Research Paper on Ethical Issues in Packaging Practices

Ethical Issues in Packaging Practices

Packaging practices play an important role in ensuring environmental sustainability. Its significance has made ethical packaging to continue gaining momentum across the world, thereby shifting the concept of sustainable packaging. The various sustainable packaging practices have different potentials to improving environmental impacts (Khalili, 2011, p. 123). With increased environmental concern, there have emerged several ethical issues concerning packaging practices and their environmental impacts. This paper explores ethical issues in packaging in relation to environmental sustainability. It achieves this by analyzing the impacts of packaging practices on greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions and the generation of waste. Finally, it demonstrates how ethical issues in packaging practices can be addressed through sustainable packaging. Sustainable packaging is the best remedy for ethical issues in packaging practices.      

Packaging refers to all products made of any kind of materials with the intention of being used in the containment, protection, handling, delivery, and presentation of goods, which can range from raw materials to processed goods, and throughout the supply chain, that is, from producer to user or en consumer (White, Franke, & Hindle, 1999, p. 342). . Packaging practices at these levels have different environmental impacts in terms of the emission of GHGs, and the generation of waste materials.  

Among the most important ethical issues in packaging is the amount of packaging material and its impact on GHG emissions and waste generation. Packaging materials normally differ in thickness. The use of thicker packaging materials implies there was excessive use of raw materials (Cresswell, 2002, p. 179). For instance, the use of thicker packages can be associated with increased deforestation to provide the enormous quantities of materials required in making such packages. Therefore, such packaging practices can lead to increased levels of GHGs because of the reduced vegetation cover that act as carbon sinks. The manufacture of such thick packages also requires a lot of energy. The increased use of fossil fuels in manufacturing such packaging materials can result in increased GHG emissions that are responsible for global warming. Since thicker packages are quite heavy, they usually result in higher levels of GHG emissions in the course of packaging and product transport because of the increased fuel consumption by vehicles (Verghese, Lewis, & Fitzpatrick, 2012, p. 70). In terms of waste generation, thicker packaging materials often increase the amount of waste generated and disposed in the environment. Thick packaging materials, especially the non-biodegradable, can cause serious environmental pollution if not recycled. Although thicker plastics are a serious threat to environmental sustainability, the use of thinner plastics can considerably reduce the safety and protection of food and food products from contaminants, punctures, and tampering.

The second ethical issue in packaging practices is the use of layered packages, especially in perishable products. Packaging materials can at times contain two or more materials combined or laminated together mainly to keep foods safe and fresh as they move down the supply chain. Even though they are important in the safety and preservation of food, the use of layered packaging materials usually makes them difficult to recycle. The implication is that they would possibly increase the cost of recycling, thereby resulting in the increased waste generation in landfills since it makes recycling uneconomical. Therefore, the increased use of layered packages can lead to increased environmental pollution levels, thereby hampering the environmental sustainability efforts. Some good examples of layered packages raising environmental ethical concern include the drink boxes that often contain six layers of polythene, foil, and paper, with each layer being critical in the preservation of the drink. Layered food wraps, such as the foil-backed sandwich wrap, which is essential in keeping a sandwich warm, have proved difficult to recycle.

Thirdly, misleading label information in packaging materials has been identified as another ethical environmental issue of concern. Due to the increasing consumer awareness or consciousness about the significance of packaging in environmental sustainability, more marketers have begun labeling their products and packaging materials as environmental friendly. However, some of these packaging materials and their contents do not have such qualities, thereby increasing environmental pollution. For instance, some packaging materials labeled as degradable have actually remained intact for years in landfills. The misleading labels about recyclability are more evident in plastic containers of different uses. For example, some plastic food containers have labels indicating they are made of recycled materials. This can be misleading because recycling plastic food packages to make new food containers is often prohibited because of sanitation reasons. However, plastic packages used in the food industry are normally recycled for other uses, especially if they have been sorted out appropriately. For instance, while recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET) plastics can be used in the manufacture of fiberglass tabs and appliance handles, the recycled high-density polyethylene (HDPE) plastic can be useful in making things such as traffic cones, fences, flower pots, and trash cans. Therefore, packaging practices should consider labeling plastic containers with the right code numbers to facilitate sorting for recycling purposes. This would result in increased recycling that would significantly reduce the generation and accumulation of waste in landfills.

