beware of eco packaging greenwashing

eco packaging

A few weeks ago BBC broke the news about what a " biodegradable plastic bag " looked like 3 years after being buried in the ground. Spoiler, it was a little dirty, but could totally still be used. And, this left a lot of us in the sustainability community with a lot of questions about eco packaging and green packaging.

why you should care

Greenwashing is allowing us to believe that we can continue to consume at the same rate while not making an impact on the environment. This is a lie. Before we get into what is happening and how eco friendly packaging companies are lying to us, let's get a few of the terms straight.

eco and green packaging terms

eco friendly packaging what is it?
what is eco friendly packaging?

biodegradable vs degradable vs compostable - they all aren't the same

biodegradable

Something that is biodegradable will break down into components found naturally in nature over time. It can be left out in the world, and on its own, it will return to which it came.

This sounds like a great solution to waste, right? Well, no, not really. If something is biodegradable it means that it can break down. It does not mean that it will. Some things take hundreds even thousands of years to break down into natural components and will most be on this planet for much longer than any of us.

landfils

Then there is the problem with landfills. Garbage in landfills takes longer to biodegrade because the waste is not getting enough light, oxygen, or sunlight to help break it down. Our system of piling garbage up, and hiding it in places people don't go is actually slowing naturally processes down.

I am not saying that we should sprinkle our garbage all over the planet. But, I do think the system of waste management needs to be reworked. And that needs to become more of the conversation instead of magic plastics that will disappear.

compostable

Compostable plastics will breakdown into compost in about 90 days. Theoretically, you should be able to throw a compostable plastic into your home compost pile. And, without having to do anything extra or special it will break down into compost. A key differentiator with compost is also that it will not add toxins into the soil when it breaks down.

But, compostable plastics can be misleading. Some plastics can not simply be composted in your backyard. They need to be composted in an controlled industrial setting.

Also, while the three terms are thrown around loosely, technically compostable plastics are the only ones with regulations. BPI-certified (from the Biodegradable Products Institute) ensures that plastics with its certification will compost. The other terms have no regulations and are essentially greenwashing verbage.

degradable or oxo-degradable

Technically everything is degradable. Degradable just means that something will break down into smaller parts.

Oxo-degradable plastic packaging are the same as degradable packaging. But, with a new level of green washing. They are tricky, and probably the most un-environmentally friendly of the bunch.

Oxo-degradable plastics are basically regular plastics with additives in them. The additives help the plastic break down faster. Notice I said to break down, not biodegrade. The plastic breaks down into lots of tinny pieces (microplastics) which remain in our world until they are able to finally biodegrade taking hundreds if not thousands of year.

Degradable and oxo-degradable bags are kind of like a plastic magic trick. They break down the bag so much that we can no longer see it, but, that does not mean that it is not still there and not affecting the planets natural systems.

bioplastic

The official definition of bioplastic is a biodegradable plastic (remember this essentially means nothing because everything is biodegradable, eventually). But, instead of a petroleum base, it comes from plants.

I talk a lot about rayon and poly on here. And, this is essentially the same thing! At the end of the day both rayon and polyester, and bioplastic and regular good old fashion petrolium plastics are synthetic materials that will take a while to break down.

Is bioplastic better than petroleum plastics? Well, do you think rayon (made from plants) is better than poly (made from petroleum)? It's essentially the same argument. A synthetic product made from plants and renewable resources is better than a synthetic product made from oil.

But, I think what we need to remember at the end of the day, they are all chemicals and a lot of energy and resources are going into making them. Just because something comes from natural components it does not mean that it is natural.

Ultimately these plant made plastics will end up floating around our oceans for a very long time. And, that is why California band anyone from labeling plastics with greenwashing plastic terms that could mislead consumers.

speaking of renewable resources, what are they?

Renewable resources can be replenished in the time it takes to produce something with them. Great examples of renewable resources are solar and wind power.

The idea with renewable plastics is that they are made from things, like plants, that can be regrown and replaced quickly.

green energy is not the same as green materials

When it comes to energy, renewable resources are generally associated as clean resources. I don't think many people reading this will argue that wind power is worse for the environment than fossil fuels.

But, what the fashion industry has done with packaging materials is try to shift our positive association with renewable energy to renewable plastics. If you really think about it, logically it does not make sense. It is almost counterintuitive. And it's not just fashion, it's food packaging as well.

If plastics are made with a nonrenewable resource like petroleum, then, that means, we can only produce a limited amount of plastic. But, now that we can make plastics with renewable resources. We can basically make unlimited plastics forever.

And, remember, these bio-renewable plastics behave the same as petroleum plastics in the world. Meaning they are going to stick around our oceans, rivers, and landfills for a really long time.

