In recent years, we are becoming more and more aware of our impact as humans on our planet. We are realising that our decisions as consumers can have potentially devastating effects on wildlife and the environment. Marine life has been negatively affected by increasing amounts of plastic in our oceans. Documentaries such as David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II was a sobering reminder of these current state of affairs.
There is an increase in the use of buzz words such as ‘eco-friendly packaging’ floating around in today’s marketplace. But what does this actually mean? 3 key terms are used to describe these more eco-friendly packaging options. Recyclable, biodegradable and compostable. Below, we delve into what each term actually means and the impact on our environment.
Recycling is the process whereby used materials are made into something new. This ultimately keeps them out of landfill, and brings new life to the materials. Plastics, paper, glass and aluminium are materials that can commonly be recycled. However, there are limits on how many times certain materials can be recycled. Glass and aluminium can in fact be recycled an indefinite number of times, without loss of quality. The composition of standard plastics and paper, means they can only be recycled a few times before they become unusable.
In recent times, there has been growing consumer demand for clearer recycling information on packaging. Especially when you consider that there is 7 different types of plastic, with only some being widely recycled. This adds to consumer confusion, coupled with differing recycling rules for individual UK local councils.
It is also important to wash out and clean packaging before putting it into a recycling bin. When recycling items reach the sorting centre, a heavily contaminated item can affect the entire batch of surrounding items. They would potentially all be sent to landfill or put into household waste. The current contamination rate for recycling shockingly sits at around 25%. Ultimately, not washing your packaging means the efforts of individuals who are doing so, can also be wasted. So in summary, its important!
Biodegradable is the term used to explain that a material can break down over time. Organisms such as bacteria and fungi are able to do so under certain conditions including specific temperatures and humidity levels.
The issue with companies labelling packaging as biodegradable comes from the hugely varying times materials take to degrade. Some materials may take 50 years, others 1000 years. Therefore, the term biodegradable may not necessarily mean that the material is good for the environment. For example, a plastic cup sitting in a forest for 200 years isn’t exactly the image of eco-friendly we have in mind.
Some materials which degrade in landfill can actually cause negative damage to the environment, as they release greenhouse gases as they break down. This is the case with certain plastics, which produce methane after starting to degrade following exposure to sunlight.
Compostable products are made from natural materials, such as starch. Materials that are compostable have proven to be able to break down entirely into non-toxic components and not leave any harm to the soil. In order for a product to be classified as compostable it must meet the regulations laid out in The European Standard EN 13432. The time this decomposition takes varies, but in order to be labelled as compostable it must be within 180 days.
A number of compostable products need to be sent to an industrial composting facility in order to break down, and are not suitable for home composting. It is therefore important to look out for the words ‘home compostable’ on product labels. If compostable packaging is added to the recycling bin, it can contaminate the other items. Some UK councils also have a compost/food waste collection, which these items can be added to for industrial composting.
The most attractive element of a compostable item is the fact that it can return to the earth within a relatively short time frame. Therefore, it can help to ease pressure on landfills and does not add toxic material to our soils.
So, in summary, it’s important to note that not all products which label themselves as ‘eco-friendly’ may in fact be so. As consumers, we still may need to take the time to understand more about our packaging and what its impact on our earth is.