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Greenville Business Magazine

An Accelerator for Sustainable Packaging

Apr 01, 2024 10:26AM ● By Wes Carter and Caroline DeLoach

Every year, 11 million tons of plastic waste flows into our oceans. This represents a real threat to our coastal communities, tourism, fishing, and the stability of ocean ecosystems on which we depend for a stable climate, clean air, and food.   

Audits of mismanaged plastic waste show that about 46 percent of waste stems from single-use plastic (SUP) packaging. SUP packaging comes in many forms: bubble wrap, foam, air pillows, shrink film, six-pack rings, foodservice items, bags, bottles and caps, and more. When SUP packaging winds up in consumers' hands, it can easily find its way into the environment, whether falling out of waste receptacles or out of cars and blowing toward our oceans, lakes, and rivers.   

At Atlantic Packaging, we are constantly looking for opportunities to eliminate and replace harmful SUPs for our customers, the largest CPG companies in the world, but this is easier said than done. Plastic has been one of the most impactful inventions in history, allowing us to package, transport, store, and sell goods safely and efficiently. Plastic became ubiquitous because it’s radically effective, not to mention inexpensive. SUP packaging has allowed us to keep food fresh, improve hygiene, and offer incredible consumer convenience.  

Ideally, we could continue using these materials and simply recycle them better. However, many of the most widely used plastics cannot be or are not recycled anywhere near the rate we need them to be. Some are curbside recyclable, such as plastic bottles, and companies and nonprofits are making laudable efforts to increase recycling rates on those. But others, particularly plastic films, are almost never curbside recyclable in the United States. While alternative collection outlets exist at many retail stores, most consumers aren’t aware of them, and much less do they bother to collect plastic films to return to stores. As many sustainability advocates have concluded, we simply will not recycle our way out of the ocean plastics crisis.   

This is not an attack on plastic. It is instead an acknowledgement that two things are true: First, that consumer-destined SUPs significantly contribute to the ocean plastics and waste crisis, and second, that our economy relies heavily on SUPs to move goods throughout the marketplace because of their effectiveness and low cost. We need an all-of-the-above approach in which we identify the plastics that have a realistic chance of being recycled at much higher rates, along with an ardent and fast transition to more sustainable packaging materials that circumvent the impact of today’s SUPs.   

 Many of the world’s largest CPG companies embrace this reality and are actively seeking more renewably sourced recyclable or compostable packaging alternatives. However, our conversations with these companies continues to unearth a common barrier: CPGs are struggling with the capital expenditure necessary to purchase equipment that can run these innovative products. In virtually every industry including food, building products, medical supplies, ecommerce, and everything in between, most packaging is applied using high-speed, highly automated, capital-intensive equipment that was specifically designed to run SUP. Replacing or reconfiguring this machinery presents a highly technical and expensive transition for even the largest companies.   

Our federal and state governments have an opportunity to fast-track the transition to sustainable packaging by providing tax credits for new packaging equipment or retrofits designed to process more sustainable packaging.  Federal and state tax credits to incentivize renewable energy (for example, 26 percent for solar) and electric vehicles ($7,500 per vehicle) have jump-started the transition to cleaner electricity and transportation. A 30 percent tax credit on new packaging equipment capable of running curbside recyclable or compostable packaging would prompt substantial investment in the sustainable packaging transition.    

A real-life example: we’ve been helping some of our beverage customers move to a curbside recyclable, paper-based beverage carrier to replace traditional plastic six-pack rings. One of our customers, a global beer company, recently expressed that it would cost them tens of millions of dollars to purchase equipment that could apply these paperboard carriers. They’re willing to change the material they’re using for beverage carriers, but this expense is difficult to justify.     

The number of countries with regulations about single-use plastics has more than doubled over the last five years. Four U.S. states have adopted promising extended producer responsibility (EPR) laws for packaging, and several other states have bills on the table. These policy changes, along with increased consumer demand for sustainable packaging, have propelled many companies to seek alternative packaging materials, but the transition won’t happen overnight. State and federal governments should help accelerate this critical evolution however they can, and tax credits for packaging equipment represent a fantastic tool to do so.    

Wes Carter is president of Atlantic Packaging and Founder of A New Earth Project, Atlantic’s sustainability initiative. In addition to leading Atlantic into a sustainable future, Carter is an industry-leading voice for addressing the waste crisis. Caroline DeLoach is Director of Sustainability for Atlantic Packaging and A New Earth Project. A lifelong environmental advocate, she is an authority on the environmental impacts of packaging, the circular economy, and climate issues.