The Earth is filled with garbage and a lot of it comes from packaging. Itís possible to package our food, toys and other stuff without hurting the environment. Sustainable packages donít harm our world or use up the limited resources we have on Earth. Zero Waste is about using the right materials to make the package, using less energy to ship the package, and then reusing or recycling the package once itís done its job. Learn how sustainable packaging can help save the Earth from drowning in its own garbage.
You go to the store to buy your favorite action figure Ė itís a miniature super hero about six inches tall. Itís tied by metal twist-ties to a cardboard back, which is inside a hard plastic wrapper which is covered by a clear plastic window which is sitting on top of a foam base which is all stuffed into a large cardboard box with many colors, designs and labels printed with product information. This is an example of over-packaging and itís wasteful and hurting our environment every day.
Americans buy about 28 billion plastic water bottles every year. Even though a small number of these bottles do end up being recycled, it would be even better if the bottles didnít exist in the first place. 8 out of every 10 bottles end up in landfills after theyíre used. Landfills are big pits where garbage is dumped. Over a third of the garbage in landfills is made up of packaging. Most packaging thrown into landfills cannot be recycled, doesnít break down into soil, and creates a smelly and yucky environment for the people who live nearby.
Some packaging is necessary. When grapefruits from Florida have to be shipped to Maine, hundreds of them are loaded onto a truck for the ride. Can they be thrown in the truck one-by-one to lie on top of one another for the bumpy ride? No, packaging is needed to contain the fruits and protect them from moving around too much in the truck. The boxed fruit can be stacked on top of each other so as many grapefruits as possible can go along for the ride. All this helps to keep them fresh longer. A fruit thatís wrapped up in a package will last days or even weeks longer than fruit thatís left unprotected.
If some packaging is beneficial, but too much packaging is harmful, is it possible to create a package that protects the food or toy, but does not harm the environment? Scientists working to solve this problem are looking for ways to create ďsustainableĒ packaging. Sustainable packaging is packaging that does not hurt the environment while still protecting the product. In what ways is a sustainable package better?
Just like a person starts out as a baby, becomes a kid, then a teenager, then perhaps a Mom or Dad and later an older person, a package also has a life cycle. When a package is sustainable, each stage in its life cycle is friendly to the environment. That means the package is:
- created using materials that are easy to get and are easy to recycle,
- put together so that it protects the product and is easy to ship, and
- doesnít end up in a landfill or as litter, once itís used up.
Whatís the first stage in a packageís life cycle? The package starts out as raw material that has to be picked or dug up or created in a lab. Plastic bottles are made from oil thatís found underground and has been forming since the time that dinosaurs roamed the Earth. This oil cannot be replaced. Once itís used, itís gone forever.
Cardboard boxes are made from trees. Some of these trees are old trees that have been growing for hundreds of years. Even if new trees are planted in their place, only the older trees support the birds and wildlife found in an older forest. Some packaging, like foam, is made from chemicals that can be harmful to plants, animals, and humans when they go into the soil or water. Now some scientists are testing materials that come from stones and plants which are less harmful to the environment.
The next stage in a packageís life is when material like paper or plastic is made into a shape to hold the stuff that will be put in it. Making and shaping the package takes a lot of energy like electricity and fuels, and other resources like water and minerals. A sustainable package does not use up too many resources or too much energy while being made.
But the story doesnít end here. All packages are decorated and labeled with information about the product. A sustainable package uses inks and labels that are environment-friendly.
Sometimes empty packages are shipped to warehouses and the products are put in there. More often, the contents are put in the package first and then the whole thing is shipped to a store. The more packages that fit into a truck, the fewer trucks are needed and so less gas is used on extra trips. Shipping packages shorter distances is better for the environment too.
Finally, the package arrives in the store. You come along and buy your action figure. You take it home and fish it out of the cardboard and the plastic and the foam. What are you going to do with all that packaging now that itís done its job? A sustainable package should be able to be easily re-used or recycled. You can take the toy out of the package carefully so that you can re-use all that foam and cardboard for your science fair project display.
Or you can recycle as much of the package as possible. Recycling breaks down the package and turns it into something else. A recycled plastic container can be turned into a new package, a lawn chair, a carpet, or a comb. A recycled cardboard box can be turned into another carton, newspapers, shoe boxes, or egg cartons. A recycled glass bottle can be turned into new bottles, countertops, beads or bricks. Recycling and re-using materials also saves energy. The amount of energy saved by recycling a single plastic water bottle instead of creating a new one could power a 60-watt light bulb for 6 hours.
What can you do to help make all packages sustainable?
- "Pre-cycle" by selecting products that are not over-packaged or by selecting simple packages that use only one type of material.
- Donít buy single-serving containers. Buy juice or water in larger bottles and pour them into to your re-usable water bottle.
- Carry re-usable shopping bags with you or carry out the items you buy in your hands. Donít use bags from the store.
- Use items again and again. Re-usable lunch bags are better for the environment than paper bags that are thrown away. But donít re-use your chewing gum.
- Donít throw away your toys or other good stuff. Sell them or give them away. One personís trash is anotherís treasure (except for chewing gum).
What are other ways that you can help create a more sustainable world? Can you take a package that you use every day and re-use it to make something totally new? Can you come up with a material for packaging that will protect your food and toys without hurting the environment? Can you create a package that never has to see a landfill? What can you do to stop over-packaging? What can you do to help protect the Earth?
