We’ve heard the adage since grade school — reduce, reuse, recycle — but most of us aren’t doing so great at living by those three R’s. Of the 250 million tons of trash that we throw away every year, only 34 percent ever makes it to the recycling center to be turned into something new. Redesigning old packages could help to improve our recycling numbers and make it easier for consumers to stop throwing away plastics and other recyclables. 

What changes should manufacturers consider making to their packages?

Eco-Conscious Consumers

Consumers as a whole are becoming more mindful of their impact on the environment. Companies that refuse to transition to sustainable suppliers or packaging are being left behind in favor of more eco-minded manufacturers. Plastic, especially, is a growing problem. Right now, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is floating between Hawaii and California, collecting millions of tons of plastic waste. The patch is twice the size of Texas, and experts estimate that by 2050, there could be more garbage in the ocean than fish, by weight.

Consumers are aware of these facts, and it works to influence their purchasing decisions. Millennials, especially, are much more careful of where they’re spending their money, preferring companies that use sustainable business practices and maintain ethical standards. They’ll choose a company that has shunned plastic packaging over one that hasn’t updated their design in a decade, and businesses are starting to notice this.

A Successful Redesign

Packaging isn’t just something to hold your product until consumers purchase it and take it home. Experts have proved that packaging design has a direct impact on how well the product performs in the marketplace.

First, talk to your customers. Find out what they would change about your packaging if they had the option. Is your package too hard to open (we’re looking at you, plastic clamshells) or does it contain too much plastic for the eco-friendly consumer to justify its purchase? Is it made entirely of plastic or are you utilizing more sustainable materials?

How the packaging looks also impacts its success. You don’t have to make an ugly package to utilize sustainable materials. Reducing waste and improving sustainability on the manufacturing line could go a long way toward improving our collective recycling numbers.

A Focus on Recycling

Currently, most manufacturers only focus on their production process. It will take a shift in focus to improve recycling and reduce the amount of plastic that is ending up in the ocean every year. Instead of just paying attention to the product before it makes its way into the consumer’s hands, manufacturers will need to start paying attention to the ‘new plastics economy‘ — focusing on their packaging both pre- and post-consumer.

Paying attention to post-consumer plastic usage will give manufacturers the tools that they need to reduce unnecessary waste, both during their production process and after the product goes home with the consumer. Right now, most plastics are used and discarded, and if the Great Pacific Garbage Patch is any indicator, we need to make a change.

Looking Toward the Future

Plastic is a popular packaging material because it’s durable, versatile and lightweight, but it’s also creating a problem that’s growing larger by the day. We use nearly a trillion single-use plastic grocery bags every year and more than half a billion disposable straws, leading some states to ban plastic straws altogether.

Manufacturers are in a perfect position to start leading the charge when it comes to improving the post-consumer life of plastic packaging. By relying on recycled plastics and reducing packaging size, it’s possible to slowly reduce the amount of plastic waste that ends up in landfills and the ocean every year. Some may even decide to incentivize recycling, offering bonuses or coupons to those customers who take the time to separate out their recyclables.

Plastic waste in packaging is a huge problem — and one that won’t be going anywhere anytime soon unless we start to make small changes to nudge the world in the right direction. We don’t have long if we want to be able to enjoy the ocean for generations to come. No one wants to go fishing if all they’re going to catch is last year’s plastic waste.

Megan Ray Nichols