The US Environmental Protection Agency recently released figures indicating the nature of the country's waste stream is "evolving." People are generating less solid refuse per capita, and more packaging is being recycled (51.5% in 2012, up from just 38% in 2000).
In addition to boosted recycling rates, Thom Metzger, director of communications for the National Waste and Recycling Association, credits improved packaging design and construction for the improved waste profile.
“Source reduction of packages has been accelerating because of the economics related to manufacturing, transportation and retail,” he said. “Product manufacturers and retailers are looking to reduce their costs, and they can find significant savings by reducing the materials necessary for packaging.”
Further, Metzger said, lighter food packaging leads to other benefits for manufacturers, retailers, and the planet.
“Lighter packaging also reduces transportation/fuel costs, and that smaller packaging takes up less shelf space, allowing stores to increase the number of products that they can display,” he said.
Metzger said while state and local governments, as well as private-sector recycling providers, can have an impact on recycling rates, taking steps to increased recycling and reduced material usage are in the best interest of food producers and container manufacturers.
“Food companies and packaging producers, who want to succeed in this sort of competitive environment, will continue to innovate with their products and look for better, more compact, and lighter packaging,” he said.
There are a few barriers to attaining higher recycling rates, Metzger points out. These include perception in some sectors that recycling is too complicated, lack of access to proper recycling infrastructure, and insufficient awareness about the importance of recycling.
One way to lift the food packaging recycling rate closer to 100% is to continuing to spread the message. Public works departments and private waste collectors can engage in constituent relations; consumer packaged goods are also doing their part with on-pack messaging initiatives, such as the How2Recycle label (www.how2recycle.info).
“The success of recycling depends on the marketability of the materials that are collected,” Metzger added. “It’s important we educate people about what generally can and cannot be recycled to avoid contamination in the recycling stream.”