The reusability of packaging materials is another ethical issue of concern in packaging practices as it relates to environmental sustainability. The increased production and use of disposable packaging materials would possibly hamper environmental sustainability efforts through packaging practices. The constant manufacture of new disposable packaging materials normally increases GHG emissions during their manufacturing process and the generation of solid wastes in the disposal stage. Although some disposable packaging materials such as polystyrene can be reused for other purposes after washing and reprocessing, the practice has not embraced extensively because its economic benefits have not been proved.

Fifthly, the recovery of energy from packaging materials that cannot be recycled or reused has emerged as a critical ethical issue, especially because of the ever-increasing global demand for energy. The disposal of such materials containing high-energy content can have adverse environmental impacts because the wasted energy could be used in reducing energy demand, which translates to less use of fossil fuels that are causing environmental degradation.  

Marketers have also exhibited the tendency of packaging products in oversize packages, which convince customers falsely that it has more content, especially than those of its competitors. For instance, it is common to find relatively big packages with contents occupying three quarters of the total available volume. While this unethical packaging practice can harm the consumers financially because of the false perception it creates, it can also lead to increased use of raw materials in packaging. In the case of oversize paper packages, this would translate to increase in deforestation, which reduces vegetation cover that act as carbon sinks, thus hampering global warming mitigation efforts through reduction of atmospheric GHGs concentrations.   

Pallet utilization efficiency has also been identified as an important ethical issue in packaging practices. The actual volume of packages significantly determines transportation costs and efficiency in fuel consumption. For instance, large volume packages often occupy large pallet spaces, thereby resulting in the transportation of fewer goods below the optimal standards of operational efficiency. Apart from increasing transportation costs because of making more trips than required, it also increases fuel consumption, thereby contributing to increased emissions of GHGs.

Finally, the packaging design can considerably influence the safe disposal of packages by consumers when they reach the end of their lifecycle. For instance, it would determine the number of times that particular packaging materials could be recycled or reused. Furthermore, their size or flexibility also determines the volume they would occupy in landfills, hence influencing solid waste management efforts.

Sustainable Packaging

It is evident that the above-identified ethical issues in packaging can adversely affect environmental sustainability, particularly through causing increased GHG emissions and the generation of more solid wastes. This is an indication that there is a need for urgent intervention measures to support environmental sustainability efforts. The best strategy for addressing such ethical issues is through practicing sustainable packaging, which involves the development and use of packaging materials that can lead to improved sustainability.

The ethical issue concerning the amount of packaging material can be addressed effectively in several ways through sustainable packaging. For instance, the use of minimal materials could effectively reduce the amount of materials used in packaging (Cresswell, 2002, p. 179). The use of fewer materials in packaging practices would translate into reduced demand for raw materials, such as paper pulp, thereby reducing the rates of deforestation. This would effectively maintain or increase the vegetation cover that act as carbon sinks, thus resulting in reduced atmospheric GHG concentrations. The transportation of lighter packaging materials or products with thinner packages is often cost-effective due to the consumption of less fuel. The reduced fuel consumption rates would lead to reduced rates of GHG emissions, thus contributing positively towards environmental sustainability. Thinner packaging materials are easily degradable as compared with the thicker ones, making them less likely to cause environmental pollution in the long-term.

Secondly, the issue of excessive layers in packages can be addressed through reducing the layers in packaging materials, while simultaneously maintaining the safety and preserving the quality of its contents. Manufacturers of packaging materials should strive to ensure packaging materials have fewer layers that cannot compromise the ability of recycling the package when it approaches the end of its lifecycle. For instance, should increase innovations to encourage development of cheaper and safer packages made of a single type of raw material, or those that can be easily separated during the recycling process. Such efforts would increase the recycling practices, thereby reducing the demand of raw materials of environmental significance, while simultaneously reducing the generation of solid wastes in landfills.  

