Taking Steps to Recycle Packaging Waste

I’ve come to the realization that we cannot live without packaging. But I do concern myself with where packaging goes after I have used it. Many of us actively recycle our food packaging at home, at restaurants, parks and other public places. With many consumers having recycling infrastructure systems in their local neighborhoods, plastic, paper and glass packaging can be processed to produce new packaging and other second life products.

Currently, 94 percent of U.S. residents living in communities with a population more than 125,000 have recycling programs available to them. Of this 94 percent, 73 percent have curbside recycling. However, not all packaging gets recycled and can end up in our Municipal Solid Waste (MSW) stream or other undesirable places. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reports that about 25.8 percent of all MSW is recycled, per their most recent report. While recycling 68 million tons of waste is nothing to scoff at, it would be great if our recycling rates could go higher.

While increased and convenient access to recycling systems and facilities would help increase our recycling rates, we thought we’d talk to the “pro-recycling” organization, Keep America Beautiful, to learn more about the role consumers and the food industry can play in helping to reduce waste, increase recycling and support packaging sustainability efforts. 

Here are highlights from our Q&A with Keep America Beautiful:

Q: What can you tell consumers about recycling rates for paper, plastics and cans? How do consumers positively or negatively impact these rates?

A: We have less newsprint in the [recycling] stream today, so there is more recycling of corrugated cardboard for mail order. Another shift in the industry is “.” Many packages have been redesigned to use less material but remain just as strong. This is called lightweighting and it means redesigning a package to use less material, which also tends to make it weigh less. So as we lightweight our packaging, we need to recycle more individual containers to get the same weight and we need consumers to recycle more just to keep up with recycling rates of the past.

Q: What should consumers know about how to be “proactive recyclers?”

A: Markets exist for recycled materials but how to get them there without contamination is key. A single-stream recycling program doesn’t mean that everything goes in the bin. Consumers need to know what their individual recycling program will and will not accept. For items that cannot go in the bin, there are often other opportunities to recycle (e.g., clothes, electronics and plastic bags). If packaging is contaminated with food waste, they need to be rinsed/cleaned, or thrown in the trash.

Q: What are some things the food/beverage/consumer goods companies are doing to limit waste and positively impact recycling rates? 

A: Lightweighting reduces waste, but makes recycling more challenging. The food industry is also investing heavily in better packaging design (for recycling) and better labeling to improve recycling rates.

Q: Are there are other consumer-friendly tips or info you’d like to share about recycling, municipal solid waste or the future of our recycling stream? 

A: Consumers should research what’s available in their local system and pay attention to what can go in the recycling bin in their specific municipality. They should also eliminate contamination in packaging before recycling. No one should be a “wishful” recycler – if in doubt, throw it out! 

Closed-loop recycling (recycling process where post-consumer waste is collected, recycled and used to make new products) is good for businesses because it supports jobs, reduces energy and fosters sustainable communities.

Final Thoughts

We appreciate these insights on recycling from Keep America Beautiful. They confirmed our sustainability view that conserving natural resources is a great way to support our environment, but so is reusing packaging materials via recycling. As companies look for ways to reduce packaging production, we should also consider diligently recycling our packaging after each meal, drink, and everything in between.

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