Recently, an organization called the Institute for Local Self-Reliance released a report discussing all the ways in which it claims giant retailer Walmart is failing to follow through on its much-publicized efforts towards sustainability. Interestingly, the report barely mentions packaging, indicating perhaps either that Walmart is making good progress in sourcing products with reduced or greener packaging, or that the report’s authors didn’t consider this a key issue to address.
The report authors do criticize what they see as Walmart’s lack of progress in developing its “Sustainability Index” for motivating future green changes in product sourcing. This criticism is not insignificant, since other reports have shown that business managers and the public want to see verifiable measures about the sustainable practices of the companies they deal with (for example, this recent report).
Meanwhile other large companies are likewise checking the sustainability of their own practices. For example, Kraft Foods Inc., which makes a lot of its own plastic packaging, is publicizing its own goals for being greener (though the company is probably aware that in doing so, it makes itself a target for scrutiny). Also, a trend toward Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) over the next decade will make more companies accountable for the recycling or disposal of their products.
Related debates usually do include at least a mention of plastic packaging's issues. But we shouldn’t forget that journalists and the public – and probably a lot of environmental watchdog organizations – normally aren't well educated about the intricacies of polymer science, as a recent blog posting at “It’s the Rheo Thing” sharply pointed out. Moreover, although studies have contradicted negative public perceptions about plastic packaging's sustainability (for example, a 2011 Plastics Europe study) – these studies aren’t often reported by the general media. Maybe plastics-makers and plastics-users could do a better job of educating the media and public – making any criticisms better targeted and better informed.
Mike Tolinski is the author of Plastics and Sustainability, published in Oct. 2011 by Wiley-Scrivener, and he is Contributing Editor for Plastics Engineering magazine of the Society of Plastics Engineers in the USA. His views have been shaped by his engineering, university, and journalism experience in the plastics and manufacturing industries over the past 21 years. You can follow Mike and be alerted on blog updates via Twitter.