A Packaging Hierarchy (For When Zero's Not an Option)

Here’s a word of encouragement to all the aspiring low wasters who simply don’t have the right resources in their communities to get to zero: even if you can’t avoid packaging altogether, you can still take control over WHICH packaging you bring into your home. And by doing so you can still reduce your environmental impact. Anybody else taking more than a bit of comfort in that fact, and letting some of their packaging guilt melt away?
Maybe the concept that some packaging is more earth-friendly than others is painfully obvious. But maybe it’s still not-so-obvious just where each type of material ranks in comparison. Have you ever pondered whether it’s more eco-friendly to drink beer out of a glass bottle or an aluminum can? Well here are a few things to think about.

We’ll preface this discussion by noting that putting together a bulletproof ranking would require a pretty detailed life cycle analysis with multiple rating criteria that could get a little subjective. Instead of making this more complicated than it needs to be, we’ll assign grades to common packaging types based on some key considerations.

Recyclable Plastic (D+)

Because plastic is made from fossil fuels, recyclable or not, it isn’t a renewable resource and should be avoided whenever possible. Even if a plastic product is recyclable, many plastics can only be recycled once and will end up in a landfill at the end of their second life. Regardless of how many times a plastic can be recycled, the number is always finite. And even if a plastic product has a recycling symbol, your local curbside collector might not end up recycling it. If your packaging has recycling number 3, 4, 6, or 7, there’s a pretty good chance it’s destined for the landfill.
If you want to learn more about what each recycling number means, check out this website. 

Non-Recyclable Plastic (D-)

All the things we said about recyclable plastic and then some. One example of non-recyclable plastic is mixed plastic (think Starbucks cups, ice cream containers, and chip bags). 

Aluminum (B+)

Aluminum is non-renewable, meaning it is mined from the earth and won’t be regenerated at the same rate that it is used. However, aluminum is recycling gold. It’s often the single most valuable material for your recycling provider, so they are extra motivated to make sure it doesn’t end up in the landfill. What’s more, aluminum can be recycled indefinitely without losing quality. As long as it spends its life in the hands of eco-minded consumers, it never has to end up in the landfill!

Glass (B+)

Glass, like aluminum, doesn’t downgrade in quality during the recycling process, and can theoretically be recycled indefinitely. And glass is also relatively profitable compared to other recyclable materials (albeit less profitable than aluminum). And similar to aluminum, glass is considered non-renewable, since it is made from sand (a la Sweet Home Alabama) and therefore doesn’t regenerate at the rate it is used. We’re tempted to rank glass slightly lower than aluminum for two reasons: (1) since it’s less profitable to a recycler, they might be less likely to recover every glass item in the recycling process, and (2) it’s significantly heavier than aluminum, meaning that it will require more resources for transportation. With that said, the process to extract aluminum from the earth is more climate-damaging than glass. In short, the jury is still out. Drink your beer by any means you choose. Just be sure to recycle the can or bottle when you’re done!

Paper or Cardboard (B)

Paper is considered by many to be renewable, meaning that it can be regenerated (trees can be grown) at the rate that it’s used. And it might be comforting to know that paper is recyclable. And maybe the paper you buy is already recycled. But, like plastic, paper can only be recycled a finite number of times before it becomes landfill or compost waste. It certainly ranks higher than plastic in that it can be composted at the end of its recyclable life and doesn’t take hundreds of years to break down. But, the fact that paper is not indefinitely recyclable and that it is made of *arguably* one of our most precious resources makes it less than an ideal packaging option. Moreover, there are few foods that paper can package without being contaminated and losing its recyclability.

Bio-Based Plastic (B-)

Bio-based plastic looks, feels, and acts like plastic, but is made from a renewable biological resource such as starch. While it beats plastic on nearly every count, bio-based plastic can be neither recycled nor composted by the majority of curbside services in the U.S. Many bio-based plastics may be advertised as compostable or biodegradable, but this may not mean that you can bury them in the backyard, rather that they can breakdown in an industrial high-heat compost system. So, due to the lack of infrastructure supporting proper disposal of bio-based plastic, there’s a pretty good chance that they will end up in the landfill (or the ocean).
It’s worth mentioning that sometimes when there aren’t eco-friendly packaging options, skipping the product altogether might be a smart choice. One great example of this is candy bars. Candy bars are almost always packaged in non-recyclable mixed plastic, which sucks. But maybe it’s okay to have a reason to think twice about eating a candy bar.

When neither avoidance nor zero-packaging is possible, be assured that you may still have the ability to make a sustainable choice! If you want to learn more about circular packaging options, we highly recommend this free online course. We’d love to hear how you’ve opted for sustainable packaging -- comment below or reach out to us on Instagram! And sign up for our mailing list before you go!

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