sustainability series: packaging 101
We started this blog post with the intention to create a resource for individuals looking to make sustainability more of a priority in their life, but (as with all things involving passion) it ended up becoming much more than initially we set out to do. Thus, let’s consider this the first in a series of posts on sustainability, including but not limited to topics such as swaps, general information, how to’s, as well as pieces on why it’s so important to make these swaps in the first place. We are passionate about our Mother Earth and are always educating ourselves on new ways to protect her in our everyday lives, so we wanted to share our research with our community. If you enjoy this article, we encourage you to share it with any friends or family members who you know are wanting to make more eco-conscious choices. For today’s episode, we wanted to focus on the least expensive swap you can make: simply avoiding products that come in packaging if and when possible as well as how to choose products in packaging with greater knowledge and intention. Knowledge is power!
First things first: when you buy anything, it’s likely to come in packaging, so if you’re wanting to make more mindful choices then it’s important to understand what is easiest to recycle and what isn’t.
Recyclable vs. biodegradable vs. compostable - what’s the difference?
Recyclable is almost universally known, but we’re going to define it anyway in case there is any confusion. According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, to recycle is to pass again through a series of changes or treatments: such as to process (something, such as liquid body waste, glass or cans) in order to regain material for human use, to adapt to a new use, to bring back, or to make ready for reuse.
Where people tend to get a little hairy is in explaining the difference between biodegradable and compostable. While these two terms sound extremely similar, there is one key difference: biodegradable means that a product can be broken back down into its original components, but those compounds may not be derived from nature. Compostable means that a product will be completely broken down into its organic compounds as if it never existed.
Why is this an important distinction?
Take plastic, for example. Plastic in its whole form is (arguably) a very useful object, whether that’s a food container, utensil, tool, toy, or something else. When that plastic is broken down into microscopic pieces, it’s still plastic. The technical term for when this happens is “micro-plastics,” which don’t do anything helpful or nourishing for our soil, plants, marine life, etc; it just takes up space. On the other hand, when a banana peel is composted and turned back into its organic compounds, it breaks down into nutrients that feed plants and animals.
Why do we need to keep this in mind?
When you’re shopping for anything, if you’re wanting to make more mindful choices about reducing your waste, pay attention to the packaging on your products. Keeping in mind that it requires resources to create things like packaging and products, opting for products with no packaging will always be your most sustainable alternative. No packaging translates into no trees being consumed for paper, no oil used to create plastic, and no other resources used to make other forms of packaging. That being said, if packaging is unavoidable, keep reading for a how-to on choosing the most eco-friendly options.
How to pick your packaging:
Did you know that glass and aluminum are two of the most easily recyclable materials out there? Plus, if you buy products in glass containers, it’s extremely easy to keep the jars and simply find your own new use for them. Jars are perfect for anything from food and beverage to homemade beauty supplies. Aluminum doesn’t lose any quality during the recycling process and can be done so forever, unlike paper and plastics.
Beyond recyclable packaging, also keep an eye out for items that come in paper packaging. While it’s not the most ideal because it requires consuming resources (resources as in trees) to create it, paper is compostable and will turn back into soil within a fairly short timeframe. Bamboo, cotton, and hemp are also great compostable options. Leave no trace, friends.
Know your plastics.*
Whenever you buy plastic, always look for the number inside the recycling sign because this tells you what kind of plastic it is.
1: Polyethylene terephthalate (PET/PETE) - single use beverage bottles, peanut butter containers, salad dressing bottles, vegetable oil bottles, oven-ready food trays, food packaging. It can be recycled into polar fleece, fiber, carpet, furniture, and tote bags.
2: High-density polyethylene (HDPE) - milk jugs, juice bottles, laundry/household cleaner containers, shampoo bottles, butter/yogurt tubs. This is the easiest form of plastic to recycle and can be turned into laundry detergent bottles, pens, lumber, benches, and fencing.
3: Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) - window cleaners, detergent bottles, clear food packaging, medical equipment, piping, children’s/pet toys. This type of plastic is rarely recyclable, and when it is, it can sometimes be turned into flooring, cables, mats and paneling. It is also highly toxic, and tends to leach chemicals throughout its lifespan.
4: Low-density polyethylene (LDPE) - shrink wrap, dry cleaner garment bags, squeezable bottles, shopping/tote bags, furniture, and carpet. This type is generally not recyclable, although there are some drop off centers and grocery stores where you can take them to be recycled.
5: Polypropylene (PP) - disposable diapers, straws, medicine bottles, syrup bottles. This is recyclable (and should be), although only about 3% of this specific type is recycled domestically. China no longer accepts imported recyclables, so we encourage you to research your local recycling facilities to see which ones accept Type 5 plastics. Always remember to rinse and dry plastics before taking them to be recycled to prevent contamination.
6: Polystyrene (PS) - egg cartons, disposable cups and plates, carry-out containers and compact disc holders. This type of plastic is generally not recyclable, although on rare occasions it can be repurposed into foam packing, insulation, vents and rulers. As a general rule of thumb, we encourage you to avoid consuming this type of plastic by purchasing eggs in cardboard cartons, refusing single-use cups and plates (Mason jars are a great stand-in), and bringing your own to-go containers when you go out to eat. Nobody really uses compact disc holders anymore, so stick with your Google Drive instead.
7: Other (OTHER) - sunglasses, nylon, electronic cases, and baby bottles. These types of plastics can occasionally be repurposed into plastic lumber, but they generally cannot be recycled. You can tell whether or not there is an exception by looking for the letters “PLA” near the recycling symbol, which indicates a compostable plastic and should be sent to the compost bin/facility rather than the recycling facility.
What’s the takeaway here?
At the end of the day, we want you to feel empowered when making choices about sustainability rather than simply falling prey to the green-washing that is rampant in the marketplace. When you know what plastics can be recycled and what can’t, as well as what alternatives you can look for, you can then be more mindful when navigating your shopping lists. At the end of the day, products with no packaging will always be the most sustainable option, but if you must use packaging, try to source items that come in paper, glass, or aluminum for either their ease of reuse or their ability to be recycled. We also encourage you to find creative ways to reuse your glass containers around your own home instead of simply chucking them in the recycling bin. If you have any additional tips or resources regarding packaging, whether that’s ways you do it yourself or brands you discovered in your personal shift towards greater sustainability, please share with us in the comments. Sustainability is both an individual and a group effort, and we want to support others on their journey to live more mindfully.
*Source - WTTW news: A Guide to Recycling Plastics