Consumers and producers are equally responsible for global packaging waste, researchers say

Photo (c) boonchai wedmakawand - Getty Images

The U.S. is one of the top three global suppliers of waste

A new study conducted by researchers from the University of Illinois College of Agricultural, Consumer, and Environmental Sciences explored patterns related to plastic packaging waste around the world. Ultimately, they learned that both consumers and producers of goods are responsible for the burden of plastic waste that exists globally. 

“We wanted to follow the plastic packaging waste embedded in the global supply chain,” said researcher Sandy Dall’erba. “This work allows us to conclude that the problem is a responsibility shared between economic agents, from the producers and their intermediaries to the retail stores and their consumers.” 

Food wrapping contributes to a lot of pollution

For the study, the researchers analyzed data from the World Bank and EXIOBASE. The latter platform tracks plastic packaging waste around the world based on global input and output data. This helped them identify where the biggest burden of plastic waste comes from and what the biggest culprits were in terms of waste. 

North America proved to be the biggest producer of plastic packaging waste, with consumers in the region being responsible for the largest portions of such waste. From a production standpoint, North America was linked to more than 40% of plastic waste; the U.S. alone was responsible for nearly half of that. Additionally, consumers in North and South America produced more than 35% of the world’s plastic waste. 

“High-protein food such as meat, fish, and dairy is a trademark in the Americas and those generate a lot of plastic packaging waste,” said Dall’erba. “For instance, every 1 kg (2.2 lbs) of fish consumed will lead to an average of about 1.6 kg (2.5 lbs) of waste. This includes plastic bags, trays, and cellophane used to wrap and cover the fish during transportation, storage, and sales.

“Plastic is not easy to replace. There is no other material to protect the freshness of a food product that will be shipped around the world. We need to further develop technologies that make plastics more biodegradable, such as products based on algae. But we also need stricter regulations to discourage plastic packaging production and use.” 

Finding solutions

The team explained that many developing countries had relocated their plastic waste to Asia. However, as the quantities of this kind of waste have shot up in recent years, this solution has backfired for two reasons: many countries don’t want to accept more waste, and this doesn’t actually solve the problem – it just moves the waste from one place to another. 

Instead, the researchers hope legislators work on recycling efforts that are targeted toward both producers and consumers. 

“All agents along the supply chain and final consumers need incentives to reduce plastic use,” said researcher Xiang Gao. “Some examples are taxes on waste management or refunds for returning plastic bottles. 

“Other steps include banning single-use plastic straws, or imposing fees for grocery store plastic bags. Consuming locally-grown, seasonal food would help, and so would better transparency about true recyclability associated with the resin identification code stamped on plastic packaging.” 

Find a Solar Energy partner near you.