With pressures of sustainability and eco-friendliness mounting on businesses more than ever these days, companies across the packaging industry are no exception.

Net zero targets remain a pivotal end goal to achieve, and packaging manufacturers and distributors – themselves contributing high amounts of carbon per kilogram of packaging – are searching for ways to cut down on emissions as much as possible.

E-waste and technology advancement create a vicious cycle

With the emergence and advancement of technology, coupled with ‌modern consumer buying habits shifting from high streets to eCommerce, companies have a tremendous opportunity to take advantage of digital solutions that make operations more efficient and green.

Solutions like cloud computing, hosting and storage, code cleanup, collaborative IT platforms, energy-efficient facilities and renewable power management, as well as increased shifts in remote working all work wonders in helping businesses cut back on carbon emissions. 

However, one prevalent by-product of this widespread digital transformation is e-waste, otherwise known as electronic waste, which has become a growing concern as technology continues to evolve in availability and effectiveness. Digital technologies contribute significantly to climate change, with a recent UCI study finding a 53% increase in e-waste greenhouse gas emissions over the last few years. 

This presents a complex problem particularly as the UN predicts that 53 million tons of e-waste are generated every year, with this figure expected to double by 2050, ironically, the year in which the Paris Agreement has set as a milestone to reduce emissions to reach net zero status. So it’s clear to see how many current behaviors are not aligning with collective net zero targets.

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Therefore, for the packaging industry as well as others, reducing e-waste should be a priority to limit environmental impact. Luckily, there are several key ways packaging companies can reduce e-waste through innovative and reusable materials, recycling programs, reusing technology where possible, and improving overall sustainability efforts.

How packaging companies can reduce electrical waste and emissions

The challenge of reducing e-waste begins with understanding why we don’t want hardware, devices, and electrical equipment continuously flowing into landfill sites and emitting dangerous, toxic chemicals into the atmosphere.

The modern practice of leading brands like Apple, Microsoft, Google, and others encouraging end users to buy the most innovative, high-quality products and discarding our older ones further perpetuates this global e-waste problem. 

Minimising and reducing e-waste is about eliminating the potential environmental risks but also encouraging us to conserve resources and the amount of energy we need to make these products.

As packaging providers are integral to various parts of the supply chain in the delivery of these products from manufacturer to end user, it’s pivotal that they recognize ways to step up their e-waste reduction efforts.

Buy and invest in devices and hardware with reliable lifespans

When enhancing your in-house technology stack in your packaging facility, you may need to buy new hardware to accommodate additional workstations and facilitate operations. When the time comes for a tech upgrade, make sure you research the expected lifespan of any new computers, devices, drives, or other associated hardware, and make sure that it meets your needs. The longer the product lifespan, the less likely you will have to replace it within a few years, thus reducing the e-waste associated with the disposal or donation of that product.

Reuse hardware where possible

It’s believed that in the US alone, there is a cumulative estimated $650 billion of unused tech, averaging at about $2,459 per adult, according to MPB’s 2022 unused tech survey report. If you have incumbent parts, machinery and devices that still work, e-waste can be significantly cut down if you can reuse those components. If these electrical items can be repaired, it’s preferable to do so rather than buy a new one. There may come a time when these devices are simply unusable and past the point of no return, at which point it’s time to recycle and donate them!

Recycle or donate

Finding e-waste facilities where providers can find alternative uses for pre-owned technology can ensure that any unused devices don’t clog up landfill sites. You may wish to look for an electrical waste plant and see if they will take any hardware that you no longer require. 

Alternatively, many charities and community groups welcome donations of any older technology, provided that it still works of course. This can be a great incentive to instill as part of your company as this allows any working tech to find a second home – while it may not suit the needs of the business anymore, that doesn’t mean it can’t help another person or company out. Be sure to wipe all personal and sensitive information from a donated or recycled device before handing it over.

Limit the amount of electronics used

Consider limiting the number of electrical devices and systems that you use in your packaging facility. If you don’t need as many devices or machines working in tandem, you may benefit by investing in multipurpose technology that can accomplish many tasks simultaneously.

Explore different uses for new, recyclable materials

Packaging providers can harness innovative new methods for using materials that can extend product lifestyles. Taking packaging providers who send electrical items in bulk to customers as an example, there are many other ways that e-waste can be cut down on. Countries can bring in recycling incentives on electrics to follow suit with initiatives like the UK’s introduction of a Plastic Packaging Tax (PPT). 

Packaging materials can be made from biodegradable and recyclable sources such as PLA (polylactic acid) which is made from plants. These materials break down fully after use, leaving no toxic chemicals behind. Meanwhile, metals like steel and aluminum should be adopted more as these are infinitely recyclable and still retain core qualities like tensile strength and rust resistance if treated properly. Using these materials for metal packaging can allow for repeated reuse for future procurement needs.

Make good use of existing tech

Furthermore, packaging companies can take advantage of programmes that digitise supply chain operations as well as give new life to used technology, like buying, selling or trading devices through reputable, approved vendors. 

Rather than sending devices straight to landfill, packaging providers can consider trading in devices for reuse or buying refurbished tech (rather than new) which is often cheaper and certainly more eco-friendly. Redeploying tech that still works for new users also reduces the impact of e-waste generated by packaging firms.

Sustainability should rightfully be an integral part of any packaging firm’s strategic decision-making. Taking proactive steps like those outlined in this guide will help packaging providers drastically reduce e-waste and foster a better-informed and more accountable organisation.

Customers everywhere are growing more supportive of organizations that demonstrate good eco-friendly practices, so there is undoubtedly a financial incentive to be gained from altering your packaging efforts and reducing a very evident, growing problem. No matter how small the action, every single one can add up to make a real difference.

About the author: Annie Button is a Portsmouth-based freelance writer who specialises in business, branding and career development.