environmentally friendly?

– Could your packaging workspace be redesigned?

– Is your pack rate as high as possible?

– Have you assessed whether packaging machinery would increase your efficiency?

Sustainable packaging options

Compostable packaging is packaging that is made from plant-based, recyclable materials that will degrade naturally when left in the environment, producing zero harmful toxins. Examples of fully compostable packaging include cardboard boxes, gardening twine and paper bubble wrap. Shrinkwrap films are no longer entirely made of plastic; compostable shrinkwrap is made from ethically sourced plant-based materials such as sugarcane or corn starch while remaining safe for use in food packaging. Environmentally friendly shrinkwrap has an even smaller carbon footprint than cardboard as it is generated from renewable resources, breaks down quickly and is easy to recycle. It also takes up very little space compared with cardboard packaging.

The future of packaging

Given consumer and business awareness will only increase over time, it does seem that there is light at the end of the tunnel when it comes to reducing plastic waste and preserving our planet for future generations.


Also Read:12 Powerful and Interesting Facts About Environment

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