5 “Lightweighted” Items that Make a Heavy Environmental Impact
“Lightweighted” is a new term for me, but turns out to make a big difference when it comes to package waste. When it comes to living sustainably, less is more. Setting out to buy less, consume less and waste less often translates into a reduced carbon footprint, offsetting demand for the goods and services that put strain on the earth’s finite resources. However, a smaller package doesn’t always equal a smaller environmental impact, as demonstrated by the trend of “lightweighted” consumer product packaging options.
In a nutshell, “lightweighting” is the practice of cutting down the amount of packaging material used to make it, or replacing it with a lighter weight alternative entirely (i.e. glass vs plastic); the average consumer will see this most often in the food and beverage market, which increasingly innovates to satisfy needs of convenience, function and novelty in today’s fast-paced culture.
But the trade-off of a smaller, lighter package is often one that is neither reusable nor recyclable, destined for landfill or incineration and the inevitable pollution of our natural ecosystems.
Here are 5 examples of common “lightweighted” food and beverage packaging items that are making a heavy environmental impact:
1. Plastic bottles
Once upon a time, beverages were delivered and bottled in durable, reusable, highly recyclable (albeit, heavy) glass. When high-density polyethylene (HDPE) was introduced in the early 1960s, the use of plastic to bottle beverages went from being an expensive technology into an affordable, economically viable practice. Plastic’s lightweight nature, relatively low production and transportation costs and resistance to breakage made them popular with manufacturers and customers.
Today, the food and beverage industry has almost completely replaced glass bottles with plastic bottles. While many plastic bottles are readily recyclable in most municipalities, they belong on this list because so little of this material is captured for recycling, and so many plastic bottles are, believe it or not, viewed as being disposable and tossed in the trash.
2. Modern cartons
We’ve come a long way from the patent of the “paper bottle,” the first milk carton featuring a folding paper box for holding milk. Nowadays, cartons are available in two categories – refrigerated (gable-top) and shelf-stable (or aseptic). The first type is comprised mostly of paper and can be processed by some municipal recycling facilities.
The second, not so much.
Multi-compositional packaging (like almond milk boxes) tends to get difficult-to-recycle, and carton technologies have evolved to feature various combinations of plastic, metal and paper, moisture barriers; a typical shelf-stable carton averages 74 percent paper, 22 percent plastic and 4 percent aluminum. Though the Carton Council recognized this problem and set out to increase access to carton recycling across the U.S., many consumers do not think cartons are recyclable.
3. Disposable add-ons
Speaking of cartons, the ones with the old-fashioned “gable top” are often given a modern upgrade with pour spouts and screw-top caps. Drink pouches (#4, coming up) will come with little straws, as will little juice boxes (a mini carton, really).
Though they are often comprised of a rigid, single-compositional plastic material, the various closures and fitments that give “lightweighted” items high functionality (i.e. straws, caps, spoons, etc.) are not recyclable through curbside collections due to their small size. These loose add-ons fall through the screeners at municipal recycling facilities and are missed for recovery.
A flexible plastic juice pouch is multi-compositional in nature and not recyclable in the current waste management infrastructure. The multi-layer films from which most pouches are comprised are often made up of several different plastics, which are difficult to recycle because these components require separating. Same goes for baby food pouches, performance nutrition packaging pouches and snack bags.
Today, one of the most extreme examples of “lightweighted” packaging is a small, thin, flexible plastic pouch-like item called a sachet. Think single-serving configurations of hot chocolate, coffee, juice packets and instant soup. Other consumables like laundry detergent and dish soap are also sold in sachets.
These single-use sachets are very inexpensive to make, which brings down cost for consumers, making them quite popular in many areas. However, these items also fall outside the scope of recyclability due to their small size, and are prone to end up in oceans and waterways.