Our packaging requirements are a real environmental problem. Nearly everything we buy in the supermarket or online is wrapped in plastic.
Plastic is protective and sturdy enough to prevent leaks or damage. More often than not though, it’s damaging to our environment. Both during its manufacture and at the end of its life.
Alternatives to plastic are desperately needed. Thankfully, eco friendly packaging options are emerging. But should we believe the hype? Are they really as green as we’re led to believe? Which type of packaging is best for the environment?
What Is Eco Friendly Packaging?
Eco friendly packaging is also known as sustainable packaging or green packaging.
To be classed as environmentally friendly, packaging must have certain credentials. Eco friendly packaging might be made from materials that are compostable or biodegradable. Or it might be recyclable, edible or reusable. Or it could be made with materials that have a lower environmental impact.
Recycling and making an effort to reduce packaging are great ways to reuse what we already have and avoid landfill. Environmentally friendly packaging quite simply must be the future.
Here’s some of the different types of packaging that are better for the environment.
The most eco friendly packaging is no packaging at all, or reusing what you have.
For example, you can take your own cloth bags to the supermarket. Or reuse your takeaway boxes and egg cartons at a farmer’s market. That way, you can pick up fresh produce without reams of plastic film.
Plastics and polystyrene are made from petrochemicals. Compostable packaging is made from natural sources.
But to turn into compost, compostable packaging needs to be disposed of in the right conditions. This can be in a home compost heap or in an industrial composter. Compostable packaging sent to landfill, won’t turn into compost. Nor can it be sent for recycling with normal plastic recycling, where it can contaminate entire batches.
Home composting is a great way to get rid of your waste and boost your veggie garden.
Cardboard is compostable and companies have also started to produce other compostable materials. These are usually made using potato or banana skins, cornstarch or bamboo.
The company TIPA produce compostable, flexible food packaging. TIPA packaging is made from renewable bio sources. It turns into compost in under 180 days in the right conditions which include high humidity and temperature and the presence of microorganisms. Your home compost bin will provide these conditions if it’s managed properly.
Biodegradable packaging differs from compostable packaging. It’s made from petrochemicals engineered to break down into pieces.
Ocean-borne biodegradable bags and soil-buried ones take many years to break into pieces. These pieces are still hazardous to wildlife, and are essentially still pieces of microplastic. They might just become microplastics a bit quicker than non-biodegradable plastics.
You may spot the terms photodegradable or oxydegradable on your packaging too. This means that they decay faster than traditional plastics in light or oxygen respectively. But again, they’re still made from plastic and will become microplastics.
Food packaging you can eat is a great idea and one that Scoby and DO EAT use. Their packaging is made from water and potato starch or yeast and bacteria.
Eat your wrapper along with your sandwich. It’s a great idea because plastic films used to protect fresh foods are often not recyclable.
Recycled Material Packaging
Recycling is important because so much household waste can be recycled and brought back to life as eco-friendly packaging.
Many companies and supermarkets offer recycled packaging. You’ll find cardboard, aluminium cans, glass and polyplastics all made from recycled materials. Keep your eyes peeled for recycled packaging when you go shopping – it’s definitely out there.
Packaging Made From Renewable Sources
Renewable resources are materials that grow back. Wood is the most obvious but we can add corn, potato, banana and coconut to the list.
It’s not all good news though. Often, monoculture crops such as pine or corn mean deforestation of ancient woodlands. This destroys many natural habitats and ecosystems. It also stops more established trees from naturally absorbing pollutants and emissions.
One standard to look out for is the Forest Stewardship Council, or FSC. The FSC is a non-profit making organisation, set up in 1993 to promote responsible forest management.
The FSC have a set of standards that companies must adhere to, to use their certification.
These standards include managing forests in a way that preserves ecosystems and the lives of local people. Eco Planet Bamboo, for example, have the FSC certification. Search the FSC database for other certificate holders.
If a packaging claims to be ‘renewable’, always dig a little deeper. Look into a producer’s background and how they manage their packaging resources.
Eco Friendly Packaging That Can Be Reused or Recycled
There will be times when compostable, edible or biodegradable packaging isn’t an available option. In these cases, choose something you can recycle or reuse.
Single use plastics are an absolute curse on our environment. Until things change for the better they’re often the only option, but not always. Look for brands that offer refill services for things like makeup, toiletries and even coffee. You’ll still be using plastic, but you’ll be avoiding virgin plastics each time you renew.
Thinking about each piece of waste is time consuming but it will make a difference. Take black flower pots. I have hundreds because that’s how plants are sold. I’m reusing them for seedlings for the time being because they can’t be recycled.
Always Read the Packaging Small Print
Environmentally friendly packaging is a fairly new concept. The majority of packaging is still the old-style landfill type. But attitudes are starting to change and companies want to cash in on this turning tide.
It’s important to read the small print. Empty commitments and promises don’t help the environment. So many large companies claim to be eco-friendly but continue with damaging practices.
It’s important to support companies that are already using eco-friendly materials. Our spending habits drives change in business practices.
If a company says it uses eco-friendly packaging but doesn’t show you how, ask them, don’t take their word for it. Use social media so everyone else can see the Q&A.
The All Important Costs
Because environmentally friendly packaging isn’t mainstream yet, it often costs more. And that takes its toll on our finances.
It costs more because there’s currently less demand. Manufacturers also need to make their eco packaging using new systems and processes. But we can start to turn things around.
How to Start Using Environmentally Friendly Packaging
If we all made one long-term packaging change it would make a huge difference.
Here’s a checklist to help you out:
- Take your own bags grocery shopping and pick products with less plastic.
- Look out for less packaging and recyclable refills.
- Try to find compostable packaging.
- Look for biodegradable packaging.
- Opt for recycled packaging.
- Reuse and recycle every piece of packaging you can, in the right place. Plastic bags should go back to the supermarket for recycling, not in your recycling bins.
- Reuse anything non recyclable until it’s falling to pieces. Those plastic takeaway cartons are great for freezing leftovers.
- Push companies to use eco-friendly packaging by calling out atrocities on social media. For example, a pack of batteries in a shoebox full of non recyclable polystyrene – I’m looking at you Amazon.
- Teaching kids about recycling helps them to build respect for the environment. Encouraging them to recycle, reuse and choose eco friendly products can still be fun!
Packaging is a necessity and not a problem that will go away without a shift in thinking on our behalf.
So cut down on packaging, choose eco-friendly options when you can, and vote for change with your wallet.
Supermarkets and online retailers are the easiest places to start making your voice heard. Make it heard loudly, each time you shop!