Packaging is a challenging aspect of Boston’s move towards zero waste. Find out more about how you can do your part by being conscious about your purchases and modeling circular use.

Opening a neatly wrapped gift can be a thrilling experience, unlike the finger-numbing annoyance of feeling for the right groove to wedge open a plastic package. Most of the items we buy or receive come in at least one layer of protective packaging.

And it all adds up: boxes, envelopes, bags, sleeves, and cartons. Some of these are easier to recycle, while others end up in the trash bin. (Check our list of recyclables to make sure you know which is which.)

People opening package

Packaging fulfills a need. From large electronics to your takeout food, it contains and protects things from being lost, damaged, or dirtied until they arrive at their destination. A cardboard pizza box keeps your pie warm; a wrapper keeps a bandage dry, clean, and sanitary for when it’s needed.

Yet, most of us have had at least one experience of unwrapping something and feeling exasperated at how much packaging we have to get through in order to find it. If you order things by mail, you know how quickly the boxes and bags can pile up in your house. And you can often find discarded food wrappers and drink cans littering Boston’s streets and parks.

What can each of us do? Finding ways to reuse and repurpose the boxes and bags you already have is a starting point. Then, you can move towards replacing the packaged or single use items in your life with reusable, washable ones instead. Durable dishware and coffee mugs will save countless cups and cartons from ending up in the waste heap. For utensils, one of my favorite go-to zero waste items is a titanium spork.

Beyond the simple switches, some areas of our lives will be easier to change than others. For example, some parents choose to use washable cloth diapers for their kids instead of buying lots of disposable ones. But, this may not be a desirable or practical solution for everyone.

Pile of Packages

Part of the issue is that many products are designed and packaged to be used once and discarded. By making things for circular use and using protective materials that themselves are reusable, recyclable, or compostable, we can move towards zero waste.

Compostable Packaging

For example, one electronics company is experimenting with compostable shipping packaging materials made from a combination of rice hulls, wheat chaff, and mushrooms. This mushroom packaging replaces the styrofoam pieces in the box that hold the computer or keyboard in place during shipping. Neat, right?

Back on our end, there are many things we can do to reduce the packaging we use and create at the market. Buying unpacked fruits and veggies at the grocery store is a great way to start.

If you prefer to keep things sorted, cloth bags are an easy solution. You can also invest in some great reusable containers like jars, pouches, and bins for the bulk isle. By buying your essentials (like grains and nuts) in bulk, you can avoid throwing away the little packages every week or so. Less packaging means less waste!

Bulk jars

When shopping online, consider making an order that ships together in one package, and reduce your carbon footprint by only choosing expedited shipping when you really need it. These may feel like small acts, but they add up and multiply across many people to have a real, positive impact on our planet and our neighborhoods.

As we go towards zero waste, packaging is going to continue to be part of the equation in Boston. By doing your part to minimize the packaging in your life, you can declutter your household and help us all be a little less wasteful.

This post is part of the Zero Waste Boston initiative. If you’d like to follow along as we discuss the ins and outs of going zero waste, you can subscribe to our general email list here. If you would like to receive periodic updates about the more technical side of the municipal waste management planning process, sign up here.


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