Earth Day 2018 Special: Part 4 – Packaging
We believe in making sustainability decisions that last longer than we do, which is why the subject of packaging – something that has a useful life of days, but can last hundreds or even thousands of years afterwards, is an important topic to highlight. Plastic Packaging also happens to be this year’s official Earth Day theme.
Packaging goes hand in hand with transport and retail
Every time food is stored, transported or transacted there’s packaging involved. Packaging can help handling, shelf life, cleanliness and ease of measuring. The average American produces over 1,500 lbs. of waste a year, and 69% of that (by volume) is food packaging. Packaging waste has both a production impact in terms of the material (paper, plastic) itself – as well as an end-of-life impact – like ending up in a landfill, being incinerated, or finding its way into the ocean and waterways.
By 2050 it is estimated that we will have more plastic in our oceans than we do fish. Scary. Although most of our packaging goes to landfill, and some (<25%) is recycled, massive quantities also end up in our oceans. Here’s what one sea captain had to say about the Great Pacific Garbage Patch:
It seemed unbelievable, but I never found a clear spot. In the week it took to cross the subtropical high, no matter what time of day I looked, plastic debris was floating everywhere: bottles, bottle caps, wrappers, fragments. Months later, after I discussed what I had seen with the oceanographer Curtis Ebbesmeyer, perhaps the world’s leading expert on flotsam, he began referring to the area as the ‘eastern garbage patch.
Plastic and other forms of packaging continually wash up on beaches around the globe because of ineffective waste management systems and other forms of societal negligence.
Not only is plastic in our oceans an eye sore, but it’s also a health hazard. Especially for seafood eaters. A recent study found that fish can consume up to 246 pieces of microplastic a year, and if it’s not expelled (much isn’t) then it ends up on your plate. Yum.
Recent research also suggests that zinc oxide nanoparticles that line the inside of a lot of food packaging may have adverse effects on human health, specifically the intestinal capacity to absorb nutrients. It can often be difficult to quantify the exact effects from this kind of exposure, but you can still avoid taking the risk by buying fresh, local produce instead of canned and bagged vegetables and meat.
Recycling stream efficiency
A major impediment to the sustainability of plastics use, if that’s even a possibility, is the huge inefficiency in global recycling processes. According to a 2017 study, about 8.3 billion metric tons of plastic has been produced by humans. Of this 8.3 billion tons, it’s estimated that only 2 billion tons are still in circulation– meaning the other 6.3 billion tons have simply become waste. Out of that, only about 9% has been recycled and even less has been incinerated. The rest of all that plastic waste end up in either landfills or, as previously mentioned, the oceans. This is due in large part to an ineffectiveness of industrial processors to make recycling efficient and cost effective, but also because of consumers and producers not utilizing enough recycled content. Education is also a big player here, as consumers can not recycle efficiently if they’re not sure of how and what to place in which bin.
What You Can Do To Help
Packaging is near impossible to avoid, but we can all do our part. Here are our top tips for reducing your plastic footprint this Earth Day (and beyond!):
- Eat local. The less distance food has to travel the less packaging is required for handling and transport
- Eat seasonally. This kind of goes hand in hand with eating locally. If you eat food that is out of season where you live, then by definition it must have travelled a long way to get to you. No more strawberries in the middle of winter!!
- Take your own bags. We recently backed a really cool project on Kickstarter called the Nanobag, as an example, but there are plenty of others!
- Shop at a packaging-free store. A simple google search in your area will probably find at least a few.
- Say NO to plastic bottles. There is perhaps no more a ridiculous use of plastic than putting water in it. Buy a re-usable metal or glass container, like those from our giveaway partners Joco Cups!
- Chose repurposed products. Like one of these gorgeous bags from People For Urban Progress.
In Case You Were Wondering…
We are by no means perfect when it comes to packaging and waste, but since I’m sure you are wondering – here are some of the things we’re working on with respect to waste and packaging:
- Recycled cardboard packaging. In the printing industry recycled materials usually cost more, because the inconsistency of their texture makes them a little more difficult to handle. We pay extra for our packaging in order for it to be made from recycled material.
- Biodegradable plastic. The plastic we use for our World’s Smallest Garden is made from PLA – a biodegradable corn starch based material. Although we believe this to be a better choice than other options, it does present its own end-of-life challenges. We are currently working with our manufacturer to investigate other options with the objective of lowering our environmental footprint.
- Re-use of bottles. Most of our competitors sell their grow kits with a custom designed and built reservoir. This might be in the form of a mason jar or an injection-molded piece of plastic. Although opinions may differ on their aesthetics, we encourage consumers to repurpose an old bottle instead.