The packaging problem and how to fix it

By Rachael Ridley 4 November 2020

How many pieces of packaging do you use every day? From this morning’s cereal box to the relaxing bottle of wine you might have with your dinner, there’s no doubt packaging has become a mainstay of modern life.

But what about the environmental impacts of our packaging addiction? Some types of packaging are better for our planet than others. Here’s how industry, workplaces, schools and individuals can all do their bit to create a future in balance with nature.

What can industry do?

Many industries are already making the shift from our current ‘take-make-dispose’ linear economic model to a ‘circular economy’. In this new model, greater focus is placed on the end of life of products and their packaging, so they are designed with sustainability in mind. This will ensure we reduce our reliance of virgin materials, keep valuable resources in circulation for as long as possible and dispose of materials in the most responsible way possible once they have reached their end of life.

In Australia, national sustainability targets for packaging have already been set. By the end of 2025:

  • all packaging should be reusable, recyclable or compostable

  • 70% of all plastic packaging should be recycled or composted

  • an average of 50% recycled content should be used across packaging

  • and problematic or unnecessary single-use plastic packaging should be phased out

Coca-Cola Australia is a great example of a company that is well on the way to hitting those targets. Last year, Coca-Cola Australia made the switch to 100% recycled plastic for all beverages under one litre, and recently it announced 100% recycled plastic will be extended to all frozen cups and lids. As a result of these initiatives, by the end of 2021 Coca-Cola Australia will have reduced its use of virgin plastic by over 40,000 tonnes since 2017. As a global leader in the beverage industry, this not only sets an exciting precedent for its industry, but it will also support the recycling industry by invigorating the market for recycled plastic.

What can workplaces and schools do?

Businesses, workplaces, schools and other organisations can all make a difference by improving how they manage their packaging waste and being more careful about what they buy. Here are some tips for reducing your packaging-related environmental impact:

  • Make sure you’ve hired a respected and trusted recycler. Check out our list of questions to ask your recycler on Business Recycling.

  • Make recycling easy by having lots of recycling bins for different waste types in high-traffic areas. Signage near bins to show what can and can’t be recycled is also proven to be effective. Visit Business Recycling to download our free signs.

  • Look out for products or packaging that are made with recycled content to close the recycling loop. For organisations that are buying products on a large scale, this can have a huge impact. For example, by switching to office paper that is made from 50-100% recycled content, this not only saves virgin resources and paper waste from going to landfill, but also reduces your carbon footprint. Planet Ark Paper is made from 100% recycled content and has recently removed the ream wrappers, meaning less packaging!

  • Raise money for your favourite charity with Container Deposit Schemes (CDS). Watch our webinar to learn from our expert panel how to turn containers into cash.

What can I do?

For individuals and households wanting to improve their environmental impact, our best suggestion is to follow the waste hierarchy whenever possible: reduce, reuse and then recycle. 

You can reduce your packaging consumption by avoiding single-use items like plastics bags and coffee cups, bringing reusable packaging such as water bottles with you and buying in bulk. Reusing packaging like plastic containers and glass jars will extend their life and get the most of out the materials and resources that went into making them.

When you do need to dispose of packaging, check for the Australasian Recycling Label (ARL) when you’re at the bin. It’s the only evidence-based label in Australia that tells you exactly how to dispose of each piece of the packaging. If it doesn’t have the ARL on it, you can always check what can and can’t be recycled in your local area by visiting RecyclingNearYou. This ensures we recycle right and reduce contamination in the recycling bin, which means we are less likely to lose valuable resources to landfill.

Another way to ensure you get the most out of the packaging you use is to take your eligible empty containers to a Container Deposit Scheme. Due to the clean waste stream, these containers are able to be turned into high-quality recycled materials. For the few areas in Australia where beverage cartons are not accepted in kerbside recycling, this offers those residents an opportunity to recycle their eligible cartons. These schemes are now active in all Australian states and territories, with Victoria and Tasmania soon to come.

Learn more about packaging recycling here.  

Rachael Ridley
Rachael manages the Business Recycling and Recycling Near You websites. Rachael joined Planet Ark in early 2019 after eight years working in media and publishing as a producer, editor and writer. Rachael loves using her skills in content creation and communication to instigate positive environmental behaviour change. Outside of work, Rachael enjoys spending time in nature, listening to music and patting dogs.