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Shift in food packaging leads to plastic problem at landfills

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DANE COUNTY (WKOW) -- Over the past decade, you may have noticed things look different at the grocery store. Many products have moved from cans and cardboard boxes to plastic packaging.

That change is adding to the already troublesome plastic waste problem landfills are facing all over Wisconsin.

"At current filling rates and with the approved airspace we have right now, we have about six and a half years of airspace left," said John Welch, the director of the Dane County Department of Waste and Renewables.

A startling timeline, we have less than seven years before Dane County will need to find a new place to keep its trash.

One of the main contributors, plastic.

"If you go back to the 70s and 80s versus today, you see a lot more plastic without a doubt," said Welch.

A good example of a change in the industry is tuna fish. It used to be packaged in tin cans, but now we are seeing companies use plastic pouches instead.

Welch says those pouches and most chip and other snack bags are made from multi-layered plastics that can't be recycled with our current system.

There is however, technology in the works called pyrolysis that can break down that type of plastic, but Welch says it's very expensive and not realistic in most community's budgets.

So why do food manufacturers use that type of plastic?

Experts say businesses are making the change in an effort to cut down on costs, preserve food and make things more attractive to customers.

WKOW did reach out to a few major food companies to ask if they are considering the use of more eco-friendly packaging option and we have not heard back.

In the meantime, Welch says there are some things we can do to help.

"Be a conscious consumer. So as you're going to buy something, think about what you're buying and the packaging that goes with it. Is there a better option that you can purchase? Just so that we don't have more waste," he said.

Filling rates are expected to pick up at waste sites across the country because of the coronavirus. More people are grocery shopping and eating at home, leading to more plastic bags and food packaging thrown away.

You can also help out by adhering to your municipality's recycling policies.

Below you'll see a list of what the DNR says are banned from landfills in Wisconsin.

Courtesy: Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources

Rebecca Ribley

Wake Up Wisconsin Anchor

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