Sustainable packaging materials: Know the differences
There is a lot of talk and concern these days about the food that we eat and its impact on the environment. Scientific studies and media stories regularly shine a spotlight on foods that we take for granted, influencing our perceptions of how good or bad they are for us, as well as for the sustainability of the planet. However, it’s not just our food that we have to consider; what the food is packaged in is just as important.
Over the last few years, people have become hyper-aware of the materials they use, and environmentally friendly packaging solutions are now commonplace. In his 2017 series “Blue Planet II,” respected television presenter Sir David Attenborough warned of the problems caused by plastic pollution in our oceans. After his plea for change hit the airwaves, 88% of viewers reported altering their approach to using plastic packaging (Waitrose & Partners, 2018). Since then, it has become much more common to see paper drinking straws in restaurants, compostable coffee cups in cafes, and people drinking out of reusable water bottles.
Now, a large portion of the materials we use from day to day are either recyclable, biodegradable, or compostable, and this trend promises to become even more prevalent in the coming years. However, these distinctions have actually left many people at odds as to how to properly dispose of their waste, anxious they’ll make a mistake that could hurt the environment.
Here is a quick cheat sheet to give you a clearer idea of what these terms actually mean:
Recyclable materials include anything that can be reused beyond its original purpose. People often get creative with their recycling, by using old jars as drinking glasses or plastic bottles as plant pots. Some have even been able to make careers out of their innovative recycling ideas, repurposing materials to make furniture, art projects, and even high-fashion runway looks.
Many materials — such as glass, plastic, metal, paper, textiles, and electronics — can be recycled. Even if an item is not easily repurposed, it can be broken down, processed, or treated before being transformed into a new item.
The main advantage of recycling is that it prolongs the life cycle of an item. This means that less waste goes to the landfill and, as a result, fewer new items have to be produced to replace the old ones.
On the surface, the word “biodegradable” seems pretty straightforward: It refers to something that degrades biologically. Simple enough! Unfortunately, it’s actually a little more complicated than that.
First, we must remind ourselves that all materials degrade. It may take 1,000 years, but all plastics will break down eventually. Calling a product biodegradable, however, suggests that it will completely decompose in a much shorter time frame. For example, European Union directives state that to qualify as biodegradable, a material must achieve at least 90% biodegradation within six months (European Commission).
Second, while biodegradable packaging is said to break down easily in nature, the circumstances and conditions often need to be just right for that to actually happen. In a setting where the proper microorganisms, fungi, and bacteria are present, the process will be quick and uncomplicated; in a different setting, decomposition could be impossible (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018).
Biodegradable materials should not be disposed of with regular recycling, as doing so will compromise and contaminate the recycling process, leading to low-quality products (Environ. Sci. Technol., 2018). This is not to say that all materials marked as “biodegradable” are to be avoided. You just need to be vigilant if you are truly trying to make a difference in the world. Always make sure that the material you are using is safe for the environment and that you dispose of it properly so that it can break down successfully.
Organic materials that can break down in nature are considered compostable. “Compostable” and “biodegradable” are often considered interchangeable terms, but there are some important distinctions.
For the most part, compostable materials feature all of the aspects that might be missing in biodegradables. For example, compostable materials will always break down into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass, leaving no harmful elements behind. These products also usually disintegrate within 90 days of being tossed on the compost heap.
The convenience of compostable containers is that they negate the need to separate waste. For example, if you’re drinking coffee from a compostable paper cup or using eggs from a compostable carton, both the food and packaging waste can be disposed of together.
An added bonus is that the eventual compost produced by these materials can then be used as fertilizer to help grow plants. In this way, these products are not only safe for the environment but can add value to it as well.
Acutia’s eco-friendly packaging
Sustainability is a major concern at Acutia, especially when it comes to the environmental impact of our packaging — which is why we use a sustainable and environmentally friendly refill model. The first time that you order a product from us, it will arrive in a recyclable shipper box. Inside, you’ll find a reusable glass jar and plastic travel container, which you can keep indefinitely and refill. All subsequent orders are then shipped in a compostable refill pouch.
As a society, we are becoming more conscious about the materials we use and how they affect our planet. Small changes can make a big difference, but we need to be vigilant and pay attention to how we use and dispose of our packaging.