In Europe, 178 kg of packaging is used per person annually and rising. The outdoor industry needs to get a grip on its waste issue.

Personally, I am far from living a “zero-waste” life. In addition to food scraps for the compost and one bag of combustible household waste each week, I carry packaging to our recycling room weekly, sometimes several times. All dutifully sorted: plastic, paper, metal, glass, and newspapers. The volumes of packaging waste we create are overwhelming, especially for plastic and paper packaging.

I am deeply impressed by those who come anywhere near “zero-waste” in their everyday lives and manage to avoid this downside of today’s consumer society. This requires great norm-breaking efforts by everyone in a household to succeed: Shopping for clean food ingredients in their own tote bags at farmers’ markets, cooking everything from scratch, buying dry groceries and hygiene items from packaging-free stores, and shopping for clothes and other necessary products at the swap market, second-hand or flea market.

The instant you walk into a regular store, however, it’s game over. There, you’ll find layer upon layer of packaging even for the simplest spice, soap, or cake. If you buy an electronics product, there is often even more packaging than product in the package.

And while there’s much discussion, the outdoor trade is not showing any signs of breaking this packaging material dependency.

But what about recycling?

In 2019, the total packaging waste volume in Europe was eighty million tonnes. At the time of writing, the trend is steadily increasing as it has done for some time. In 2019, the average packaging waste per person in Europe was 72 kg of paper and cardboard, 35kg plastic, 34kg glass, and 37kg of wood and metal. 80% of the packaging waste is recovered and 64% is recycled. For paper, the recycling rate is 84% while plastics lie at a dismal 40%.

Let’s stop for a second and reflect on all the energy, raw materials, work, and transport that is used for packaging with a lifespan of only days to weeks. Regardless of the degree of recycling or any recycled fiber raw material, the annual volumes of packaging materials are mind-blowing.

A few bright spots on the packaging horizon

But many companies are trying to reduce the material consumption of product packaging in diverse ways. Retailers can help by creating smarter in-store displays to reduce the need for packaging as a message carrier and actively ask for reduced packaging. Meanwhile, we need to strengthen the brands’ willingness to find the right balance between environmental footprint, communication needs, and product protection.

On the materials side, much innovation is underway – algae, fungi, and plants are now being trialed in the search for packaging materials with smaller climate footprints, biodegradability, and even edibility. Keep a look out for packaging material brands like Ecovative, Outerknown, and Ooho, which could provide a glimpse into the not-so-distant future.

Yet with growing online trade and more circular business models, transport packaging becomes a bigger part of the total impact of each customer purchase. Here, we find some new low-impact transport packaging ideas in companies such as RePack, Returnity, and Schoeller Allibert who arrange return systems for mailer bags, boxes, and pallet transport. The RePack system may not fit all, but it is an interesting concept with recyclable packaging that is designed to be used up to twenty times. They already have a handful of partners in the outdoor sports industry; recently, the French retailer Decathlon started using their packaging with included return service.

One of my personal quests will be to start shopping more packaging-free this year – and to challenge the retailers I meet to reflect on and influence the amount of packaging that flows through our trade. The challenge starts here!


Photo: Alfonso Navarro on Unsplash 

Joel Svedlund
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