A growing focus on sustainability has pushed many companies to adapt their packaging for the sake of the planet. Terms like renewable, compostable, and zero-waste have become benchmarks for sustainability, but what do those words mean? Even if you are an expert, your consumers are not.
A German study revealed that 58% of consumers falsely believed all bioplastics were compostable, and an EU study found that environmental claims are widely made yet poorly understood. It became such a point of confusion that, in 1992, the Federal Trade Commission started publishing its Green Guides to prevent marketers from misleading consumers with false claims of sustainability.
To bring some clarity to the confusion, here is our guide to the most commonly-used sustainability terms, what they mean, and how they are regulated.
By definition, biodegradable items break down into organic matter, in a process facilitated by microorganisms. The Federal Trade Commission defines degradable products and packaging as those that will completely break down into elements found in nature within one year. However, these elements can be harmful themselves. One 2011 study shows how methane and carbon dioxide released from the decomposition of biodegradable materials contributes to global warming.
The USDA recognizes biobased products as those that “are composed in whole, or in significant part, of biological products or renewable domestic agricultural materials or forestry materials”. This broad definition includes everything from plant-based inks to fuel additives to fertilizers. Bioplastics can be categorized here and have particular utility for packaging. Unlike primarily fossil fuel-based traditional plastics, bioplastics are derived entirely or partly from biological materials. Similar to traditional plastics, bioplastics can take a variety of forms, like cellophane, cellulose-based plastics, and starch-based plastics. Polylactic acid (PLA), for example, is derived from sugars from natural sources like corn, cassava, or sugarcane. Unique characteristics such as its transparency, gloss, and stiffness make it an attractive bioplastic for packaging.
Most products labeled as compostable can be more accurately classified as “industrially compostable”. Contrary to what most consumers believe, most compostable goods cannot be broken down through simple home composting. Instead, they typically require processing at industrial composting facilities, where conditions like temperature, humidity, aeration, and use of microbes are strictly controlled to break down these materials over several weeks. Like biodegradable goods, compostable materials break down into water, carbon dioxide, mineral salts, and other organic materials. In contrast to the definition for biodegradable materials, the FTC does not give a specific time frame for the breakdown of compostable materials, allowing any product that can decompose in “a safe and timely manner” to be labeled compostable.
Oxo-degradable, or oxo-biodegradable, plastics refer to conventional plastics manufactured with additives to promote the oxidation and degradation of the material. This is sometimes followed by biodegradation. This class of plastics, commonly used for single-use bags, has come under fire for its misleading name and contribution to microplastic waste. Proposals in 2014 and 2018 were introduced in the European Parliament to ban or restrict the use of oxo-degradable plastics, but these efforts were withdrawn in favor of the EU’s Directive on single-use plastics.
Recycled packaging has become more common, but precisely how much of these products are sourced from recycled materials? In general, recycled-content products can be manufactured from either materials collected from recycling programs or waste recovered from the manufacturing process. By contrast, post-consumer content draws exclusively from recyclables collected from recycling programs. That said, current standards for recycled materials are largely voluntary and verified through third-party certification. These include the Recycled Claim Standard, the Recycled Content Certification, and the Recycled Material Standard, each of which requires differing thresholds and approval processes to sport the respective certification labels. At the same time, food and beverage giants like Coke, PepsiCo, and Unilever have pledged to increase the amount of recycled plastics they use for packaging. Some critics point to the technical challenges of recycling and unfulfilled pledges of the past to emphasize the challenges facing recycled packaging.
From paper to plastics to glass, recyclable items make up a fair share of waste produced. The FTC allows any product that can be collected, separated, or otherwise recovered from the waste stream through an established recycling program to be labeled as recyclable. However, very few recyclable materials actually make it through the recycling process. According to the EPA, only 25 percent of glass and 8.7 percent of plastics were recycled in the US in 2018. For starters, not all products labeled with recycling arrows are recyclable, and guidelines for what goods are accepted by municipal recycling programs vary by state in the US. Finally, as materials go through the recycling process, they may become contaminated or lose their structural integrity, which results in downcycling. For example, downcycled plastic bottles may be transformed into car parts or fleece fibers, but the downcycling process itself often degrades the material, rendering it difficult or impossible to recycle again.
In contrast to conventional petroleum-based plastics, renewable materials draw from natural resources that regenerate consistently, like plants and fungi. Today’s renewable packaging options include paper, cardboard, and wood, as well as materials made from sugar cane fibers, mushrooms, and cornstarch. Because of its broad definition, the term renewable encompasses most biodegradable, compostable, and bio-based materials.
In an industrial context, reusable packaging refers to the pallets, bins, trunks, and trays that move raw materials, parts, and products through the supply chain. Also known as returnable packaging, this solution uses durable materials such as plastics, wood, metal, and composites in order to withstand regular use and re-use. From airline carriers to pharmaceutical suppliers to food and beverage manufacturers, B2B use of reusable packaging is everywhere. But for the consumer, reusable packaging takes a different shape. For example, cleaning industry giants like Clorox and budding start-ups like Blueland have brought reusable and refillable cleaning solutions to market, including containers for wipes, cleaning sprays, and laundry detergent tablets.
Unlike many of the terms listed above, zero waste boasts an internationally accepted and peer-reviewed definition. The Zero Waste International Alliance defines the term as:
The conservation of all resources by means of responsible production, consumption, reuse, and recovery of products, packaging, and materials without burning and with no discharges to land, water, or air that threaten the environment or human health.
While it is still difficult to apply zero waste principles on a large scale, a number of companies including Subaru, Google, and Unilever have made zero-waste, waste-free, or zero-landfill systems a key component of their long-term sustainability goals.
Think you now have a grasp on all these claims made for sustainable packaging? Try your hand at identifying what terms apply to these packaging examples.Check out our interactive quiz here!