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Plastic packaging efficiency up 50% in 20 years, says Rathje

"Plastic packaging is the workhorse of source reduction." A tagline from the American Plastics Council?

Guess again. It's the studied conclusion of garbage guru William Rathje, professor of archaeology at the University of Arizona in Tucson and director of the Garbage Project. After analyzing the refuse dug up from 15 landfills in the U.S. and Canada, Rathje unearthed some interesting facts about plastic packaging, which he described in a recent issue of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report. The efficiency of plastic packaging, Rathje observes, has increased 50% over the last 20 years, with 1 oz of the stuff "delivering" 34 oz of product today versus 23 oz in the '70s. "And while plastic accounts for 22% of all packaging," Rathje writes, "it delivers 65% of all products, meaning that it is very efficient." Furthermore, despite the explosion in popularity of single-serve plastic packaging, Rathje's data suggests that plastic packages are generally used to contain larger amounts of product, not smaller ones. "This conflicted with my perception of lots of little packages cluttering up landfills," he writes. "In reality, almost half of all large packages that hold solids are plastic, as are more than two-thirds of large packages that contain fluids." The final kicker: "If all plastic packaging were to be replaced by...glass, paper, steel, [or] aluminum," writes Rathje, "the packaging discarded by U.S. households would more than double," even when factoring in today's recycling rates. The ULS Report is published by Partners for Environmental Progress.

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