We Need To Talk Reusable Totes & Packaging––Are They Actually Eco-Friendly?

by Holly Garcia
Originally Published: 
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Everyone is on the reusable and sustainable packaging bandwagon these days. Starbucks has mostly eliminated straws with your drinks. My local grocery store has been sending me off with reusable grocery bags that I keep in my car and use at just about every store. I’m a bag lady if it means saving the planet. But is it really? There are reusable straws, sandwich bags, water bottles, and cutlery. While using these items day to day helps us cut back on one-time use waste, how eco-friendly is it really in the grand scheme of things?

It’s not just the act of recycling and reusing that is going to make a difference. You’ve got to take into account how much energy and how many resources it takes to produce that reusable packaging in the first place. It’s also worth mentioning that people have to want to use reusable packaging. You could have all the stainless steel straws in the world, but if no one is opting to use them, then what good is it really? What can and should you actually be recycling? Not all cardboard and plastic are created equally.

Yes, There is a Right and Wrong Way to Recycle

I won’t lie. I’m guilty as charged when it comes to recycling the incorrect way. How did I manage that one? Well, I assumed if it was plastic, glass, or cardboard, it could just go into the recycle bin. Well, not exactly. According to the New York Times, waste managers call this ‘aspirational recycling.’ Meaning we want to recycle. We intend to recycle. But 9 times out of 10, our recyclables aren’t actually getting there.

Why is that? Well, if you think about recycling in terms of what is going to happen to the item which is being recycled, anything that is tarnished or unsalvageable is probably not getting recycled. For example, that greasy pizza box or take-out container. If it is too damaged from its first use, there isn’t really a way to be able to recycle it and reuse it again. Throwing too many wrong things into the recycle bin might ruin it for the correct items that are in there.

Like, that finished jar of pasta sauce. First off, it needs to be rinsed out. It shouldn’t still have tomato gunk in it when you toss it in the bin. But let’s say it does. Not a lot, but just enough that when you threw it in the recycle, it leaked onto a cardboard box. So now we’re 0 for 2. The glass jar won’t be recycled because it’s contaminated, and on top of that, it also ruined the cardboard, so that’s a loss too. No one ever said proper recycling was the easiest thing to do, hence, why we’re only a hot minute away from making this planet uninhabitable for generations to come.

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Reusable Packaging Has The Potential To Be Eco-Friendly

Don’t worry, y’all. We aren’t quite to the point of destroying our entire planet. Some companies are trying to be more eco-friendly by producing reusable packaging. The thought is that consumers can keep reusing the same packaging that they bought the first go-round and just refill with a new product. Sounds simple enough, right? Raise your hand if you grew up with Mom or Grandma using 18 different butter containers to organize leftovers in the fridge. So, in theory, reusable packaging works. But, we need companies who are willing to invest the time and energy into making this type of packaging. More importantly, consumers need to be on board to opt for a refill instead of a re-buy.

Of course, participating in this reusable world will come at a cost. If a reusable water bottle is available at Target for $22.99, but it costs $0.99 for a plastic one-time use bottle, people with less disposable income might opt for the more cost-effective packaging. And this example is on the inexpensive side. People can forget about how affordability plays a part in how we talk about reusable packaging and being more eco-friendly overall.

There have been programs that have piloted refillable packaging, like Kroger’s collaboration with Loop. According to Progressive Grocer, Lopp is a circular economy platform centered on reusable packaging for branded products. You send it off (or in Kroger’s case, bring it back in) for a refill. In some instances where physical drop-off isn’t an option, consumers might incur an extra cost for postage. Not to mention, there will be a need to use more energy to send (mail, fly, freight) the container back and forth. Plus right now with supply chain issues, people are forced to take what they can get in certain areas. Again, it makes sense, but there is a cost (and time) consideration. Kroger’s pilot plan takes this into consideration for consumers. But, in the end, it’s not that there is a shortage of ideas of how to make reusable packaging sustainable. The problem is a commitment and accessibility issue from manufacturers and consumers alike.

The bottom line is this: Businesses will have to pay a little more to make reusable packaging an effective option for consumers. At the same time, consumers will have to actually commit to reusing them whenever realistically possible. In a world where convenience is king, and even prime two-day shipping seems slow, we have to be willing to be patient.

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