Report: Food Industry Needs to Take Responsibility for Its Packaging Waste

Starbucks Coffee CupsNearly a third of the United States’ solid waste stream is product packaging – Capri Sun drink pouches, Starbucks coffee cups or  Arrowhead water bottles – according to nonprofits As You Sow and the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC). But Americans only recycle an estimated 51 percent of these packaging materials, the organizations say, and less than 14 percent of all plastic packaging – the fastest-growing type of product packaging.

And leading companies in the fast food, beverage and consumer goods/grocery industries are falling short when it comes to addressing the environmental impacts of their packaging, the two groups say, releasing their findings in a joint report last week.

The study, Waste and Opportunity 2015: Environmental Progress and Challenges in Food, Beverage and Consumer Goods Packaging, reviews the packaging practices and policies of 47 major companies and evaluates them by four standards: reducing waste at the source of the packaging (using reusable packaging or choosing packaging with less material), using recycled-content material, designing packaging for recyclability, and supporting recycling collection efforts for packaging materials.

Not one of the 47 companies surveyed earned the report’s highest ranking, “Best Practices.” But six companies were able to achieve the second-best standing, “Better Practices,” in the fast food and beverage sectors: Starbucks, McDonald’s, New Belgium Brewing, Coca-Cola, Nestlé Waters North America and PepsiCo.

Starbucks, which demonstrated the most leadership in its packaging practices in the quick-service restaurant sector, incorporates 10 percent recycled-content paper in its coffee cups and is the only large fast food brand that consistently provides customers with in-store recycling options. The coffee giant adopted the lofty goal of serving 25 percent of its beverages in reusable mugs or tumblers but had to reduce that target to 5 percent, after employees were not aggressively promoting the reusable service ware program, the report finds.

McDonald’s, the other “leader” among fast food chains, according to the report, uses more than 30 percent post-consumer recycled-content material in its paperboard sandwich boxes.

Among the top-performing beverage companies, Pepsi is the only brand to have used a set amount (10 percent) of recycled PET plastic in its bottles for the last 10 years, and Nestlé Waters committed to using 50 percent recycled plastic in all of its Arrowhead half-liter bottles.

Honest Tea, owned by Coca-Cola, plans to reduce packaging waste by switching some of their “Capri Sun-type” plastic pouch packaging to more recyclable aseptic cartons. The report’s author raises concerns about the proliferation of this flexible, laminated plastic pouch packaging for goods from dried fruit and dog food to detergent: It is currently not recyclable anywhere in the world.

New Belgium Brewing was the only brewer that has entered the national debate on extended producer responsibility, supporting companies taking financial responsibility for the collection and waste management of their product packaging.

Quick-service restaurant and beverage companies that received the lowest ranking in the survey — for showing little to no leadership on packaging sustainability — include: Arby’s, Quizno’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Jack in the Box, Dairy Queen, Domino’s Pizza, Papa John’s Pizza, Heineken, MillerCoors, Boston Beer and Red Bull.

The report did not assign grades to the consumer goods and grocery companies it studied – from Campbell Soup and Clorox to Target and Whole Foods – due to the complexity of this market sector. But the study did note some significant commitments to reducing packing and finding reusable alternatives for transportation and stocking packaging. Walmart has cut packaging across its global supply chain by 5 percent, while Unilever has promised to slash the weight of its packaging by a third by 2020.

Despite these modest accomplishments, As You Sow and NRDC say that the quick-service restaurant, beverage and consumer goods/grocery industries have a long way to go before we truly make a dent in the rising tide of product packaging clogging our landfills, oceans and waterways. The dismal amount of recycled-content material in packaging, the difficulty to recycle food-soiled packaging and Capri Sun-type pouch packaging, and failure of most companies to take responsibility for the waste they create are just some of the barriers to reducing the toll product packaging takes on the planet, they say.

“Single-use food and beverage packaging is a prime component of the plastic pollution in our oceans and waterways, which kills and injures marine life and poses a potential threat to human health,” says Darby Hoover, report project editor and NRDC senior resource specialist, in a statement. “Companies have an opportunity and an obligation to curb this pollution. Better packaging design and improved support and adoption of recycling are key to turning the tide on this unnecessary waste.”

Image credit: Flickr/Ruben Schade

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for Bay Area cities and counties. Connect with Alexis on Twitter at @alexispetru

Alexis Petru

Passionate about both writing and sustainability, Alexis Petru is freelance journalist and communications consultant based in the San Francisco Bay Area whose work has appeared on Earth911, Huffington Post and Prior to working as a writer, she coordinated environmental programs for various Bay Area cities and counties for seven years. She has a degree in cultural anthropology from UC Berkeley.

2 responses

  1. While I appreciate the information from these studies, they should also grade companies for choosing to use compostable materials. This would indicate leadership by the manufacturers. Using recyclable materials merely flows the responsibility to the consumer, whom we know to be rather irresponsible.

  2. Actually the report looked at compostability as well as recyclability. I agree – making recyclable or compostable packaging places responsibility on the consumer. That’s why the report also reviewed if companies were supporting collection efforts for the packaging (putting recycling/composting bins at their stores, funding recycling awareness campaigns, supporting EPR policies, etc.).

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