Megann Head, Environmental Engineer – Life Cycle Assessment
What do you like most about being a scientist? Experiencing the facts behind everyday objects. It’s also really awesome to be able to share something new you’ve discovered or uncovered.
Hobbies: Traveling, movies, crossword puzzles.
What words of advice do you have about science for kids: It’s ok when something does not go the right way the first time. Science is all about trying something and starting all over again when it might not work the best the first time through.
How/when did you discover your love of science? I believe I was in 6th or 7th grade. We got to make silly putty. We also started to learn about chemistry and something just clicked for me when we began discussing chemical reactions. It was so neat how two very different substances could come together to form another completely different compound.
What is the funniest professional experience you have had? Two former colleagues were working on a cocoa project and had to mix dry cocoa and water in a tank. One of them connected the valve (kind of like a gate to stop and start the flow of the mixture) at the bottom of the tank incorrectly. He accidentally put the valve on backwards. After they connected a hose to the valve to add more components, they realized it was on backwards because the valve could not be opened. With a full tank, the valve was taken off and they attempted to put it the correct way. Cocoa and hot water sprayed everywhere since the tank was full – all over the floor, on the two people. They had to put the valve back on while the cocoa was going everywhere. Even though they were covered in cocoa and had to clean up the mess, it smelled really good!
Project Manager, GreenBlue/
Sustainable Packaging Coalition
What do you like most about being a scientist? For me, science helps answer the curiosities of life around us, both as it exists in nature and manmade. So, working in a science field allows me to follow up on some of my own curiosity and along the way help answer other people's questions too.
Hobbies: I like traveling to wild places like remote mountains and forests and discover things for my own. There are lots of lessons to be learned from nature that can be applied to our daily lives.
What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Science is happening all around us all the time and we don't have to be in a class or a lab to appreciate scientific principles. Just look around and ask the basic question 'why something is the way it is' and you are on your way to finding a scientific explanation.
How/when did you discover your love of science? As a kid, I was always playing outdoors and I spent a lot of time in the woods and fields catching insects because I was fascinated by the many different ways they moved, and I was curious about how they lived and what they did. This eventually led me to study the science of animal life and behavior, or zoology.
What is the funniest professional experience you have had? Once when I worked as a field biologist, we were out sampling a lake for invasive fish in the Sierra Nevada in California. I heard a loud whistle from the direction of the tree under which I had left my backpack with my lunch. I turned to glimpse a marmot running off with my potato chips. I chased him under a large bolder. I reached in with a stick and pulled out several bags of trail mix. This little guy was a certified thief and was hording stolen snacks. I did get my chips back and left him his other booty.
What do you appreciate most about science? I am passionate about innovation and science gives me the opportunity to understand how new ideas will work.
Hobbies: Traveling, pets, and thinking of ways to make things work better.
What words of advice do you have about science for kids? Science unlocks many secrets Science provides us the opportunity to make good changes in this world.
How/when did you discover your love of science? I remember at a Halloween party someone made a pot of water that looked like witches brew with lots of fog coming out of it. They told me it was magic but when I went to my science class I asked my teacher. He laughed and said that science made it so easy and then showed us how to put a piece of dry ice in plain water and create all that smoke. It was so exciting and easy once you knew how it worked. I was amazed at how science can make so many things possible.
What is the funniest professional experience you have had? It actually happened to a friend of mine but it made us all laugh. His son did a science project to experiment with making hydropower. They used some plastic spoons to build the generator and attached a light bulb to see if the water power could light up the bulb. Because there would be water involved, they decided to do the experiment by the bathtub. My friend was in charge of checking the electricity and needed to stay close to the light bulb, and his son used a hose attached to the bath faucet to pour onto the spoons to get them to move and generate electricity. When he poured the water from just above the spoons, they did not move fast enough to make the bulb light, so slowly he started pouring the water from higher and higher up. The higher he went, the more the water splashed all over. Everyone got out of the way, but my friend needed to stay close to the light bulb. It finally lit the bulb when they poured the water from 4 feet above the spoons! At the end, my friend was totally soaking wet and his son and all the friends were laughing hysterically.
VP Environmental Innovation
What do you like most about being a scientist? The challenge of discovering new process and materials that haven’t been widely used in the past.
Hobbies: Aerobatic flight and flying in general very low and slow. Boating, sailing, canoeing, kayaking, snorkeling. Traveling to remote places and being exposed to new things, like new foods.
What words of advice do you have about science for kids? The world is yours to explore and grow from within. Science is a great platform to allow you to reach out and experiment from to develop your mind and body. It’s exciting, it’s fun but remember you’ll have as many failures as you’ll have successes but that’s what makes it so much fun!
How/when did you discover your love of science? In sixth grade, I got my first chemical science kit and learned about chemical reactions and I was hooked. I had learnt how to make rockets fly.
What is the funniest professional experience you have had? We designed a system to dispose of coffee chaff, a waste product from roasting coffee. The system was designed to use the village sewer system, which it did. The surprise came when the system became clogged and the village dug up the street to see what was wrong. As I looked in the trench the workers were puzzled at all the chaff in the pipe and I knew we arrived at one of those experiments that wasn’t working as planned.