5.3 Environmental aspects of packaging and re-cycling possibilities
In many developed countries there is increasing concern over the environmental impact of packaging disposal. Indeed in some countries, most notably Germany, the small number of remaining waste disposal or land fill sites is causing grave concern. This is leading the government to consider moves in legislation that would make the packaging supplier or user responsible for the disposal of the waste they generate.
The effects of pollution can be seen in many parts of the developing world, especially in the cities. In some cities waste disposal is very inefficient, and in extreme cases almost non existent. Street litter and polluted air and water are causing health problems such as respiratory diseases. Re-cycling helps combat pollution by using materials that would be thrown away to make other materials. It may be cheaper to re-cycle than use new materials. Re-cycling may also replace imports and save foreign exchange. The recycling of glass and aluminium has considerable potential for saving energy.
All around the world waste, much of it hazardous, is being generated. Cairo, in Egypt for example produces 6000 tonnes of waste per day. The costs of dealing with waste are huge. Dakar, Senegal spends 52% of its city budget on waste disposal while Bangkok, Thailand spends US$ 40 million a year.
In many developing countries there is less concern and control over waste and packaging disposal than in northern countries. Food manufacturers however have the opportunity to show that they have a responsible attitude to the environmental impact of packaging. Fortunately in most developing countries foods are not, for cost reasons, overpackaged as they are in developed countries. Also the use of returnable containers such as bottles and metal drums is far more common and often forms a sub-industrial activity for very poor people. In developed countries, to a great extent due to consumer pressure, there has been a considerable growth in re-cycling as a profitable business. Sophisticated plants have been built which separate out valuable materials such as metal and glass. Many towns now have centres where people can dispose of wastes into different bins for cans, bottles, textiles, paper and aluminium.
Essentially there are two types of packaging materials those that break down under natural conditions (biodegradable) and those that nature cannot break down (non-biodegradable). Packaging can also be re-cyclable or non-re-cyclable. Table 5-2 shows common materials according to their possibilities for biodegradation, re-use and re-cycling.
Table 5-2: Biodegradability and recyclability of packaging materials
The responsible producer should thus:
- first give preference to a packaging material which is biodegradable,
It should also be remembered that a growing number of consumers are becoming environmentally aware and 'green'. It may even help sales to state on the package that it is biodegradable or returnable.
Much research is being done to develop plastics that are either biodegradable or break down into tiny pieces under the action of sunlight for example. To date the materials developed are not widely commercially available. One biodegradable plastic, trade name Biopol, is recently reported to have found application to packaging of non-food items such as shampoos. With time it is hoped that biodegradable plastics will become affordable and the terrible environmental impact of discarded packaging a thing of the past.
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