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Four Trends Determining What’s Next for the Ever-Evolving Ton

The ton won’t stop evolving, it will just evolve in new directions.

The disruptive impact of the “evolving ton” is by now well known in our industry. Changes to our raw materials include less paper, more plastic, product and package lightweighting and zero waste initiatives by manufacturers and retailers. This evolution has dramatically reduced waste generation and transformed how we process recyclables and pay for recycling programs.

Granted, some of these long term trends may have run out of steam. The decline in the use of printed paper has slowed but not stopped. The reality that a package’s first and foremost duty is protecting the product puts a crimp on lightweighting. The move towards zero waste is far from over, but the closer a company comes to zero, the harder it is to reach zero. The one exception is that the increased use of plastic, however, looks like it will continue unabated.

Nonetheless, the ton won’t stop evolving, it will just evolve in new directions. Let’s look at several of these new trends and see where they might be taking us.

The ongoing growth of flexible packaging is the first of these trends. These are the pouches, bags and other packages that collapse when empty, as opposed to glass, metal and plastic bottles and cans that are rigid when empty. Flexible packaging has the second largest share of the packaging market. These packages are popular because their low weight allows more product to be shipped in less packaging while fully protecting the product.

Even though they are not recyclable, they often create less waste from cradle to grave than their recyclable competitors. Their use has prevented the creation of millions of tons of waste while, perhaps, stunting the growth of recycling.

Flexible packaging poses a fundamental challenge to our thinking. Is an unrecyclable package acceptable if the alternative is more waste of energy and materials? I think the answer is yes. We should design for the environment, not just for recycling. Whatever the result of that debate, flexible packaging will continue to grow because its advantages far outweigh its disadvantages.

E-commerce is the next trend. Its rise and the decline of sales at bricks and mortar stores continues. Online purchasing now accounts for a bit more than eight percent of all retail sales and that market share continues to increase. E-commerce has been a godsend for the corrugated box industry for a simple reason: the amount of linerboard and corrugated medium needed in the small boxes used to ship purchases to individual homes is greater than that needed by larger boxes used to ship those products to a retail store.

Ameripen recently published a paper on the impact of e-commerce on waste and recycling. Fulfilling online sales requires more touchpoints (e.g., shipping the product in large boxes to fulfillment centers that then ship the product in smaller boxes to final purchasers) which means that packaging must be bulkier to protect the product throughout its journey.

The good news for recyclers is that these fulfillment centers will provide quality OCC for end markets. The “bad” news is that you and I will put more corrugated boxes in our recycling bins, mixing them with other grades of paper. MRFs will be challenged to separate this mix into different grades of recyclable paper.

Drones will provide the next trend, even if it is further down the road. You can go online and see videos of test runs using drones to successfully deliver products to houses in both the United Kingdom and the United States. These videos are impressive although it is worth noting that the houses getting deliveries don’t have overhead power lines or many (if any) trees. I don’t know how well they will operate in more traditional suburbs or urban settings.

Drones face legal and regulatory challenges before they can be used to deliver products on a routine basis in this country. However, if they survive those tests, what kind of packages will be used? Will the drone require a sturdier package to protect its shipment on landing? It’s fair to say that the companies exploring the use of drone delivery are already trying to figure out what kind of packaging they will need to ensure safe delivery. We won’t know the answers to these questions for several years. But if drones become a viable delivery option, even only in certain neighborhoods, expect an impact on our industry.

3-D printing is the last trend I want to look at. This form of “in-house” manufacturing has failed to live up to early forecasts. Its widespread use is definitely further down the road than that of drones. But if 3-D printing becomes widespread, what kind of plastics and other materials will be used? What will their impact be on recycling and waste management?

The rise of flexible packaging and e-commerce are already having an impact on recycling and waste management. Drones and 3-D printing haven’t yet. But I can’t wait to see what that will be and how we will adapt. The one certainty we face is that our raw materials will continue to evolve. We will have no choice but to evolve with them.

Chaz Miller is director of policy/advocacy for the National Waste & Recycling Association in Washington, D.C. 

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