Avoid These False Solutions!

There are real solutions already in action for sustainable packaging. It’s important not to choose or encourage questionable or false solutions. The questions and answers below explore why.

Can’t we just make everything so we can compost or recycle it?

Right now much of what can be recycled or composted isn’t. The infrastructure to recycle or compost packaging waste is not currently available in most parts of the world. In terms of recycling, we’re mostly going in the wrong direction. The availability of recycling changes not only country to country but sometimes neighborhood to neighborhood. And even when a fair amount of recyclable material is collected it may not end being recycled in the end.

More and more packaging is harder and more expensive to recycle because of the type of plastic used or because the packaging is made by laying different materials together. To fix all this we would need to reverse that trend and make packaging that is easier to recycle and we would need to improve our recycling systems so we’re able to capture and reuse more resources. For paper and plastic we would still have the problem that the materials can only be recycled a limited number of times, so a great deal of virgin material would still be needed to meet demand. Even with a material like aluminum, which can be recycled indefinitely and that has a relatively high recycling rate, there would not be enough scrap to meet demand. Recycling has its own costs and impacts, including energy use. In terms of composting, there are similar problems. Unlike coffee grounds and food scraps, much of the packaging that is labeled compostable will not turn into compost in a home compost bin. It may biodegrade but that is not the same as composting. Much of the packaging that is labeled compostable will only compost in industrial compost systems. Those are available in very few places around the world and some of them don’t want to take compostable packaging. Compostable packaging will not compost if it ends up in a landfill or in the environment.Some compostable packaging contains chemicals that are dangerous to people and wildlife when the packaging breaks down. Learn more here and here. The Biodegradable Products Institute offers certification for compostability. In the end reusable packaging or no packaging options will always be the more sustainable options.

Can’t we just replace all the plastic in packaging with another material?

A false solution is one that replaces one kind of unsustainable, throwaway packaging with another kind of unsustainable, throwaway packaging. If your candy bar used to be wrapped in plastic you could only toss in the garbage and now it’s wrapped in paper you can only toss in the garbage, that’s an example of a false solution. Considering the impacts of all the different kinds of packaging, simply swapping one material for another is far from sustainable. Learn more about false solutions here and here.

Defining Terms: Compostable versus biodegradable versus oxo-degradable

These are terms that are often used interchangeably but they mean really different things. Compostable means it is readily broken down into natural elements in a compost environment that creates humus that can be used to enrich soil. Biodegradable means that it will be broken down by microorganisms. That can be a long process and, depending on what is being broken down, what is left at the end is not necessarily something beneficial. 

In the case of some biodegradable plastics, you end up with materials that are very damaging in the environment. All compostable material is biodegradable but not all biodegradable material is compostable. The Biodegradable Products Institute offers certification for compostability. There is a third category, oxo-degradable, for fossil fuel-derived plastics with additives that make them fragment into microplastics in the presence of sunlight and oxygen, creating persisting environmental pollution. They are neither biodegradable nor recyclable, increase formation of microplastics, and many advocates, companies, and trade associations have called for them to be banned. The EU has taken the initiative to have them finally banned.

Can’t we just use biodegradable packaging?

Biodegradable is a term that is often used inconsistently and misunderstood. It is applied to a wide array of materials, including plastics that take a very long time to break down and leave toxic residues when they do. There are standards applied to the label compostable in terms of time to break down and impact on soil health that are not applied to biodegradable. Please see the Defining Terms section and learn more here and here, and in this section.

Can’t we just use bioplastics? They’re less harmful, right?

Most bioplastics, which can be made from as low as 20% plant material, require industrial processes to break down and many release toxic chemicals when they do break down. Bioplastics also can contaminate the recyclable plastic stream. They can rely on large scale, unsustainable agriculture and require additional land for agriculture. While some are better than traditional, all petroleum-based plastic, these negatives make them a poor choice for long-term sustainability. Learn more here and here. Oxo-degradable plastics are fossil fuel-derived plastics with additives that make them fragment into microplastics in the presence of sunlight and oxygen, creating persisting environmental pollution. They are neither biodegradable nor recyclable, increase formation of microplastics, and many advocates, companies, and trade associations have called for them to be banned. The EU has taken the initiative to have them finally banned. There can also be a lot of confusion around the word bioplastic versus the words biodegradable and compostable. Please see the Defining Terms section and more details here.

Can’t we just do “waste-to-energy”, chemical recycling, or plastic-to-fuel projects?

“Waste-to-energy” is just a nicer name for incineration. Incineration is expensive, often sited in low-income and marginalized communities, bad for climate, and toxic. Chemical recycling and plastic-to-fuel projects are also dangerous false solutions and all three of these can be hidden under many names. Learn more here and here.

Can’t we just use trees? They’re a renewable resource, right?

Globally we are losing forests. Intact forest landscapes around the world have shrunk 7.2% since 2000, with the rate of loss tripling between 2003 and 2013. Timber harvesting, including for papermaking, is responsible for 37% of this loss.  (https://environmentalpaper.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/StateOfTheGlobalPaperIndustry2018_FullReport-Final-1.pdf) Of the world’s remaining forests, as much as eighty-two percent is now degraded to some extent as a result of direct human actions such as industrial logging, urbanization, agriculture and infrastructure. Learn more here and here. Three billion trees a year are logged for paper packaging. Throwaway coffee cups alone take 6.5 million trees.

