The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 2

Last updated on September 9, 2021.

Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

In my last article, I introduced the topic of packaging and the environmental crisis it has created. I left off with an explanation of greenwashing (read here about how to avoid greenwashed products), and in this article, I’m going to describe two terms that are often misused in advertising.

Remember: the answer to packaging is to reduce our reliance on it; to stop using it.

Styrofoam cup floating in water with plantlife
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

“Biodegradable” and “Compostable”

If only these words were the solutions to our global packaging problem! Unfortunately, they are two of the most abused terms in greenwashed advertising. Biodegradable refers to any material that decomposes in the environment. Compostable means that the material is organic matter that will break down and turn into soil. These words do not always mean what we think when it comes to sustainable packaging. In fact, if biodegradable and compostable items go into the trash and then a landfill, they do not biodegrade. Nothing in a landfill breaks down. Worse, the contents of landfills release methane gas, a major contributor to global warming.

But misleading marketing makes us believe that biodegradable plastics are better. “According to the Federal Trade Commission’s Green Guides, it is deceptive to market a product as biodegradable if the item does not completely decompose within one year after customary disposal, so items that are customarily disposed of in landfills cannot be marketed as ‘biodegradable in landfills.'”1 Regardless, the term is often misused.

Biodegradable plastics will only break down under the right conditions, such as in an industrial composting facility, not in a backyard composting system. But commercial composting facilities don’t all accept even certified compostable plastic products because the chemicals in the plastic hurt the final value of the compost.

Industrial Composting Facilities

There are several types of composting systems. A home compost system is mainly food and yard waste that you can set up yourself. Commercial composting refers to a municipal or city composting facility that accepts food and/or yard waste. An industrial composting facility requires precise processing conditions under a controlled biotechnological process. In order to be effective, these conditions include a certain high temperature, moisture level, aeration, pH, and carbon/nitrogen ratio.

Industrial composting facilities are not available in many places. There are about 200 in the US, serving less than 5% of the population. If there is notince

If there is a facility in your area, it still does not guarantee the items will be composted. The reality is that many facilities cannot tell the difference between compostable plastics from regular plastics other than by carefully reading the label on each item. This is not practical with the number of disposables we currently discard, so many items go to the landfill.

Examples

Let’s look at three examples of greenwashed and problematic products.

Wincup polystyrene disposable cups

I saw this single-use disposable coffee cup on the campus where I work. A colleague had purchased coffee at the cafeteria and the images of green leaves and biodegradable claims drew my interest. The company, called WinCup and based out of Stone Mountain, Georgia, claims to be a leading manufacturer of disposable polystyrene products.

First, these cups will not biodegrade unless they are put into biologically active landfills, which are far and few between. On their website, they claim that their “cups biodegrade 92% over 4 years” and “under conditions that simulate a wetter, biologically active landfill.”2 What is this type of landfill? My understanding is that it is similar to an industrial composting facility, in the facility adds moisture to assist with breakdown.

Most people toss these cups into the regular trash, which then goes to landfills. This is the case where I work (I have plans to meet with cafeteria management to come up with better solutions for food and drinkware). These cups will not break down in a landfill. Additionally, if these cups end up in the ocean, they will likely not break down and will also leach toxins. When marine life ingests those toxins, they make their way up through the food chain to us.

BASF ecovio line

BASF, a major chemical corporation, claims to “combine economic success with environmental protection and social responsibility.”3 I found some greenwashed marketing on their website about compostable plastic:

BASF website screenshot for "compostable" plastic

BASF used Ecovio film applications to make organic waste bags, fruit and vegetable bags, carrier bags, agricultural films, etc. Their claim is that the product is compostable, but the fine print indicates it is compostable “under the conditions of an industrial composting plant.”4

Screenshot from BASF's website about their compostable bags

This picture is misleading, as it shows a person putting a bag of compost into a compost bin. This gives the impression that these bags will break down in any compost collection when that is not the case. BASF’s compostable certification is the ASTM D6400, which is specifically for industrial composting facilities.5 Those are not available in most municipalities or states. If these products go into a landfill, it makes no environmental impact whatsoever. They also cause the same pollution problems as regular plastic.

A person holding 'compostable' plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York.
‘Compostable’ plastic cups found at Jones Beach State Park, Long Island, New York. Don’t buy these! Photo by Brian Yurasits on Unsplash

Molded fiber take-out packaging

molded fiber take out container

These “compostable” and “plastic alternative” molded fiber take-out containers seemed like a magnificent alternative to plastic until they were discovered to contain PFOAs (per- and poly-fluoroalkyl substances). These chemicals, protect the fibers from becoming wet and soggy. The same compounds are in most nonstick cookware. They cause cancer, thyroid disease, reproductive problems, and immunotoxicity in children.

