This page was developed by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality as part of a joint project with Metro, the regional government of the Portland metropolitan area. A project evaluation report provides additional details about DEQ’s and Metro’s packaging waste prevention project.
- Life Cycle Inventory of Packaging Options for Shipment of Retail Mail-Order Soft Goods
Catalogs and the Internet are shifting retail purchases away from traditional "bricks and mortar" stores and towards direct marketing where goods are shipped directly from a distribution center to its customers. With the growth of e-commerce has come an increase in packaging use and waste. The Oregon DEQ, Metro, and U.S. Environmental Protection Agency have co-sponsored this technical study in order to evaluate the solid wastes, as well as energy, materials, and atmospheric and waterborne emissions associated with the entire life cycle (production, use, and discards) of a variety of packaging materials that are currently used to ship non-breakable items (soft goods) in catalog sales or e-commerce. This study demonstrates that within the realm of shipping non-breakable items in catalog or e-commerce sales, there are a wide variety of packaging options that directly impact the quantity of solid waste generated, amounts and types of energy and raw materials used, and amounts and types of atmospheric and waterborne emissions.
Many Oregon businesses spend considerable amounts of money purchasing and managing their packaging. Procurement costs are only a part of the total. Labor costs, storage requirements, and outbound freight costs can also be significant. Many businesses have discovered the potential to save money – anywhere from thousands to millions of dollars a year – through changing their packaging.
Packaging also comprises an estimated 20–30 percent of household and business waste in Oregon. Garbage and litter are perhaps the most obvious ways in which packaging impacts the environment. But impacts “upstream” of the consumer, in raw materials extraction, manufacturing, and transportation, may be equally, if not more, significant.
All packaging materials come from raw materials that have to be grown and harvested or extracted from the earth. Energy is required for electricity production, and fuels are used to manufacture and transport all kinds of packaging materials. Fossil fuels (coal, natural gas, petroleum) are often a significant energy source. Further, a variety of atmospheric and waterborne pollutants are generated during fuel combustion and manufacturing. Some of these pollutants are released into the environment where they may harm human health and natural ecosystems, and even alter the planet’s climate.
Why waste prevention?
Since the late 1980s, recycling and composting have captivated the public’s attention as a solution to environmental problems associated with packaging. But many industries, as well as the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the State of Oregon, and many other organizations recognize that there’s an even higher priority than recycling and composting: waste prevention.
Waste prevention is an upstream activity that involves reducing waste through changes in design and procurement. During the last several decades, many industries have made significant improvements in package design, engineering, and manufacturing. These waste prevention improvements have reduced materials use and waste by millions of tons each year in the U.S.
Despite this, waste continues to grow. In 2003, per-capita generation of solid waste in Oregon was 30 percent higher than it was in 1993. Even after massive increases in recycling and composting, the average Oregonian disposed of as much waste as they did ten years prior.
Inefficiencies continue to exist in the way some businesses use packaging. These inefficiencies increase costs for the users of packaging. They also increase the waste handling burden for the end consumer, and increase negative environmental consequences for all of us. Waste prevention will help Oregon businesses be more profitable – and competitive – while reducing environmental burdens.
Packaging serves several essential roles, including protecting products from damage. Taken to extremes, packaging waste prevention can lead to insufficient protection and product damage – and waste. Ideally, packaging waste prevention should reduce packaging waste without increasing waste (financial or environmental) elsewhere in the system.
In conversations with the public and users of packaging, DEQ has observed a relatively high level of sensitivity and awareness around recycling considerations, while awareness of prevention and reuse tend to be lower. Further, state law identifies waste prevention and reuse as preferred management options, higher even than recycling. That’s why this web site focuses more on waste prevention and reuse, and less on recycling and composting considerations. For information on recycling opportunities in your community, please contact your local government.