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Darla Moore School of Business

A sustainable solution

Marketing research finds plastic packaging sizes greatly impact environmental waste

Marketing assistant professor Rafael Becerril Arreola published research in spring 2021 focusing on opportunities businesses can capitalize on to reduce the generation of plastic waste.

Becerril Arreola wrote the scholarly paper with Randolph E. Bucklin, a marketing professor and the Peter W. Mullin Chair at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management. Their piece “Beverage Bottle Capacity, Packing Efficiency, and the Potential for Plastice Waste Reduction” was published in Scientific Reports.

In their research, Becerril Arreola and Bucklin emphasized the importance of plastic waste reduction — of all plastic packaging waste generated worldwide, 14 percent is recycled, 14 percent is incinerated, 40 percent goes in landfills and 32 percent goes uncollected, Becerril Arreola said.

“Consumer products account for 70 percent of the entire market for plastic packaging and impose a cost to the environment, society and economy that was estimated to total $75 billion in 2014,” he said. “Disposed plastic packaging releases toxic solids that pollute water and soil, generate harmful emissions that pollute the air and produce pervasive litter that threatens the lives and health of plants, animals and humans.”

For their study, Becerril Arreola and Bucklin collected data on PET container attributes for a series of leading beverage brands’ product lines. PET, or polyethylene terephthalate, is molded into common plastic bottles and containers. The data they collected accounts for a large proportion of the U.S. market’s plastic containers.

They zeroed in on Minnesota as a specific case study because the state reliably reports PET waste collection figures for most of its counties; its patterns of non-alcoholic beverage consumption are close to the national average; and the state collects a dominant share of PET — about 68 percent — from residential sources. Residential waste is tightly connected to retail sales, Becerril Arreola added.

The research team found that if 20 percent of beverage product sales switched to mid-size containers from smaller ones, PET use would be reduced by more than 1 percent. The potential reduction equates to close to 10,000 tons of PET waste in 2013, just in the U.S.

Becerril Arreola noted that PET waste has actually grown rapidly in the past eight years and even more so in developing countries, so the reduction would be even greater in 2021.

“To put that number in perspective, the Eiffel Tower weighs around 10,000 tons,” Becerril Arreola said. “10,000 tons of plastic would cover one fourth of the surface of the state of Texas.”

While their study addresses new avenues for manufacturers to reduce plastic waste, Becerril Arreola said their research explores just one aspect of the plastic problem. Many factors play into consumer packaging sizes.

For example, consumers may prefer smaller sizes, especially if the product contains sugar or processed ingredients; smaller sizes can help limit serving sizes and thus caloric intake. If a company stops producing a smaller package, consumers may switch to a competitor who offers the size they want. Nonetheless, making consumers aware of the environmental impact of smaller containers may steer them to other brands who are more sustainably focused.

“We hope the results of our study will raise awareness among both manufacturers and consumers about the consequences of their choices,” Becerril Arreola said. “The findings suggest an opportunity for manufacturers to reduce their environmental impact and mitigate the potential consequences of the plastic problem on their reputation.”

As climate change and global warming continue to raise environmental concerns, more research is warranted to develop actionable solutions to manufacturing and consumer waste, Becerril Arreola said.

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