That's why renewable bioplastics are not the green solution that renewable energy is!

post-consumer waste

This means that plastics and packaging are made from materials that we already used. An example of this would be water bottled recycled into a plastic bag. Basically, it's recycling. But, it's a specific type of recycling. The waste needs to come from shoppers. There are other waste sources besides consumers. Like industrial recycling, think fishing nets.

recyclable materials

The product can be broken down and made into something new.

But, please remember this does not happen by magic or alchemy. It takes a lot of transportation, machines, and raw resources to recycle products.

RECYCLING IS KIND OF A SCAM

I think when recycling first became a thing, we thought we were doing something good. But, as time went on we realized, the system is not perfect. Part of this is just trial and error, as we used the technology year after year was started to notice it's pitfalls and where we could do better.

This is the problem with all new technologies. They seem like a solution at first. But, then a few years later after we use them we find out all the problems. There should be some sort of testing period of 5-10 years or even more before companies can come out with claims. Maybe if the bioplastic bag companies had done this they would have realized that in 3 years their bags would still be around. But, the world we live in pushes companies to be first to market whether their claims are true or not.

According to Waste Management 1/4 of the waste people toss as recycled packaging can't be. Columbia goes onto speculate that only 9% is actually recycled. That is because a lot of the stuff we think we can recycle actually can't be.

some things can't be recycled, or are difficult to recycle

For example many of the things we think we can recycle and want to recycle, like plastic bags, we actually can't. Yes, technically plastic bags can be recycled. But in a traditional recycling setting, they tend to slow down the machines and create issues. So, they must be sorted and sent to a special facility.

But, unfortunately, the process of doing this is timely and expensive. And there isn't much that bags can be recycled into. Currently, the only people recycling plastic bags are Hilex Poly, a company located in Indiana, who recycles the bags into a composite for wooden decks. That's it. There is no other economic service for old plastic bags.

That is why plastic bags are worse than other plastics. They have less opportunity to be recycled into something new.

there are not enough recycling units to handle our waste

And, that is, if the recycling makes it there at all. Now that China and other developing countries are refusing to take our trash more and more recycling is just going straight to the landfill.

When China said it would no longer take plastics, they came out with a statement alluding to the fact that the practice was dirty and hazardous. The irony of it is most of our stuff comes from China. They are ok making it. But, they are not ok processing it after it has been used. I am not saying it is China's responsibility to take back our plastics and waste. But, I am saying that they ARE one of the main sources of waste and are a big contributor to the problem.

plastic take backs
plastic packaging in makeup
makeup is notorious for excess plastic packaging

As we push for brands to start taking back their plastic packages (this is especially prominent in the makeup industry, where there is more and more demand for eco friendly packaging cosmetics) should brands be asking the companies that made their packaging to participate in the clean up as well? I don't have the answer. But, it is something to think about.

the problem with eco packaging

They are not attacking the root of the problem. And that is that we all consume way too much.

Now that we understand all the terms, I want to get into the specifics.

Each brand coming up with a different type of green packaging claims they are better than all the others. They are the solution that we all need. We can actually have our cake and eat it too, according to them.

think holistically

I sat on a panel once with a woman who advocates for clothes that self destruct and decompose after a year. This way you can consume all the fashion you want, and it doesn't end up in a landfill.

Sounds great. But think about the bigger picture. Think of all the resources and energy and transportation it will take to make them. Then think about how much more we will want to consume if we all think that our shopping has zero environmental impacts? We are going to need to make even MORE clothes, and use even more resources.

Holistically her idea does not seem like the solution the world needs… But, that's tech for you.

Let's cut through the eco packaging noise

types of bio plastics

There are two types of bioplastics they are PLA (polylactic acid) and PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoate). PLA plastics consist of plant sugars, usually from corn. Technically these types of plastics are edible. And PHA plastics are use microbes that produce plastics as waste.

PLA eco packaging made from corn sugar
PLA plastics can be made from corn and other plant sugars

bioplastics can't be recylced easily

There is another problem with all of this bioplastic packaging. They can not be recycled in a traditional recycling setting. They require extremely high temperatures for processing. And, when they get into traditional recycling streams they can actually contaminate the recycling process and cause the rejection of entire batches, sending them straight to the landfill.

bioplastic packaging is more difficult to make

(for the full study)

"Pollutants, due to the fertilizers and pesticides used in growing the crops and the chemical processing needed to turn organic material into plastic. The bioplastics also contributed more to ozone depletion than the traditional plastics, and required extensive land use. B-PET, the hybrid plastic, was found to have the highest potential for toxic effects on ecosystems and the most carcinogens, and scored the worst in the life cycle analysis because it combined the negative impacts of both agriculture and chemical processing." Columbia University

Does that really sound like green packaging solutions?

bioplastic packaging competes with food

Some argue that the increased use of renewable bioplastics will compete with the land that would have been for growing food.

The food aid foundation says that "795 million people in the world do not have enough food to lead a healthy active life". That's a lot of people that need food. Wouldn't it be better to not make plastics and feed them instead?