“Trees grow back, but trees are not a forest. Once a forest is industrially disturbed, it is fundamentally changed. Water and nutrient cycles are altered, the ability of the soil to store carbon will be reduced, and there are changes to tree species and wildlife.”

Canopy

Can’t we just use recycled paper? We recycle all used paper, right?

Only about half the pulp that goes into paper packaging is recycled, and much of it is not or can not be recycled after it is used. Paper fibers are not infinitely recyclable. They can only be recycled five to seven times. They need to be supplemented with virgin fibers.

Aren’t there studies showing that some things we thought were good choices, like reusable cotton grocery bags, are actually bad? How do we know what’s good for packaging?

So glad you asked! We know that bags study, which got a lot of attention for concluding that reusable cotton grocery bags were less sustainable than paper or plastic ones, did not include “downstream” effects (meaning what happens when the bags go in a landfill, incinerator, or out into nature) in the calculations. Surprising, eh? A full lifecycle approach is necessary when considering long-term sustainability. That study is a great example of what leads to regrettable substitutions and false solutions. There are other problems with Danish study that are discussed in critiques here and here.

Won’t this make everything more expensive?

Packaging costs money and it is big business. The global packaging industry is predicted to reach a value of $1 Trillion by 2021. The Ellen MacArthur foundation analysis shows significant global economic potential in overhauling plastic packaging with a combination of redesign, reuse, and radically improved recycling and notes that “globally, replacing just 20% of single-use plastic packaging with reusable alternatives offers an opportunity worth at least USD 10 billion.”

Cost estimators often show that restaurants and cafes will recoup their investment in reusable food serviceware quickly and save on costs like waste fees. The public pays the financial costs of the current system. In the U.S., for example, out of every $10 spent buying things, $1 goes for packaging that is thrown away. A study of the prices of the same consumer goods in Canadian provinces with and without Extended Producer Responsibility for packaging did not show price increases with Extended Producer Responsibility. Companies risk significant increased costs by staying with business as usual as Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies move forward in more places. One estimate is that companies will need to pay as much as $100 billion a year for wasteful packaging as more policies pass.

Meanwhile packaging represents about 65% of US household trash and about one-third of an average dump is made up of packaging material. Incineration of waste is even more expensive than landfilling it. In addition to the financial costs there are the costs that are not paid for directly by customers or companies but instead are absorbed by the communities, which are largely low income and marginalized communities, where waste ends up and where packaging materials are produced. The costs to these communities in terms of damage to health, environment, and livelihoods are huge. Learn more here and here. When packaging is more sustainable, communities find savings in smaller waste streams. Companies find financial benefits including cost savings and better brand image and loyalty in reusable, reduced, and right-sized packaging. Reusable packaging systems where consumers choose how much product they want can help people save money and prevent waste of products. Some companies offering reusable packaging require consumers to pay into subscription or deposit programs which can increase upfront costs and box out lower income customers.

Companies are successfully shipping and selling their products with reusable and sustainable packaging and more and more companies are going in the right direction. See the Examples of Successful Leadership section. It is critical to avoid food waste to combat hunger, climate change, and multiple kinds of waste, but it turns out that throwaway packaging is not the solution. For example, data show that growth in food waste has increased along with the use of plastic packaging in Europe.)

Haven’t Circularity and Extended Producer Responsibility fixed all this?

Not yet. Lawmakers in different parts of the world are passing Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) laws that make consumer brands responsible for their environmental impacts throughout the entire life cycle of a product. EPR laws are part of the solution going forward. Most existing EPR programs have been focused on improving recovery and recycling from the outset, and some  have achieved tremendous results. Now, across the world, these programs are reckoning with the plastic pollution crisis and turning their focus toward driving changes farther upstream.  However, most countries have a long way to go to pass comprehensive programs. And EPR programs are set up differently country to country and sometimes they are set up differently between regions or jurisdictions in the same country. One of the important differences is whether the corporate brands only support the program financially or also manage it. Government oversight can play a critical role in making an EPR program successful in terms of sustainability, local economic impact, and transparency. Although EPR has not fully addressed all of the problems within the recycling system, such as waste incineration, it has led to higher recycling rates and lower rates of contamination in many locations.  With EPR for packaging emerging across the United States, there are opportunities to optimize programs and sustainability. The Product Stewardship Institute convened a panel in late 2020 to talk about different EPR models with key stakeholders ahead of potential packaging EPR laws in the US. The issues they discuss are relevant in many places. The Product Stewardship Institute has developed principles of EPR. Please see more in What Really Works.
Circularity or a circular economy eliminates waste and keeps materials circulating for as long as possible. Some companies are using the word circularity to describe innovations in sustainable packaging but circularity happens at the level of a full economy with all players in the economy participating.

“If you are paying for waste and recycling collection, either through local taxes or a private company, and  there is still litter on your street, or marine debris in our oceans, or microplastics in our water and our bodies, you are not living in a circular economy. If you’ve ordered a coffee in a disposable cup and that cup is destined for  the landfill or incinerator, we have not reached Circularity. We’ll know we’ve achieved a circular economy when everyone can access food and products in reusable containers, and beach cleanups no longer need to be part of our vacation plans or daily lives. Most importantly, we’ll know we’ve reached Circularity when the things we use day-to-day are derived from renewable and recycled resources, and consumer brands have taken responsibility to ensure they continue to get reused and recycled. A circular economy grows and thrives without exploiting natural resources or causing harm to people and the planet.”

Sydney Harris

Product Stewardship Institute

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