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Strategies to take packaging out of the waste stream

In 2018, roughly 87 billion packages were shipped worldwide, according to Pitney Bowes, a global ecommerce, mailing and shipping services company. That works out to about 10 million packages in transit for every hour of every day for a year. And, naturally, every parcel shipped includes some sort of packaging to protect the goods inside. 

Increasingly, organizations are responding to the call from both consumers and government regulators to minimize packaging and reduce, or eliminate, single-use waste. The world is moving away from the linear take-make-waste model of consumption and focusing instead on a circular economic model, in which packaging is minimized or made of recycled content and can be re-used or recycled by the end user. 

Solving the problem of end-of-life waste streams can take many forms. Today it’s relatively easy to source packing materials made of post-consumer recycled paper, which, according the Institute of Scrap Recycling Industries, uses up to 68 percent less energy than virgin wood pulp to process into a new paper product. Many organizations are looking into making plastic packaging reusable and reducing the use of virgin plastic in their packaging in favor of recycled (and recyclable) plastic content. Ongoing research into bioplastics, plastics created from cellulosic biomass such as sugar cane or other nonfood plants that can be fully recycled, is promising. 

In the last two years, more than 200 hundred manufacturers of consumer products publicly pledged to reduce plastic in their packaging and to make it recyclable or reusable by 2025. And recently, Amazon and Walmart, two of the world’s largest retailers, announced plans to bring circular economy thinking into their supply chain. Amazon’s Frustration-Free Packaging Program certification requires its vendors to ensure that their product packaging can be recycled. And Walmart recently announced that it will reduce plastic waste by achieving 100 percent recyclable, reusable or compostable plastic packaging for its private brands by 2025.

Eaton is evaluating our own path in the circular economy:

  • We’ve eliminated 90% of our plastic packaging.
  • The corrugated cardboard we use to ship our products is made of 80 percent post-consumer recycled content. 
  • 100% of corrugated cardboard received in supplier packaging is recycled. 
  • We're striving to reduce the use of foam packaging for products, resulting in an 85% reduction in foam since 2015.

We’re also working to increase the amount of softwood lumber used in our shipping pallets. Softwood pallets weigh less, meaning they can contribute to reducing fuel consumption. Additionally, they’re reusable and at the end of their life pallets can be sustainably recycled. Through our work with a vendor to recycle our pallets, we’ve diverted more than 300 metric tons from landfill to date.  A growing number of our products are shipped in returnable packaging for re-use and we are continually exploring where it makes sense to do so from both an economic and environmental standpoint. We are also working to ensure that our product shipments are as efficient as possible by using all available cargo space, which conserves resources and reduces emissions. And our employees are a front-line resource for ideas on reducing or repurposing packaging material.