Today, we are in the midst of an efficiency revolution. From beauty products to packaged food and beverages, efficient design and function (i.e. “lightweighting” packaging by moving from perhaps a glass jar to a plastic sachet) have become dominating influences in the consumer products market. It makes complete sense from a resource perspective: less material used in product packaging equals less waste in landfills. While efficiency in this manner can be a great short-term sustainability strategy, the true long-term implications of these efficiency movements need also to be evaluated, especially lightweighting packaging.

Lightweight packaging

This trend has become increasingly popular with food and beverage product manufacturers for several years. As far as material conservation and resulting waste is concerned, lightweighting is a fantastic form of source reduction that can lower costs and increase production efficiencies, while reducing the volume of waste sent to landfills. This has been a key focus of many major consumer product companies and retailers.

Despite the great intention, lightweighting is not a perfect sustainable solution as it may appear. For instance, lightweighting can reduce the value of post-consumer packaging materials, which limits the economic incentive to recycle them. Many of the lightweight alternatives on the market today are almost universally considered non-recyclable. Multilayered pouches, for example, can be significantly lighter than paper or plastic containers, but packaging with seven, eight, sometimes even nine layers can be incredibly difficult to properly process and recycle.

My company, TerraCycle, has first-hand experience with some of these problems. In 2012, we partnered with Kenco, a leading producer of instant and ground coffee in the UK. The partnership developed on the heels of Kenco’s transition away from its glass jar package (highly recyclable) and toward a 97% lighter pouch package (non-recyclable). To ensure the lightweight packaging was kept out of landfills, Kenco had to partner with TerraCycle to develop a recycling programme.

Lightweight packaging does make sense in certain circumstances, particularly in markets with low recycling rates. For example, assume a PET bottle weighs 20 grams. If the rate of PET recycling in the US is approximately 30%, about 14 grams of every bottle would be sent to landfill as waste, while 6 grams would be recovered via recycling. If the bottle is replaced with a sachet or pouch that weighs something like 3 grams (but is non-recyclable), only 3 grams of waste is sent to landfill (saving 11 grams from our landfills). For lightweight packaging to continue making sense like this, recycling rates have to remain low. But what do we do when recycling rates increase? And should lightweighting considerations change in markets that have very high recycling rates, like Japan or Germany?

Subsidies and taxes

So what is the proper solution? First, we need EPR (extended producer responsibility) legislation that makes manufacturers more responsible for the recyclability of their packaging. But instead of legislation with a flat tax per piece of packaging (regardless of recyclability), we should be providing subsidies to manufacturers that use highly recyclable materials like aluminum, while taxing those that use non-recyclable flex packs and multilayered pouches. The Green Dot (Der Grüne Punkt), for example, is a European, industry-operated licensing system that communicates on-package if a manufacturer facilitates or contributes to the collection, sorting and recycling process of the product or package. The licensing fee paid by the manufacturer includes estimated costs of recycling and collection, which incentivizes reduced packaging waste and sustainable package design.

Next, we can lower the incentive to dispose via landfill further by charging consumers and businesses for landfill access, while providing a subsidy for recycling. If we can make recycling more attractive, we can reduce the need for lightweight packaging in the first place.

Lightweighting won’t be an issue at all if we can forgo packaging altogether. The Original Unverpackt supermarket in Germany might be a sign of things to come – instead of pre-packaged goods, consumers bring their own containers and package their food themselves. Less food waste is generated, and packaging waste disappears altogether.

Thinking long-term

Lightweight packaging can be effective as a short-term solution to reduce waste but can quickly become unsustainable as global recycling rates improve. A better solution is to pressure manufacturers to develop product packaging made with sustainable, perhaps even renewable raw materials that we can reuse or recycle. We want to keep our raw materials in the production loop as long as possible, and non-recyclable lightweight packaging does not help to facilitate this.

Short-term waste reduction strategies can certainly be effective in limited markets and circumstances, but we are on the wrong path if we think these are the areas that will solve our long-term sustainability concerns. To ensure sustainable development moving forward into the 21st century, we must remain farsighted.

Author: Tom Szaky is the Founder and CEO of TerraCycle

Image: A customer fills up a bag with nuts at the Original Unverpackt (Original Unpacked) zero-waste grocery store in Berlin’s Kreuzberg district September 16, 2014. REUTERS/Fabrizio Bensch