Fire, flight, the wheel, sliced bread — throughout history, certain discoveries have changed the world. Some have had greater impacts (fire, the wheel) or faster impacts (flight) than others, and some have affected more people than others (sliced bread). It’s difficult to think of a human innovation though that’s had a more profound effect on the world — for both good and ill — than the discovery of plastic.
The history of plastic spans less than 150 years, yet in that relatively short time plastics have become intrinsic to virtually every aspect of our lives, from the tools we use to cook our foods to the technology that carries astronauts into space. Plastic is truly a revolutionary material. However, it’s not without serious environmental and economic costs.
Plastic Usage By the Numbers
Better managing how the world handles plastic packaging is both a financial issue and an ethical one.
Right now, just 14 percent of plastic packaging gets recycled every year around the world, causing the loss of $80 billion to $120 billion worth of plastic packaging, according to the report “Catalysing Action” from The New Plastics Economy Initiative. The report warns, if nothing changes in how the world manages plastic, by 2050 oceans could contain more tons of plastic than the weight of all the fish in the seas.
According to OceanCrusaders.org, worldwide, shoppers use a million single-use plastic bags per minute, or 150 a year for every person on earth. Much of the plastic discarded around the world ends up in oceans, the organization says; every square mile of ocean contains 46,000 pieces of plastic.
How to Reduce Impact
While it’s easy to find even more alarming statistics about the negative environmental impact of plastic, you can also uncover encouraging information about global efforts to recycle plastic and reduce waste.
Companies have the power to make things better, by taking action to help reduce plastic waste and preserve the environment. The New Plastics Economy’s report focuses on three key strategies to nurture the circular economy:
- Redesigning the 30 percent of packaging that currently can’t be reused or recycled. Certain packaging items currently can’t be reused or recycled because they’re either too small (think bottle caps and candy wrappers), contain forms of plastics that can’t be recycled (such as Styrofoam) or are contaminated by food (fast-food wrappers).
- Replacing single-use packaging with reusable packaging. At least 20 percent of single-use packaging could be replaced by reusable packaging, a percentage that represents about $9 billion.
- Improve the economic viability for recycling the remaining 50 percent of product packaging. Changing how plastic gets recycled, to make the process more efficient and cost-effective, could increase willingness to recycle and demand for recycled plastics.
Reusing Plastic Strengthens the Supply Chain
Of course, grocery supply chains have been practicing Strategy No. 2 for years by using RPCs. If your organization transports perishables like dairy, eggs and produce in reusable plastic containers, you’re probably already aware of their ability to improve supply chain efficiency while reducing shrink and associated losses. For example, we know RPCs can curtail egg shrink by 50 percent and cut shelf restocking time to just two minutes.
However, using RPCs isn’t just about saving money, it’s also about helping save the environment.
1. Energy savings. Shipping produce in RPCs requires 39 percent less energy than single-use packaging, generates 29 percent less greenhouse gas emissions, and produces a whopping 95 percent less solid waste, according to a study sponsored by the Reusable Pallet and Container Coalition.
2. Reduce waste. RPCs reduce plastic waste throughout their life cycles, because they are made from recycled plastic, and keep plastic out of the waste stream by reusing it.
3. Recyclable product. Once an RPC has outlived its life span, it gets recycled into more RPCs or plastic for another use.
4. Reduced fuel costs. Because RPCs improve cube utilization, trucks can deliver more product in fewer trips, saving on fuel.
There’s no question the world needs to make strides toward implementing the three strategies outlined in The New Plastics Economy’s report. The success of RPCs in grocery supply chains stands as an example that reusing plastics is not only possible, but can be profitable and ethical as well.