Out of all the garbage we produce as consumers, approximately one third is packaging. New state-of-the-art landfills are harder and harder to site. Because of the costs and environmental problems associated with the disposal of solid waste, there is growing concern and interest in reducing the amount of waste generated while increasing the amount of waste that is recycled and reused.

Packaging is one area where significant waste reduction can be accomplished. Packaging manufacturers, retailers, and consumers have a tremendous opportunity to make a valuable contribution to the overall resolution of these problems. And while there are certainly no absolute formulas or prescriptions for the packaging industry, it is also clear that the traditional view of package design, use, and disposal practices must change.

Working hand in hand, retailers, packagers, and consumers should voluntarily choose to aggressively pursue all possible waste reduction strategies, including waste prevention, reuse, and recycling.

Herman Miller, Inc. has saved over $1 million annually, in part, with reusable or cartonless furniture packaging. The company also holds workshops to educate employees about waste prevention.

Principles for Packaging Reduction

These are the principles that leading packaging firms have found successful in achieving substantial cost savings and effective waste reduction. Implement them in order of priority, if possible. There may be conflicts between competing goals, such as package minimization and use of recycled content. In general, if you cannot do both, select the option that results in the least amount of waste going to landfills.


The basic principle of waste prevention is that by preventing waste material from being produced in the first place, there will be less waste to manage. If possible, eliminate the package altogether, provided product integrity will not be jeopardized.


Reduce the amount of packaging used. For those products that must be packaged, consider methods of reducing the amount of material used in the packaging. Minimal packaging can be accomplished through:

  • Product design changes (e.g., concentrates, different product structures).
  • Modifications to package design (e.g., structure of the package).
  • New or different types of packaging.
  • Single material packaging (e.g., one package component).
  • Development and use of consumable packages where appropriate. (Consumable packages are those which are eliminated in the process of using the product so that no packaging remains; an example would be the use of water soluble packets for a product that is to be mixed with water.)


  • Design packages that are refillable or reusable.
  • Refillable packages may be refilled by either the consumer, retailer, or product producer from bulk or larger containers. To be considered refillable, packaging must be refilled or reused for its original purpose, rather than reused for a secondary purpose such as storing refrigerator leftovers or other limited applications.
  • Maximize the use of reusable packaging, including reusable transport packaging.

Recyclable Packaging and Recycled Content

Packaging should be designed to be compatible with available recycling systems. Labels, seals, tapes, closures, and so on, should also be compatible with commonrecycled material processing systems.

A material should be considered recyclable only if there is an economically viable and widely available system for collecting,processing, and marketing the material.

Use the maximum feasible amount of postconsumer, recycled material in the packaging.

A package that is designed to be both recycled and composed of recycled material is most preferable. However, regulatory restrictions (such as Rule 41 of the Uniform Freight Classification or Food and Drug Administration regulations) or structural considerations may limit the use of recycled content.

To the greatest extent possible, recycled content should be composed of post-consumer, recycled, waste material, that is, material which has served its intended end use and has been discarded by a business or consumer.

Packaging Analysis Checklist

Without compromising health, safety, or product-integrity standards or violating statutory or regulatory requirements, can the preferred packaging procurement practices be implemented? Following is a checklist for retailers or manufacturers to use with their vendors on all packaging: unit packaging, secondary packaging, and tertiary packaging (shipping containers).

  • Are there toxic materials in the packaging?
  • Can the toxic materials be eliminated?
  • Can non-toxic materials be substituted?
  • Can the package be eliminated?
  • Can the packaging be reduced through product design changes, package design changes, elimination of secondary package or wrapping material, decreasing size of packaging-to-product ratio, or other volume reduction?
  • Can the package be made returnable for reuse and redistribution?
  • Can the package be made to be refilled by a customer or consumer either from bulk or larger containers?
  • Is the package recyclable?
  • Can the package be made easier to recycle, by redesigning it to be composed predominantly of a single material?
  • If the packaging is made of more than one material, can the different materials be easily separated?
  • Does the packaging contain inks, dyes, or tints which can be removed to enhance recyclability?
  • Does the package contain the maximum feasible amount of postconsumer material?
  • Do you currently receive more than one type of flexible film (stretch wrap)?
  • To make in-store recycling easier, have you considered selecting one plastic material and asking your vendors to ship using only that material?


Preferred Packaging Procurement Guidelines, Washington Retail Association, 1992