I see so much waste in packaging every day—from water in self-serve bottles to all the foil and cardboard

I see so much waste in packaging every day—from water in self-serve bottles to all the foil and cardboard you have to break through to get to a new print cartridge. What is being done to make packaging more “green friendly,” including cutting out as much of it as possible?

—Jeanne L., Canton, CT

Thanks to forward-thinking action by the European Union (EU), people around the world are beginning to recognize that wasteful packaging puts unnecessary stress on the environment. In 1994 the EU issued a “Directive on Packaging and Packaging Waste,” putting the responsibility of waste reduction and reclamation on manufacturers instead of on retailers, consumers and local governments.

The program, popularly known as “Producer Pays” or “Extended Producer Responsibility,” requires product makers to either take back their packaging (consumers can leave it behind in the store or send it back in the mail at the producers” expense), or pay a fee to an organization called “Green Dot” that will handle it for them. “Green Dot” is now the standard take-back program in two-dozen European countries.

According to Bette Fishbein of INFORM, Inc., a nonprofit environmental research organization based in the U.S., the concept has “spread like wildfire” and has been adopted by many industrialized nations—including Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic, Japan, Korea and Taiwan—but not yet by the United States, which could certainly benefit. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) annual generation of municipal solid waste in the U.S. increased from 88 million tons in 1960 to 229 million tons in 2001, with containers and packaging making up almost a third of the weight.

Maine has followed the European model and initiated its own “Producer Pays” program; the first in the U.S. Maine requires electronics makers to fund consolidation centers where used TV and computer monitors are sent. According to the state’s Department of Environmental Protection, “Maine’s electronic waste recycling law
is a national model, as it protects our environment, saves taxpayers money and puts costs where they belong to encourage safe design and recycling of electronic wastes.”

Some U.S. companies are also taking initiative. Microsoft worked with Packaging 2.0, a packaging solutions company that recycles used materials into new packaging, to develop an environmentally responsible and reusable package for its line of GPS consumer electronics products. And a number of other companies, including Unilever, Johnson & Johnson, Kraft Foods, Microsoft and Nike, have come together under the umbrella of the Sustainable Packaging Coalition, a project of the non-profit GreenBlue, and released a guide for designers and developers to assist them in designing sustainable packaging.

In February 2008 Wal-Mart will implement a “packaging scorecard” to measure and evaluate its entire supply chain. Goals include using less packaging and using more sustainable materials in packaging. According to Wal-Mart, the company is already beginning to make headway. “By reducing the packaging on one of our patio sets,” says the company website, “we were able to use 400 fewer shipping containers to deliver them. We created less trash, and saved our customers a bundle while doing it.”

CONTACTS: Green Dot; INFORM; Sustainable Packaging Coalition