Though marketed as compostable, these chemicals do not disappear. They get into the soil from the compost, and potentially into whatever is grown in that soil. Worse, these chemicals make it into the waterways and eventually into our drinking water.

My family ate out of these types of containers multiple times. Of course, I had no idea the time that these contained PFOAs. Many major eateries have stopped using these.

Solution

In general, we must consume less. We must end the production and use of single-use disposable items. Most importantly, being aware of these problems is key because we can all make a difference.

In my next article about packaging, I’ll explain bioplastics, which are often advertised as biodegradable or compostable. Thank you for reading, and please subscribe to get the next post in your inbox!

“If you want to eliminate waste in your life – and in the world – the answers will always come down to one simple thing: consume differently.” -Tom Szaky

Additional Resources:

Article, “The bowls at Chipotle and Sweetgreen are supposed to be compostable. They contain cancer-linked ‘forever chemicals,'” by Joe Fassler, TheCounter.org, August 5, 2019. Read this excellent article for more information on molded fiber food containers.

Article, “The breakdown of biodegradable plastic, broken down,” by Sarah DeWeerdt, Anthropocene Magazine, May 7, 2019.

Article, “Will compostable packaging ever be able to solve our waste problem?” by Adele Peters, fastcompany.com, September 3, 2019.

Footnotes:

Only You Can Prevent Beach Trash

Trash with the words "100% Leakproof" on it
“100% Leakproof”

In my recent post about my trip to Hilton Head Island and its environmental consciousness, I mentioned that the beaches are really clean and well maintained. Even with their efforts, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these into my  Litterati app (also see my post on Litterati).

I thought I could put the images of my trash to good use, to show people how they can prevent beach and ocean pollution!

I bet you already know a lot of this. But if you share this post, it might enlighten others who will then use preventative measures. And then the world can be a less polluted place!

Common Types of Beach Trash

I noticed that the same types of trash commonly appear on beaches all over the country. So I’ve divided this post into sections based on the common types of trash I’ve found.

Image of a Plastic water bottle in the surf.
Plastic water bottle almost in the surf.

Plastic drink bottles and caps

These are the most common items I pick up EVERYWHERE, and not just on beaches. Our love affair with drinks in single-use disposable plastic bottles and cups (I’m including styrofoam in this classification because styrofoam is chemically a plastic) is completely out of control. I even picked a red Solo cup that I used to collect cigarette butts and microplastics! Here’s just a few images of the many single-use disposable drink items I picked up:

What can you do?

Buy a reusable drink container (or two) and use that for all your liquid refreshments. I have two: a Kleen Kanteen for water; and a Hydroflask coffee cup. They handle pretty much everything.

If you must buy a beverage, please dispose of it properly.

Food and snack wrappers

I find this type of litter on the beach (and everywhere else) very often. This includes food wrappers, containers, zipper bags, etc. Below is an image of a washed-up cannonball jellyfish next to the plastic lid of a cylindric chip container.

Plastic bottle cap next to a washed up jellyfish.
Plastic lid next to a washed-up jellyfish.

Here are some additional examples of food and snack wrappers:

What can you do?

Follow the saying, “Leave it cleaner than you found it.” Or “carry in, carry out.” Don’t lose track of your trash and disposables. Put them inside of your beach bag until you can find a proper trash can. You can also consume less prepackaged food, which will be better for your health as well.

Beach Toys

This is one item that is particular to beaches but so easily preventable. Children scatter and lose their things easily, and almost all beach toys are made of plastic. When these items are left on the beach, they go straight into the ocean during high tide.

Toy pink crab sand toy.

You can see how easily small toys are overlooked in the next image. Can you guess what that is?A toy buried in the sand.

If you guessed a toy car, you’ve got a good eye! A toy car buried in the sand.

Here are some other examples of left behind or broken toys:

Yellow plastic toy boat.
We found this and my son named it “Mr. Boat.” It’s the only toy we kept – the rest we donated.

In particular, we found multiple plastic bucket straps, as they are not usually permanently affixed. These are easily forgotten about but this cheap plastic will make it into the ocean by the next morning.

There are a few brands, such as Green Toys, that features a rope strap that is not easily removed. The bucket is even made of recycled plastic. It’s the one we own and play with year-round.

What about the packaging for all of those beach toys?

A plastic net bag that the plastic beach toys were sold in.
A plastic net bag that the plastic beach toys were sold in, from American Plastic Toys Inc.

