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Navigating the minefield of sustainable packaging - a primer for conscious consumers

Becoming an earth-friendly consumer is never easy, but you’re not alone in thinking that the sheer volume of information available about sustainable packaging can be overwhelming at best, and downright confusing at worst. In the information age, we are used to thinking there must be an ultimate answer to the question, “what’s the BEST packaging option for the environment?” Unfortunately, the answer “it depends…”, whilst frustrating, can’t be denied. This article serves to give an overview of factors about a product’s packaging to consider when parting ways with your cash or postponing the purchase to a rainy day.

Firstly, the usual suspects: ideas that we’d hope would be common knowledge by now, such as moving away from non-recyclable plastic and embracing more sustainable alternatives. Around the world, nearly 370 million tonnes of plastic were created last year alone, and when you take into account that a large proportion of these materials won’t be recyclable, it’s terrifying to think about how exponentially the plastic waste situation could deteriorate. Plastic’s biochemically inert nature compared with other materials makes it a prime culprit for bioaccumulation in our oceans and on land. We’re creating plastic faster than it breaks down, if at all. Therefore, looking for products packed in anything other than non-recyclable plastic is an excellent place to start.

Moreover, the increase in consumption of single-use items, associated with protecting populations from the spread of COVID-19, gives us further food for thought. In a world only just acclimatising to the concept of reusable coffee cups and water bottle refill stations, 2020 threw a metaphorical spanner in the works and dictated a return to our old single-use items out of necessity. Moving closer to a post-pandemic world, though, the progress made beforehand can and must be built upon. Considering the life cycle of what you buy is another basic step towards sustainability you can add to your list.

A jump forward from this might be looking for items that aren’t packaged at all, and it’s exciting to see that this concept is finally making its way into mainstream brands. Bottles of haircare products can be swapped for bars, fresh produce can be bought loose rather than in polyethylene film; how about buying second-hand technology to avoid unnecessary packing materials?

What’s the next stage of eco-consciousness? Maybe it’s uncovering greenwashing to weigh up for yourself whether something is truly sustainable. For example, getting your favourite dairy alternative in an ‘eco-friendly’ glass bottle rather than a carton might appeal, until you learn that producing virgin glass has a higher GWP (Global Warming Potential) than either cartons or plastic bottles according to this article, (mainly due to the C02 emitted during the melting process), and that overseas shipping of glass leads to increased fuel consumption as a result of its weight. Aluminium cans, whilst lighter and easier to transport, are energy-intensive to produce, and the mining and refining necessary to extract the aluminium in the first place has nothing less than a detrimental effect on our environment. Also, when every company is concentrating on luring in eco-conscious consumers with words and phrases like ‘biodegradable’ or ‘up to 30% recycled plastic’ (emphasis on the up to not being a guarantee) plastered over its packaging, it’s important for us to ponder what these actually mean. Some materials only biodegrade under specific conditions not achievable in the average household (e.g. require extremes of temperature, pressure, and/or the presence of certain microorganisms or substances) or they degrade so slowly that they only have a negligible advantage over others. There’s actually no global standard definition of ‘biodegradable’, so check if your country has an approved biodegradability certification to help you make the best choice.

None of the points above has been made in the belief that they are the absolute truth, by the way, rather they are questions to get you thinking and hopefully inspire you to look beyond bold but potentially misleading sustainability claims.

Some factors you might not have considered yet? How about how loose produce is often treated with unsustainable synthetic pesticides, and therefore might still have a detrimental effect on our environment and ecosystems - just like the plastic packaging we’re trying to avoid? Organic items, whilst produced without potentially damaging pesticides, can be more susceptible to spoilage during transport, which could lead to food waste; is it then better to package them? A blog post by one of my new favourite sustainability YouTubers, Gittemary Johansen, goes into more detail about this issue here.

Not only is there the organic vs. zero-waste battle happening in the produce aisle, but also the source of ‘sustainable packaging’ itself to consider. How sustainable are home-compostable bags for a UK business that are shipped from a factory in California, for example? Sometimes, it can seem like we need to play devil’s advocate and question every assumption made about the sustainability of a product in order to reach our own conclusions…

…talking of which, this article had better be rounded up before it grows any longer! This shows how easily a superficial glance at factors to consider when judging the sustainability of packaging can turn into a metaphorical moral minefield. This is only an introduction to the critical thinking methods we can engage in as consumers. As the environmental science community carries out more research, what is known about the relative sustainability of packaging materials is likely to change - rapidly - and we must never forget that even as individuals, we do have the power to effect change on a systemic level by letting the most robust evidence and our values inform our shopping habits.


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