Thirdly, the recyclability issue resulting from misleading label information can be addressed through the adoption of ethical principles in packaging, such as indicating the type of material used in making the package and its recycling code to facilitate the sorting recyclable packaging wastes. This would reduce the difficulties in recycling, thereby enhancing the recycling culture that strives to ensure environmental sustainability.

Sustainable packaging practices are also critical in enhancing the reusability of packaging materials at the end of their lifecycle (Haggar, 2007, p. 16). The development of more usable packaging materials that can be used for other purposes would significantly reduce the amount of wastes generated and accumulated in landfills. The availability of such packages for reuse could also reduce the volume of manufactured packages, thereby reducing the levels of GHG emissions and financial associated with the manufacturing processes.

The ethical issue concerning the wastage of energy through disposing packaging materials containing high-energy content can addressed through the development and use of packaging materials with low energy content. This would ensure there is enough energy for other pressing needs, thereby reducing the exploitation of fossil fuels to meet the growing global energy needs.  Manufacturers of packaging materials should also label materials containing high-energy content to facilitate their identification and the eventual harnessing of such energy.

Oversize packages that hold less content can be economically and environmentally costly. These adverse outcomes associated with the excessive use of packaging materials could be addressed through the designing of sizeable packages that hold the optimal volume of content as possible. Such sustainable packaging would result in reduced exploitation of non-renewable law materials, reduced deforestation, manufacturing activities, fuel consumption, and solid waste generation, all of which are associated GHGs emissions and/or environmental degradation.   

Regarding the issue of pallet utilization, packages should be designed to ensure optimal utilization of pallet’s volume capacity. Such packages would facilitate transportation of the packaging materials and packaged products in bulk, thereby taking advantage of the economies of scale, a principle in which costs decline as the level of activity or operation increases. For instance, the packaging materials should be designed to facilitate interlocking during packing for transportation reasons. Their interlocking nature would ensure optimum utilization of pallet volume space, thereby increasing the quantity of products transported per trip. This would imply that transportation costs would decrease because of because of the fewer trips and less fuel consumed. Reduced fuel consumption translates to reduced GHG emissions that are primarily responsible for global warming. The bulk delivery of products can also eliminate unnecessary packaging, thereby reducing packaging costs and its adverse environmental impacts.

Finally, the issue of safe disposal of packaging materials when they approach the end of their lifecycle can be addressed through sustainable packaging practices, such as designing packaging materials that can be recycled or reused severally before their final disposal. They should also be designed in a way that they would occupy less space in landfills. This would considerably reduce the demand for opening new disposal sites/landfills, which are associated with land degradation due to the leaching of harmful chemicals and materials from landfills, or GHGs emissions produced through the burning of wastes, including the disposed packaging materials.

In conclusion, it is clear that the ethical issues in packaging practices can be addressed through embracing sustainable packaging throughout the lifecycle of the packaging practices, that is, from the obtaining of raw materials to the packaging of goods, and from the producer to the consumer across the supply chain. It is also evident that the sustainable packaging extensively follows the three sustainability hierarchy principles, namely, reduce, re-use, and recycle respectively. Reduce as the most important sustainable packaging practice entails minimal packaging. It strives to reduce packaging prior to the manufacturing stage through design and marketing, for instance, reducing the number of layers, materials, and toxins at the source. The second in importance is the re-use principle, which involves designing packaging materials to make them reusable, refillable, returnable, and durable to the greatest extent possible. Finally, recycle as the third in importance entails designing packaging materials to make them recyclable, or make them using recycled content.  Therefore, sustainable packaging is the best remedy for ethical issues in packaging practices.          


Cresswell, L. (2002). Product design graphics with materials technology. Oxford [u.a.: Heinemann.

Haggar, S. (2007). Sustainable industrial design and waste management: Cradle-to-cradle for sustainable development. Amsterdam: Elsevier Academic Press.

Khalili, N. R. (2011). Practical Sustainability: From Grounded Theory to Emerging Strategies. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Verghese, K., Lewis, H., & Fitzpatrick, L. (2012). Packaging for sustainability. London: Springer.

White, P., Franke, M., & Hindle, P. (1999). Integrated solid waste management: A lifecycle inventory. Gaithersburg, Md: Aspen.