Well, that is an interesting argument. But, many believe that the truth is we have more than enough food to feed the world. The issues is distribution.

If you want to down the rabbit hole I would start by researching the Agricultural Adjustment Act and checking out this article that breaks it all down.

plant plastics are essentially rayon

All of the new and innovative environmentally friendly packaging companies we hear about in the news like plastic made from seaweed, or cactus are all just the same PLA plastic. Just with a different marketing spin and different plant-based raw material.

This is the bamboo scam all over again. Remember how when bamboo first came out it was going to solve all of our environmental fabric needs? Then we all learned that is was really just plain old rayon with a little bit of greenwashing.

That is what is happening with eco-friendly packaging materials now! It's all just more of the same.

hemp eco packaging
hemp eco packaging

hemp

One of the most buzzed-about green packaging examples of the future is hemp. Even if the plastic was compostable in our own backyards the issue becomes growing all that hemp.

The media speaks about hemp as the solution for everything from thirsty cotton, to medicine, to now, plastic. But it can not be the one stop solution to all of our environmental needs. Because if all we do is grow hemp to replace everything with a hemp substitute we will lose biodiversity and create even more problems for the planet.

Ok, bioplastic packaging options are kind of just greenwashing. SO, what should we do?

here are a few eco friendly packaging ideas

paper

More and more brands are starting to use paper mailers and boxes with their logos custom printed on them instead of the traditional poly bag.

And, and even better option is to use 100% recycled paper. Because recycled content is almost always better than virgin. Even something as small as changing shipping labels from virgin paper to recycled paper is a step in the right direction.

The downsides

But, "transporting 1,000 paper bags across the country with a truck consumes much more fuel during shipping than transporting 1,000 thin plastic bags" So, where we save on environmental resources in making the packaging, we create more pollution in its distribution.

But, paper falls apart if it gets wet

How about a waterproof paper? I have not been able to find anyone that is commercially offering wax waterproof paper. (hint, hint anyone looking to start a sustainable business). And, no paper with a plastic coating does not count as sustainable. Because that's pretty counterintuitive. But, I did find this calligraphy website that teaches you how to waterproof paper at home.

glass

glass mason jar recyclable packaging
glass recyclable packaging

The energy saved by recycling one glass bottle will operate a 100-watt light bulb for four hours according to the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection where they site the EPA.

But glass is fragile and breaks. It isn't a solution for fashion.

metal

Recycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy needed to make new cans from raw materials.

The problem is metal is heavy. And in fashions current systems with complex supply chains it would be too expensive and use way too much fuel to ship all that metal back and forth.

Packing things in metal or glass is just not possible.

reusable cloth bags

At this point, I think most of us have a drawer full of reusable cloths bags that never actually get any use because we have so many of them. Brands love them as an eco friendly product packaging solution to their plastic problem.

The thing is cloth bags take a lot more resources to produce than plastic.

"A 2018 Danish study, looking at the number of times a bag should be reused before being used as a bin liner and then discarded, found that: polypropylene bags (most of the green reusable bags found at supermarkets) should be used 37 times; paper bags should be used 43 times; and. cotton bags should be used 7,100 times."

But, by 7,100 uses most of our thin cheaply made cotton totes would have fallen apart.

Is anyone actually using these bags so many times? Is that even possible if you have 20 of them sitting in your home and will probably receive another couple in the next week alone?

what about compostables?

case study

Compostable green packaging materials, in my opinion, is the best solution. But, people don't want it. Back in 2006 PepsiCo introduced the first disposable bag for SunChips.

It is now 2019, 13 years later, and most chip companies are not using them. Why?

It's not because they didn't work. It's not because they were too expensive. All arguments we constantly hear from brands when we ask them to go green.

It was because consumers did not want them. They were too noisy. It took PepsiCo 5 more years. And, in 2011 they were able to design a quieter compostable bag for their chips.

The SunChip case study is consistent through industries trying to go green, including fashion. Customers say they want something environmentally friendly. But they are not willing to deal with the changes and trade-offs.

fashion...

A perfect example of this in the fashion world is natural dye. Customers say they want their clothes to be toxin free. But then when they start wearing natural dyes they realize that the colors are not as vivid and do not wear as well, and fade over time. After that, they aren't too keen on the green option anymore and often go back to synthetic chemical dyes because they prefer better performance.

What do you think?

When it comes to packaging, what do I think is a good solution? What about reusable plastic bags? Ones that we can use again, and again, and again. That will last for 100's of years but not in a landfill, instead, in our closets. Or do you think that will that create the same problem as "eco" cotton totes?

Is more education the answer? Or what about access? What if there was an additional bin in recycling for bioplastics, that ensured they would be recycled correctly? Would people use it?

And even if they did. If we don't have the infrastructure, and recycling units needed to process the waste, and it ends up in the landfill anyway, then what is the point?

What do you think? Contact us, or leave your comments below!

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