Innovation

The Power of Plastic Packaging in Transportation, Shipping, and Logistics

Plastic packaging protects products in transit and with a lower environmental impact than alternatives. With more consumers using e-commerce than ever before, industry is leading the way in developing new recycling initiatives that address waste challenges.

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Plastic has become the go-to packaging material for protecting goods in transportation and on shelves because it’s lightweight—which reduces shipping costs and emissions—and it requires less energy to produce than alternative packaging.

Plastic Packaging Is the Environmental Choice

For organizations specializing in transportation, shipping, and logistics, such as UPS, FedEx, or Amazon, plastic wrap offers a way to cover and protect individual products within boxes, while inflatable air packaging protects products while being transported and plastic shipping bags provide a sturdier waterproof alternative to paper envelopes. In addition to protecting materials, plastic packaging also has a lower environmental impact when compared to alternatives. By increasing the capacity of each available package or container, plastic packaging results in fewer trucks on the road and reduced fuel emissions. In fact, a peer-reviewed study conducted for Oregon’s Department of Environmental Quality determined that plastic shipping bags were responsible for less than half the greenhouse gas emissions attributable to a paper envelope and one-fourteenth the emissions of a cardboard box. A separate Franklin Associates study shows that replacing plastics with alternatives would nearly double greenhouse gas emissions.

As one of the world’s most versatile materials, plastic packaging also provides consumers with affordable options – and with lower environmental impacts. Paper bags, for instance, often touted as an ideal “sustainable” alternative to plastic bags, would need to be reused 43 times to have the same low environmental impact as a plastic bag. Moreover, calls to limit or restrict use within supply chains cost consumers money. For example, in 2014, the Reason Foundation projected that California’s plastic bag ban would cost California’s consumers over $2 billion per year.

The Costs of Eliminating Plastic Packaging

These numbers are staggering, and they show why a new bill in California could do more harm to the environment. AB 1371 would phase out the use of certain types of plastic, including plastic film, in e-commerce packaging in favor of pushing online retailers to rely more heavily on costly and less environmentally friendly alternatives, like paper.

In addition to its cost, energy and emissions savings, plastic packaging also offers a tool in the fight against unnecessary food waste by protecting food throughout each stage of the supply chain. Currently, the U.S. is a world leader in wasted food which, according to the EPA, accounts for about 24 percent of waste in U.S. landfills. With online grocery shopping surging by nearly 40 percent during the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s becoming increasingly important to find solutions that decrease spoilage and implement innovative solutions to safeguard food use and facilitate recycling. For instance, meal kit delivery provider Hello Fresh relies on several packaging components that are 100 percent curbside recyclable, while Blue Apron has partnered with How2Recycle to implement their easy-to-identify recycling label program that demystifies the recycling process and reduces unnecessary waste.

How Companies Are Addressing Plastic Packaging Recycling

Recognizing current gaps in recycling infrastructure, industry is leading the way in developing new recycling initiatives that address waste challenges. Amazon, for example, is launching a focused plastic film recycling effort at more than 55 fulfillment centers across its network. Through this program, Amazon expects to recycle more than 7,000 tons of plastic film per year, in addition to the 1,500 tons of plastic it is already recycling annually in Europe. In addition, Amazon has partnered with the Closed Loop Infrastructure Fund to help finance projects that will improve curbside recycling for 3 million homes in communities across the U.S. – diverting 1 million tons of recyclable material from landfills and eliminating the equivalent of 2 million metric tons of carbon dioxide. Similarly, UPS and FedEx have optimized their return process to facilitate the remanufacturing of end of life plastic products.

Calls to limit or eliminate plastic use, such as what we’re seeing with California’s proposed AB 1371 measure, do little to solve the actual, pressing issue of plastic waste. By working together, we can develop circular economy solutions that supercharge our recycling systems and maintain our ability to rely on plastic as a critical and affordable resource in transportation, shipping, and logistics supply chains.

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