Everything consumers purchase has an environmental footprint from sourced materials to the end user, or consumer. The main focus lately of the zero waste movement has been the end-of-life of a package. So we asked the experts, is the zero waste movement the solution to climate change?
The zero waste movement is a global movement that has been around for about three decades. It started in Sweden when some people noticed that taking plastic out of the waste stream led to a large reduction in waste. The belief was that if all products were made from materials the earth could regenerate, there would be no need for landfills and no greenhouse gas emissions, or so it seems. The movement has gained popularity recently with sustainability minded consumers, influencers, and brands mining for ideas on the internet. The idea is to minimize and ultimately eliminate the trash we produce, usually focused on the consumer. Thus, the zero waste movement is mostly a consumer-side solution.
Zero waste is misleading
The term itself, zero waste, is misleading. As humans we will never be able to reduce our waste down to zero. Our lifestyle (diets, purchasing patterns, homes we live in, etc.) will always have some impact on the environment. However, the zero waste movement focuses on reducing our environmental impact by reducing the physical waste produced. The zero waste movement pushes for the switch from plastic packaging to ‘more environmentally friendly options’ such as glass or aluminium. Again, this is a result of a focus on end-of-life.
Analyzing the entire life cycle
Let’s take a look at a switch from plastic to glass. The infamous photos of plastic litter are the driving force behind the suggestion by influencers in the zero waste movement to switch from plastic to glass. Those photos, while sad to view, only show one phase of a package’s lifecycle. If the entire lifecycle is considered instead of solely the end-of-life, glass often shows a larger environmental footprint.
Our experts ran a screening life cycle assessment of glass versus plastic (PET) using EcoImpact-COMPASS at the packaging system level. Running the analysis on the packaging system level is important because it takes into consideration the weight of glass in comparison to plastic particularly with regards to transportation. Analyzing glass versus PET, the results show a decrease in fossil fuel use with an increase in GHG emissions. It is important to note that these are only two environmental indicators out of eight environmental indicators users can analyze within EcoImpact-COMPASS. We strongly encourage analyses to be run across multiple indicators to avoid burden shifting. Additionally, with a switch from plastic to glass it is important to take into consideration packaging attributes such as damage rate that will be higher with glass than plastic. As a result of an easier to break primary package, secondary packaging often increases as well, therefore another reason to run the analysis on the packaging system level.
Another example are the countless bans on plastic bags. A study from England’s environment agency found that “The environmental impact of all types of carrier bag is dominated by resource use and production stages. Transport, secondary packaging and end-of-life management generally have a minimal influence on their performance.” Nevertheless, bans on plastic bags can make sense, especially for cities along waterways. We covered this topic in an earlier blog and invite you to read more about plastic bags and the alternatives there.
The end-of-life phase of a package’s life cycle often has the least environmental impact in comparison to the other phases of the life cycle. Hence why the mantra reduce, reuse, recycle – is in that order.
Is the zero waste movement the solution to climate change?
The answer? Brands as well as consumers should not solely base their packaging choices on the end-of-life of the package, instead they should take a holistic approach by examining the entire lifecycle. Additionally, advocacy is needed for new end-of-life systems that work with existing packaging that is traditionally difficult to recycle, such as flexible pouches and polystyrene.Considering end-of-life in packaging designs and as consumers purchasing a package is, without a doubt, important. Nonetheless, focusing solely on one portion of the lifecycle is too simplistic to solve the major environmental crisis we face.
Trayak has been helping leading brands of all sizes make data-driven sustainability decisions for over 10 years. If you would like to learn more about our tools and services please contact us.