The Loopholes of “Recyclable, Reusable, or Compostable” Packaging Promises

Recycling arrows making a circle, with a red line going straight through it.

As a society, we have a huge responsibility for what happens to our planet. Carbon emissions, habitat destruction, and biodiversity loss are big issues we’ve created, but so too is the plastic crisis. Recycling has been the default way to reduce the impacts of our packaging, but recently that message has changed to “recyclable, reusable, or compostable” packaging (for good reason). In our minds, that sounds perfect – but in practice, things get messy, and lack of regulation means definitions change from one company to the next.

The problem with “Recyclable”

Recycling statistics are the exact reason why the call shifted to “recyclable, reusable, or compostable” packaging in the first place. Recent studies have found that there is a huge gap between items that can be recycled, what is actually placed in the recycling bin, and what actually ends up getting recycled (In 2021 in the U.S., only about 6% of plastic waste was recycled). Not only are the numbers dismal, but the nature of recycling also holds it back as a true solution. Plastics can only be recycled a certain number of times before losing integrity and becoming brittle. Add in problems like different types of plastic recycle differently (which require sorting), some aren’t recyclable at all, and some are only “recyclable” by incineration (how this can be called recycling is beyond me) – and it becomes a mess, fast. (Read more plastic recycling facts here).

The problem with “Reusable”

In an ideal world, reusable containers are the solution to the waste crisis. You bring your glass jar to the market; you pay for the rice that fills the jar; no wasted packaging – bada bing, bada boom. The scenario has led to the environmental success of refill stations across the world, and we couldn’t be more about it (we love you, refill stations!).

But corporate America, in its infinite chase for large profit margins, have taken this goal at face value – and in some cases, ruined the meaning of “reusable”. If you think about it, anything can be reusable if you try hard enough. That plastic container your mashed potatoes came in? Why not reuse it to store your leftovers? The theater cup you bought at a premium for free refills? Just reuse it at home. These reusables technically work over and over, but what about when you buy those mashed potatoes again? You get another container. Sure, that new container can be reused as well – but how long will it take until you amass a collection of plastic containers so large that they won’t even fit in your cupboard? Or that theater cup, how long until the design starts to fade, and it makes its way to the back of the shelf (replaced by new theater cups)?

This “reuse it a couple of times” mentality is a bit greener than immediately recycling, but because the packaging checks the box for reusability, it may not necessarily check the box for recyclability. In those cases, the higher carbon cost to create more durable items goes to waste, and all of those potential benefits go straight to a landfill. And even when they do get recycled, again, recycling isn’t perfect either.

The problem with “Compostable” (or “Biodegradable”, depending on the company promise)

Compostable packaging, in our humble opinion, is the easiest way for society to switch from single-use plastics to a more sustainable path. There would be no need to change how customers shop, no need to change what products you buy – it would all simply be packaged in something that decomposes in months as opposed to decades (or centuries!). Sure, it may still create carbon emissions as the compostable items need to be manufactured, but it would solve our plastic waste crisis nonetheless (from there, we could make behavioral changes to be even more sustainable).

The problem is, however, that ‘composting’ and ‘biodegrading’ don’t mean the same things. Something is biodegradable just as long as it can degrade over time (even if it’s over the course of a century). But compostable items have a bit more definition as to how long they can take to degrade and in what conditions they degrade in.

But even when looking at just ‘compostable’ items – some can be composted in residential bins, but others require industrial facilities. Residential composting (the bin your back yard) can’t break down certain complex products, even though an industrial facility can. That confusion leads some people to attempt to compost things that will never degrade, and end up with a compost pile full of bits of bioplastics.

So, what’s good enough?

Everything has its problems (pobody’s nerfect), but there are some measures we can realistically take right now that would make things a lot greener. Standardization of labels for compostable items (“This can be composted at home”), a migration to compostable items over single-use plastics, and changing how recyclables are labeled would make huge progress in waste management. Even migrating to infinitely recyclable materials like glass and aluminum can save a lot in emissions. There is also a lot of talk about government agencies taking greenwashing claims more seriously, something that would definitely weed out companies that only talk the talk (but fail to walk the walk).

P.S. Let’s be clear: all companies that make these types of promises aren’t bad guys. It’s not greenwashing to make these promises, it becomes greenwashing when companies use the lack of regulation to get out of making adequate environmental change. We’ve seen our fair share of companies do amazing things with reusable and compostable packaging, but we’re here to warn you that every company that makes these claims may not be incorporating them in the same way you would think.

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