188 Environmental Groups Call on Governments to Ban Single-Use Packaging

To deliver on sustainability promises, leaders must make "throwaway go away."

bulk grocery shopping
A zero-waste shopper fills a reusable bag with bulk macaroni.

Getty Images/Newman Studio

A large number of environmental groups want governments to take a stance against single-use disposable packaging. In a joint paper titled "From Single Use to Systems Change," the 188 signatory groups outline the numerous problems with packaging as it's used today and how it's having a massive impact on land, wildlife, oceans, human health, and vulnerable communities. The paper's publication was timed to coincide with the UN Environment Assembly's meeting at the end of February, where all 193 member states are represented.

"Single use products, from packaging to food containers, to disposable cups and cutlery, are a key contributor to the two billion tonnes of waste that humans produce every year. That number is projected to increase 70% by 2050," a press release states. This includes all kinds of packaging, from the plastic that's become so notorious in recent years, to the paper that's often viewed as an eco-friendly solution.

As explained by Scot Quaranda, Communications Director for Dogwood Alliance, a group that speaks out against industrial logging, particularly in Southern U.S. forests, "Paper versus plastic has always been a false choice. From the perspective of paper it means more forests logged, destruction of our best defense against climate change, and more pollution for the frontline communities where paper mills are sited."

New innovative packaging materials are not needed so much as a complete transformation in the way we think about and approach packaging design. The group acknowledges that individuals play a role in "voting with their dollars" and supporting better designs over worse ones, but it shouldn't be up to them. It should be the responsibility of the producers and their designers to come up with better packaging, whether through government incentives or mandates. And whatever those may be, the group wants governments to put an end to disposables. They write:

"We therefore call for an end to single use, throwaway commodities, and call for transformational change to our production, consumption and end-of-use systems to enable a truly circular economy. This will require commitments and effective collaboration from government, business, financial institutions and investors, the non-profit sector, and civil society."

The group has put together an excellent resource called SolvingPackaging.org for anyone (business owners included) who wants to understand more about the issues with conventional packaging. It's an interactive infographic of sorts, with a useful section on avoiding false solutions. People often ask, "Can't we just...?" and put forward ideas that are not viable. This document explains why they won't work. 

For example, making all packaging compostable is impossible because industrial composting facilities are inaccessible to most people. Bioplastics aren't much better because they can contain as little as 20% biodegradable content. Replacing plastic with paper drives deforestation, and even paper cannot be infinitely recycled; it still requires virgin inputs.

So What Is the Solution? 

It isn't simple or straightforward, but the joint paper lays out a list of what's known to work.

Ditching packaging altogether is optimal. "Companies are going naked or packaging free, even designing their products and their stores so they don’t need packaging." Think unpackaged beauty bars and solid skincare or cleaning products, and loose produce at the grocery store.

Reusables are the next best option. More companies are embracing these, whether it's by letting customers bring their own containers or offering their own for reuse and refill. 

Raising one's personal standards for packaging helps, too. That means knowing what to look for and what to avoid. For example, "Make sure it’s the right size for the product. Choose non-toxic and sustainably-sourced materials. Include a high percentage of recycled content. Make it easy for consumers and businesses to recycle after use."

Let's hope governments pay attention and seriously consider taking a stand against single-use packaging. The time to make it obsolete is long overdue. 

View Article Sources
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  2. Cho, Renee. "The Truth About Bioplastics." State of the Planet.

  3. "Packaging Drives Pulp’s Deforestation Risks." Innovation Forum.