It’s pretty easy to spot blatantly unsustainable packaging; we’ve all ordered something online that arrived in a Russian nesting doll-like array of boxes, smaller boxes, and plastics. However, research suggests that when it comes to less obvious examples, we’re pretty bad at distinguishing between sustainable and unsustainable packaging. Furthermore, we’re quite susceptible to being misled by packaging cues suggesting “eco-friendliness” and hold inaccurate beliefs regarding what materials are and are not sustainable.
So how can you, as a consumer, differentiate between sustainable and unsustainable packaging?
Recoverability for packaging materials refers to their ability to be reused, recycled, or composted after use.
Reusable packaging can come in many forms, but is only worthwhile if it is convenient for the consumer to reuse. For example, reusable packaging for household food and cleaning products can be incredibly eco-friendly when paired with refill stations are zero-waste stores, but are less sustainable when there is no clear or convenient reason for reuse.
Recyclable packaging is the most common type of sustainable packaging. Most plastic, paper, and cardboard are readily recyclable, and many of these products are made from previously recycled materials. However, not all cardboard, plastic, and paper products are recyclable. Look out for graphics suggesting that the packaging is recyclable and is made from recycled material to ensure sustainability.
Compostable packaging is made from organic elements, allowing it to decay quickly and help feed the ground it decomposes into. Examples of compostable packaging include plant-based packing peanuts, biopolymer products, and mushroom-based packaging.
Compostable materials differ from biodegradable materials. Almost everything, including plastics, can biodegrade eventually, though this may take many years and can produce toxins in the environment. Therefore, compostability, not biodegradability, is a much better indicator of sustainability in packaging.
To check whether an item of packaging is compostable, look out for these labels.
If packaging is heavy and/or unnecessarily large for the product it holds, it is clear that the materials are not being used efficiently. This means that more resources are required to make each package, therefore increasing the environmental impact the material has.
When looking at the lifecycle of packaging materials, the distribution stage is often quite an emissions-heavy part of the process. Often, packaging materials travel great distances by ship, plane, and trucks before landing in the hands of consumers, so the more weight and space a package takes up, the more emissions-heavy the distribution stage of the lifecycle will be.
The final element of packaging to consider is its use. The use of packaging is often unnecessary, for example: a box inside another box, bananas in plastic bags, and books shipped in bubble wrap. No matter how sustainable the packaging material is, it’s far more sustainable to have no packaging at all!