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Changing the Culture of Excess [Packaging]

Images credit: Puma

Some time ago I was on a business trip, and an acquaintance presented me with a box of cookies as a welcome gift. It was beautifully presented, featuring a large and beautifully intricate bow. I thanked my companion and expressed that I would open it later.

Later in my hotel room and hungry for a snack, I pulled at the bow to unravel a layer of ornamental wrapping swaddling a basket. The basket was cradling a box enveloped in paper, the box containing decorative packing confetti, which nested exactly three (3!) individually wrapped cookies encased in colored cellophane. The cookies were each a very small fraction of the overall size of the package — a handful of food product enveloped by layers upon layers of packaging with different material components.

While this was a gift, excessive packaging is one of the most preventable sources of waste, and most of it ends up in the landfill. Often taking up more than half of a product’s unit volume, some studies indicate that product packaging accounts for nearly half of all household waste. Though not a new problem; companies including Amazon have recently come under fire for not only over-packing their items, but delivering single orders in separate parcels. Yet, consumers putting pressure on companies to reduce their environmental impact and “go green” continue to demand products made with unsustainable packaging practices.

The culture of convenience is a huge driver for the trend of over-packaging. Warehouse clubs such as Costco, BJ’s and Sam’s Club, for example, often sell a variety of items packaged in individual, single-serve shapes in bulk quantity. Companies and manufacturers are motivated by driving consumers to their product by ease of use, and ease of shopping; these members-only chains require that the products sold in their stores are packaged this way to create a certain retail experience.

One of TerraCycle’s longtime partners, MOM Brands (Malt-O-Meal Company), rejects the common cereal packaging setup, instead packaging its cereal brands in a re-sealable plastic bag that creates 75 percent less packaging waste than comparably sized cereal boxes. What’s more, MOM Brands’ cereal bags can be recycled through TerraCycle through its sponsored program, which also accepts plastic cereal box liners from conventional cereal packaging.

Taking a look at the functions of standard packaging alongside the practices of companies that package more sustainably may reveal ways to reduce waste in this preventable stream. Rice Select is a line of rice, couscous, orzo and pasta products packaged in rectangular plastic jars that ensure consistency and quality from shipping to shelf. Not only do the jars maintain product integrity during transport and delivery, the PET (polyethylene terephthalate) plastic jars are reusable and recyclable by municipal collection.

Marketing, information delivery and merchandising were not sacrificed in Puma’s elimination of the shoebox with its Clever Little Bag, a reusable bag with cardboard inserts that hold the shoes in place. Recognizable as ever in a retail setting, the design of the bag sits well on a shelf and stands out with the same visual delivery of information. In addition to reducing material (the bag uses 65 percent less cardboard than the standard shoebox) and shipping costs, Puma created a powerful branding statement in “reducing its paw print.”

Moving away from excessive packaging doesn’t have to undermine convenience or the ability to maintain product freshness, particularly for food. Many fruit and vegetable producers and marketers package pre-cut or semi-prepared goods for convenience, but some go so far as to package a whole banana or orange in plastic films and containers when they have their own natural, protective outer covering! Fulfilling consumer requirements and need for food product quality, MOM Brands’ re-sealable bag is also convenient in that it is easy to open and close, takes up little space, extends shelf life and maintains product freshness.

Simple, powerful solutions for reducing packaging waste lie in finding more efficient ways to meet consumer demands. The adoption of manufacturing practices that satisfy marketing and quality requirements without over-packaging goods would be a great and necessary shift for more sustainable production standards.


Tom Szaky is founder and CEO of TerraCycle Inc., a leader in eco-capitalism and upcycling. In 2001, Tom left Princeton University as a freshman to launch a worm-poop-based fertilizer company. In 2007, the company expanded to start collecting difficult-to-recycle… [Read more about Tom Szaky]


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