This article originally appeared as part of the Bloomberg Green + HP partnership.
Ordering goods online and having them arrive in perfect condition on our doorstep has become expected, practically second nature. As this trend has accelerated during the pandemic, so too has the amount of packaging needed to facilitate modern commerce.
US retailers reported a significant surge in online sales during the first quarter of 2020, when the virus-driven lockdown began, with many major retailers, including Walmart, the Home Depot, and Lowe’s, reporting increases of 70% to 80%, and Target seeing digital sales increase 140%. That means more boxes coming to more homes, and higher stacks of corrugated cardboard, polystyrene protective cushions, and plastic bags left outside for recycling or disposal.
“Packaging does an important job — making sure goods don’t get damaged as they move through the supply chain to the consumer — but it’s also a visible sign of waste,” says Nina Goodrich, director of the nonprofit Sustainable Packaging Coalition. “Companies need to cut out packaging where they can, as long as they don’t compromise product protection.”
Each year, the average American discards nearly 500 pounds of containers and packaging, made up of paper and paperboard, glass, steel, aluminum, plastics, wood, and small amounts of other materials. In 2017, this amounted to 80.1 million tons of US-generated waste, only half of which was recycled; the rest ended up incinerated, in landfills, or in the ocean. Packaging accounted for nearly 30% of the 139 million tons of municipal trash that went to landfills in 2017. While some of it will decompose over time, the process emits the methane equivalent of more than 20 million tons of CO2 into the atmosphere.
To address this issue, municipalities have begun to restrict certain types of packaging, including single-use plastics, which will reduce the 30 million tons that US and European consumers throw out each year. Yet, as Goodrich points out, these actions are only part of the picture, and, as a society, we all must embrace new ways to support and invest in recycling.
“We need to build capacity to recycle all materials — paper and plastic — and create value for these undervalued materials,” she says. “It’s going to take all of us to fix this packaging waste problem.”
Leading companies, such as HP and Nestlé, and their suppliers are setting goals to dramatically decrease product packaging waste by switching to recyclable or compostable materials and by reducing the amount of packaging used. Through the growing number of sustainability-focused investment opportunities, the market is increasingly incentivizing innovations that diminish packaging waste and increase sustainability.
Innovating out of the waste problem
For HP, reducing packaging material starts with its products. The company, which currently uses more than a million tons of packing materials each year, is rethinking its manufacturing process to reduce the amount of packaging that gets discarded, while continuing to increase its use of recyclable materials. HP is also reducing paper and cardboard use, and replacing expanded polystyrene packing cushions—the white foam that protects PCs, laptops, and printers in transit — with recyclable molded paper pulp, among other changes. In 2019, HP eliminated 933 tons of hard-to-recycle expanded plastic foam from its product packaging by shipping more than 6.8 million units in molded fiber packaging.