Women of Plastic and Paper: A Debate Over Environmental Benefits Vs. Waste

The best conference panels are the ones that bring in professionals from different industries and sectors generally do not see eye to eye on various issues.  In the age of Flip cameras and YouTube, that may provide for uncomfortable moments that live forever in video, but let’s just get to the point.  If I want a love fest, I can have my friends and relatives over for an evening.  I don’t want to take a few days off of work, or even fly across the country, to sit in a conference room full of folks who nod their heads and say, “yes, we agree, and life is wonderful.”  It is the easy and comfortable route, but it also leads to collective yawns, and inspires many conference attendees to hang out at the corporate-sponsored coffee bar—or just skip the venue and play hookie.

So the Women in Green Forum got it right, especially during yesterday’s panel on consumer products and packaging.  The emphasis, I say, was on packaging.  The panel offered a balance of industry associations, manufacturers, and advocates.  Valid points were brought up on all sides, and due to time constraints, the discussion was not as vibrant as we would have liked, but thought provoking nonetheless.

One panelist was especially brave.  Ashley Carlson, the Director of Packaging of the American Chemistry Council’s Plastic Division bravely faced the crowd.  She admitted she was nervous, unnecessary because she shined.  While the WIGF was full of many professionals from all backgrounds, the reality for the ACC was that sending an employee to this event was about as kind as throwing a shih-tzu into a piranha pond–but Carlson stood her ground.  Carlson did bring up some valid points:  using plastics for packaging reducing shipping weight, which saves energy used in transportation.  Plastic has a role in keeping food fresher longer, reducing spoilage and therefore waste.  Most energy consumed by consumer packaged goods manufacturing is in the total product life cycle—only about 10% of the total energy is devoted to the actual packaging.  And just because your bag is bioplastic does not mean it is biodegradable:  that bioplastic cup or bag will not decompose if it ends up in a landfill.  Well, at least not in our lifetime and a few lifetimes after that.  So Carlson’s, and the ACC’s mantra, was that more recycling of plastic is the way to go—a fair argument.

Elisabeth Comere from Tetra Pak spoke next.  She represents a company that contains food products in about 170 nations, and in 2009 manufactured 145 billion packs.  Visit a supermarket in Europe, and you will see a showroom of Tetra Pak’s products—and they have a growing foothold in the North American market as well.  So how are Tetra Pak’s cartons eco-friendly?  Through a partnership with the Forest Stewardship Council, the Swedish-founded and Swiss-based firm are using products sourced from natural resources that are easily replenished, thanks to forestry programs that ensure careful maintenance of the lands on which the trees are raised.

Finally Heidi Sanborn, the executive director of the  California Product Stewardship Council, concluded the session.  She brought up a point many of us have not thought about because well, most of us have not been around that long.  In 1900, most of New York City’s landfill was from ash that was produced from cooking.  By 1960, 70% of landfill waste was from food.  And 40 years later, 75% of all waste was from manufactured products.  Plastic and paper have roles in that massive shift.

Clearly we are not going back to the days when food vendors trolled the streets selling fresh food products, which women spent most of their days preparing and cooking.  But Sanborn made the point that companies need to take a more active role in managing their products’ waste—government will not do it, and clearly consumers are not.

Personally, when a company or trade show association sponsors a study, it comes across to me as giving numbers that such organizations want their stakeholders to see.  So if anyone out there can show some good independent, third party data stating the case for or against plastic and paper consumption, bring it—the panel concluded yesterday, but the discussion will not stop anytime soon.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

5 responses

  1. Packaging is very controversial. For every issue there are two sides or opposite opinions. Many times all you hear is the negative aspects as that makes great copy. What people never hear is that packaging is integral to our lives. The very things you take for granted wouldn’t be available without packaging.
    The more societies evolve the more packaging they consume.

    Other countries want more consumer goods as their disposable income increases and packaging makes it possible. But I’m not blind to the problems the packaging industry faces. Part of it is our own fault as we do little to educate the consumer about the role of product packaging. We take it as a given not realizing or understanding the reasons behind consumer negativity. And it’s a huge problem. One that we have to understand and address realistically.

    That’s where the problem lies. It’s very complicated and most people only see the bad parts. Sure packaging contributes to the waste stream, and yes some things are over-packaged or hard to open but think through your day from the time you get up to your last bedtime snack. How many of those things could you use, do or accomplish without packaging?

    So lets think before we rant. Understand before we condemn product packaging as the bane of our existence. Plainly put for the most part you can’t have a product without a package. Most importantly, packaging is our friend not the enemy.

  2. The alternative you will fin nowhere is to avoid over packaging as much as possible. My family does that by avoiding bottled or boxed beverages, carryout containers, plastic bags and over packaged goods. This means that our recycled and waste piles have both decreased over the years. We have to realize that convenience is not good. We need to diversify our activities by cooking. After all, that deli sandwich or pasta dish can be prepared at home in ten minutes, which is probably less time than you spend standing in line and paying for them. As for the unavoidable plastic? We need to ban it from food altogether, and composting facilities need to be available everywhere for bio-plastics and food leftovers. Saving energy on transport and food protection are silly arguments. The pollution caused by plastics for hundreds of years make them more wasteful than any little energy saved.

  3. I left this same comment on your other post, but wanted to register here as well. In reference to your challenge to show data for or against plastic:

    I’d love to share our published research on the impacts of plastic pollution on the marine environment, a major externality that is conveniently left out of the conversations on plastic vs. paper. Quite simply: there will always be accidental loss of plastic to the environment. And when it enters the ocean, plastic waste is bioactive, meaning it will absorb pollutants such as PCBs, DDT, and other contaminants. Over 267 species of marine wildlife ingest plastic waste, including fish that humans eat directly, or fish are prey to fish that we eat. Plastic contains and absorbs pollutants – endocrine disruptors – that are entering the food chain through foraging fish. These are costs that we are all paying for in the long run. I’d be happy to discuss with you further, and even show you ocean samples from the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans from our recent expeditions – all full of plastic. More here: http://5gyres.org, see “Global Research”. Hope to speak with you further. Best, Anna

  4. While the accidentally million perhaps billions of tons of Plastic that is finding its way into the Ocean annually is a huge problem, this does not include the worldwide problem of toxins phthalates, BPA , and plasticizers leaching from plastic food & beverage containers into the packaged food which we ingest daily for our sustenance.

    Looks like this aspect was overlooked during the packaging panel.

    Join the movement to refuse single use and disposable plastics:


    Plastic: toxic for marine life, the oceans, wildlife, and terrestrial creatures including us.

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