by Megan Yarnall Most municipalities don’t collect all kinds of plastics. Most people don’t take the effort to sort trash or clean out bottles before tossing them to the curb. Compostable packaging is “too noisy” or “doesn’t feel right”. Most single-use packaging is non-recyclable. Products lose shelf-life and consumer safety by switching to a different type of packaging.

Brands face numerous challenges in strengthening the eco-friendly features of their products especially the packaging, and consumers often have no options for recycling or reusing the product or its packaging. Research to create eco-friendly packaging, implementation of more responsible packaging, and the packaging itself is often more expensive than the alternative.  This cost drives up the price and drives away customers regardless of the social or environmental benefits. For brands that want to stay competitive while also becoming more responsible, these problems must be solved.

The question arises – what can a brand do that has a relatively minimal cost, but is still eco-friendly and easy for consumers? The answer – a habit that is gaining increasing attention – is upcycling.

Upcycling refers to reusing a product in as close to its original form as possible when it would otherwise be sent to the landfill. Upcycling can be used to give a new, longer lifecycle to a material that can’t be recycled, thus the name “Up” – “Cycling”. Since upcycling can often be done by consumers in their own homes, it’s an economic option for brands, if they design their product or packaging with eye towards reuse or upcycling. Water bottles or soda bottles can be made into pencil holders or vases, yogurt containers can be fashioned into flower pots, coffee cans can hold everything from spare change to cooking grease.

Even common food and beverage packaging such as Capri Sun juice pouches, Bear Naked granola bags, and even Mars candy wrappers can all be made into bags, pencil cases, or even hair barrettes. A consumer need only visit http://familycrafts.about.com or www.craftzine.com/ to see a plethora of options. When this can’t be done by the consumers themselves, this packaging can be sent to recycling and upcycling companies such as TerraCycle, Inc.

But corporate commitment is not enough! If a company does decide to go the upcycling route, be it through a partnership with TerraCycle or through a thoughtful redesign of their packaging, the onus for responsible action still lands firmly in the lap of the consumer. Only the consumer can choose what happens with the product once it’s on the shelf. Here is where my opinion differs from many in the “green” space. I feel that consumers voting with their dollars, with their purchasing behaviors, with their choices in brand loyalty is the single most impactful and important ingredient to spawn change in our consumer goods addicted economy.

Companies will only continue down the long and windy road of sustainability if their consumers encourage them and encouragement at the corporate level tends to come in only one color. So then our society is faced with two challenges: will corporations be willing to take the jump, and will consumers be willing to support them, by ignoring that noisy chip bag and actually recycling or upcycling that new type of packaging? Without effort and support from both sides, neither will succeed and we will all lose.

So, how can a brand do this? Incentivize, educate and inspire. Take the TerraCycle example, when brands partner with TerraCycle to run free collection programs for their waste, they not only pay for shipping to make the program free and easy but they also contribute two cents for every item returned to a charity or your choice. Look at Recyclebank, who provides coupons and discounts for more recycling. These companies, and those with whom they partner, are successful because they incentivize the action.

Brands also need to let consumers know what options they have. As I mentioned before, the responsibility of recycling lands largely on the consumer, but since brands only leave the consumer few options for packaging – that which the brand or local waste management companies offer – it should be expected of the brand to help the consumer understand their options.. That is where the education piece comes in to play. By educating consumers, companies can help them to make the responsible choice; by then offering that responsible option they can increase brand loyalty while also becoming more eco-friendly. Not only that, but upcycling and consumer education are financially friendly for both the brand and the consumer.

It’s a win-win: eco-friendly, inexpensive, and beneficial for all.