A guide to sustainable packaging labels

What are bioplastics made of?
© Plastics Industry Association

Consumers are choosing brands they think are better for the planet, so it’s important they know what they’re getting.

How often are you overwhelmed or confused by labels at the store? Organic, non-GMO, fair trade, cruelty-free ... the list goes on. With mounting concerns about what’s in our products, where they come from, and how they are made, more and more people are craving transparency and sustainability with the things they buy.

And it doesn’t stop at the products inside. In a world dialed into the impacts of single-use packaging and disposability on the environment, what’s on the outside counts as well. Brands and manufacturers know if they don’t stop producing widely non-recyclable items, they will be left in the dust.

It’s important that packaging labels inform and educate so the public can choose more sustainable brands. However, lack of clear definitions can make it difficult to know what exactly these labels mean, confusing the buyer and opening things up for greenwashing.

Let’s take a closer look:

Bioplastic

Often represented on packages (as well as other commonly disposable items, such as beverage cups and eating utensils) by leaf symbols and riffs on the recycling Mobius strip, bioplastics are simply defined as plastics derived from natural, renewable feedstocks, unlike those derived from fossil fuels like many of the plastics consumers enjoy today.

Corn, potatoes, rice, tapioca, wheat fiber, and sugar are among these, as are shrimp shells, seaweed, and algae. While the capacity of agricultural land to sustain a robust age for bioplastics is questionable, the sustainable “edge” is that they offset dependence on finite oil reserves.

To be called a “bioplastic” in the United States, a material need only be composed of a percentage of renewable material. Defined on a product-by-product basis, the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) BioPreferred seal only requires product packaging to contain a minimum of 25 percent bio-based content, and the majority percentage may be fossil fuel-based plastic resins and other synthetics additives.

Biodegradable or compostable plastic

Subsets of bioplastics are biodegradable or compostable plastics, which are often incorrectly conflated with all bioplastics. Many consumer goods companies are beginning to use "biodegradable" plastic in their packaging as a sort of silver bullet to the plastic pollution issue. The challenge, however, is that this packaging does not actually break down in the real world settings where it is likely to end up.

If a biodegradable package enters a trash bin and ends up in a landfill, it will be covered with other garbage and stripped of its access to sunlight and airflow. In the environment (i.e. roadside, forest, or even the ocean), there is plenty of evidence to suggest this material does not degrade the way it was intended to in an industrial compost facility.

Compostable plastics will only break down in a compost site at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials, such as paper, food waste, and yard trimmings, in a highly controlled industrial facility with just the right temperature and microbes, not your backyard pile.

There are few (but growing) numbers of composting facilities around the world and many view bioplastics as contaminants. Plus, most biodegradable bioplastics (categorized as ‘other’ plastic #7) are not municipally recyclable. The compostability of plant-based plastics is akin to the recyclability of petroleum-based plastics; they will only be processed if the solutions are accessible. So, improving their viability will require consumer support and more collaboration in the industry.

Ocean-bound plastic

A number of consumer goods companies have been introducing products and packaging that use what is known as ocean-bound plastic. This is plastic collected within 50 kilometers of a waterway, making it a possible risk to reach the ocean, which can happen in countries with poor waste management. Often comparable to curbside-quality and plentiful to collect, ocean-bound plastic captures the value of litter that very generally might find its way into the ocean, but is not necessarily found in marine environments at all.

Slightly different is the material our beach and ocean plastic division collects directly from marine environments such as oceans, beaches, rivers, and lakes with the help of volunteer NGOs and clean-up organizations. The plastic collected is usually degraded and therefore non-recyclable municipally. Through partnerships with consumer packaged goods (CPG) companies around the world (including the first fully recyclable shampoo bottle made with beach plastic for Head & Shoulders), this, too, has been integrated into products available to consumers.

Single-material

Most packaging today is not traditionally recyclable because of its complexity. Some flexible packages (pouches, shelf-stable cartons, and the like) are considered recyclable, but an average consumer with access to a recycling option may not be able to tell what type(s) of plastic the packaging is made from. So, packaging producers are attempting to simplify the construction of the packaging to allow for it to be accepted at grocery store drop-points.

While this development makes it much easier to recycle from a technical standpoint, practicality is questionable due to constraints around accessibility and participation. This material is not curbside recyclable and only accepted at the few drop-off points funded by law and intended to recycle plastic bags; consumers hear “recyclable” and think they can recycle at home. This causes confusion at the store and contamination in streams with already weak end-markets.

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The world is waking up to the fact that essentially any plastic not reused or captured for recycling is at risk for joining the 10-20 million tons that pour into oceans annually. Steering more material away from filling the bellies of fish or turning into microplastics is an effort companies and consumers can get behind, so they need to be informed.

We can think about it this way: the next time you go shopping, whatever you buy, two more will be created. One to replace the one you bought, and one to signify the trend. For everything you don’t buy, one less will be there because there is nothing to replace. If you choose brands doing the work to manage resources more wisely, you vote for a future with less waste.

A guide to sustainable packaging labels
Consumers are choosing brands they think are better for the planet, so it’s important they know what they’re getting.

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