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The burning question

What stance should the packaging community take on incineration?

Sterling Anthony, CPP
Sterling Anthony, CPP
Waste-to-energy (WtE) incineration is a hot topic in the sustainability debate, inflaming passions on both sides and too often producing more heat than illumination. The packaging community (suppliers and users) seems to want to stay above the fray, content to publicly embrace the less controversial alternatives: recycling, reduction, and reuse (the 3Rs). This arms-length approach is ill-advised, given that packaging is a component of municipal solid waste (MSW) and that there's a nationwide network of incinerators that burn MSW to produce energy. So as long as there are incinerators burning MSW, packaging will be judged in relation to the process. If the packaging community doesn't define its stance, it'll have its stance defined for it, and it may not like the definition.

The stance doesn't have to champion incineration, and shouldn't; that's the job of the WtE industry and the municipalities that option for the facilities. The stance, instead, should acknowledge incineration as the alternative that it is and then factually acknowledge packaging's role. Even if society were to employ the 3Rs to their functional, economical, technological, and infrastructural limits, there would still remain a percentage (albeit reduced) of MSW consisting of packaging, in addition to the non-packaging component. Until the invention of a disintegration ray that atomizes the garbage, what is society to do?
Landfill is one answer, notwithstanding its low-man position on society's totem pole of preferences (see the 3/2/11 Packaging Insights article: Misconceptions about landfills deserve burial).
Incineration is another answer. Like the 3Rs, it diverts (delays is the more accurate term) materials from landfills; however, incineration differs in that it reduces the mass and weight of the MSW by 90% or more, resulting in less to bury. And whereas each of the 3Rs has its own energy consumption profile, WtE incineration generates energy, without burning fossil fuel (i.e. coal). Voices that advocate increased use of cleaner technologies, such as solar and wind, make supportable arguments; however, the number of incineration facilities is growing, making that industry an environmental player for the immediate future and beyond.
The paradox of plastics

Plastics (the conventional varieties) are the packaging materials most compatible with incineration. As derivatives of petroleum, they burn hotter, contributing to higher temperatures and more complete combustion. But it's that link to petroleum that makes plastics a favorite target of opponents of non-renewable resources. Nonetheless, the functional, aesthetic, and convenience characteristics of plastics ensure their future, as evidenced by the variety of product categories that rely heavily upon them. Given the aforementioned, plastics are subject to criticisms tied to their origin all the way to their disposal, a fact to which the packaging community must devise effective responses.

Plastics are not just criticized as a class, relative to incineration; individual types of plastics also are singled out. An example is polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Sidestepping any debate about the sponsors of the associated research and their agendas, certain observations can be made with neutrality. One is that PVC constitutes a small and shrinking percent of plastic packaging. Another is that federal regulations on emissions, in addition to air pollution control technologies utilized within WtE facilities, combine to keep by-products within specified limits.
Returning to plastics as a class, some detractors cite research said to show that more CO2 is emitted by the burning of plastics than by the burning of coal (to produce the same amount of energy); hence, goes the argument, plastics have the greater potential to contribute to global warming. Without challenging the veracity of the research, at least one perspective is worthy of mentioning: conceding the possibility that plastics generate more CO2 than coal doesn't change the fact that no incinerator is fueled entirely (or even mostly) by plastics. It's an observation that underscores the need to assign context to any claim that's related to sustainability, life-cycle assessment, etc.

How wide a stance?

The packaging community's stance on incineration needs to speak to the mutual interests of its members by conveying the community's environmental-conscientiousness relative to that end-of-life option. The various technical and professional societies within the packaging community should craft a consistent message to be communicated to any party seeking to know the truth about the relationships between packaging and incineration.
At the individual level, a CPG company promoting the sustainability of its packaging can't afford to ignore the end-of-life question. Although a company might consider it advantageous to emphasize certain options, it should stay aware that it can be evaluated in terms of any option, including incineration; therefore, it's wise to have an official company stance that's all-encompassing.
And what of the growing deck of scorecards being dealt by retailers and CPG companies alike? Do any of them factor in the packaging's ability to be incinerated? And, if so, do plastics receive worse scores than other materials?
The overall advice to the packaging community is not to think that it can stay out of the controversies associated with incineration. To attempt to do so is tantamount to playing with fire, a practice that invariably results in an undesired outcome.

Sterling Anthony is a consultant, specializing in the strategic use of marketing, logistics, and packaging.  His contact information is: 100 Renaissance Center-176; Detroit, MI 48241; 313-531-1875; 313-531-1972; [email protected];
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