Below are images of a discarded boogie board left at a wash station near the beach. I’d seen these little styrofoam balls lining parts of the beach and I couldn’t figure out what they were from. I did not manage to get a good photo of them. Once I found this broken board and looked at it closely, I could see that these are cheap boards are simply nylon or polyester fabric (fabrics made from plastics) over styrofoam. You could not make a worse product for the beach – a product meant to be used in the water that is made of cheap materials and not meant to last more than one vacation – WOW.

Please don’t buy these. This one made it into a proper trash can, but how many end up in the ocean?

What about the dog’s toys? These can be easily lost. And yes, they are made of plastics and other synthetics.

A yellow tennis ball made by Kong.

What can you do?

The best thing you can do is to not leave beach toys behind, obviously. The best way to keep track of your children’s toys is simply to own less of them. Perhaps just one bucket and one shovel, for example. In general, kids don’t need many toys when playing outdoors to stay entertained and engaged. Besides the sand and water, the beach offers so many shells, sticks, seaweed and other washed up items that kids are curious about and love to experiment with.

Place broken toys in your beach bag immediately so that it doesn’t get left behind.

As for dog toys, how about throwing a stick for Fido instead of a ball or plastic Frisbee?

Items related to smoking

This is another common item I find everywhere and not just at the beach. Cigarette butts are made of synthetic materials that do not biodegrade. Plastic lighters are found in the stomach of birds and marine animals. Honestly, I used to smoke a long time ago and I sometimes threw cigarette butts on the ground. I had no idea how bad they were for the environment. I pick them up regularly now as part of my Litterati mission, as I feel like I owe the environment for this terrible habit I used to have.

Cigarette lighter lying in the ocean's surf.

I gathered dozens of cigarette butts and several lighters on the beach, here are a few examples:

I also picked up plastic tips from Swisher Sweets, which if you’re not familiar, are inexpensive flavored tip cigarillos.

What can you do?

Don’t smoke! But if you do, can you please discard your waste properly?

Straws

Aren’t straws like so last year?

No, not really. Not yet. Despite straw bans in different parts of the world.

Everywhere we went in Hilton Head served straws, sometimes automatically in the drink. I’m not criticizing the Island for this, because it happens in my town too. But I hope all eateries eventually end this practice. The exception was the Watusi Cafe on Pope Avenue, which served paper straws – thank you!!!

What can you do?

Ask the server to not give you a straw before he or she brings your drink. I used to decline the straws when the server would set them down on the table, but since so many places automatically put them in the drink I try to cut them off at the pass. Once that straw is opened and in a drink, it doesn’t matter whether or not I use it – it will now be trashed.

I don’t use a straw very often anymore, but if I need one, I have my Final Straw.

Plastic Bags

I still found a couple of plastic bags on the beach despite the town’s ban on plastic bags!

What can you do?

Decline plastic bags no matter where you live! Bring your own cloth bag.

If you don’t have a bag, can you carry your items without one? I can’t tell you how many times I’ve stopped at a store and purchased one item that the cashier bagged. I don’t need a bag for one item! Give them the bag back right away and say thanks but no thanks!

Many stores do have a paper bag option if you ask for one. If not, they likely have an empty box readily available that you can put your purchases in.

Beach tent/umbrella parts

Many people bring their own beach tents and umbrellas to the beach, but there is sometimes waste associated with those items. Below you can see where I found a plastic tent stake accidentally left behind and a zip tie of which I found several. The last image is of a full plastic water bottle tied to a nylon string. I found this buried in the sand but the string was sticking out. Once I pulled it out, it was obvious that this was most likely used as a weight to hold something down. Clever – but forgotten, an immediate pollutant – this would’ve been in the ocean after high tide.

What can you do?

Collect all of the parts to your tents and umbrellas, even if it’s trash. Double check before you leave that you haven’t forgotten anything.

Everyday Non-Beach items

I find many items on the beach that are not necessarily beach items but items that people use daily. These items include wet wipes or baby wipes (most often not made of anything biodegradable even if the packaging makes that claim); dryer sheets; plastic dental picks; cellophane; condom wrappers; and even a bullet casing (pictured below).

Wet wipe or baby wipe in the sand
Wet wipe or baby wipe
Wet wipe or baby wipe in the sand
Wet wipe or baby wipe
Dryer sheet in the sand
Dryer sheet
Bullet casing on the beach
Bullet Casing

The most surprising things I’ve found on a beach were plastic tampon applicators in the Gulf of Mexico. At first, I thought, there’s no way someone changed their tampon on the beach! But I found not just one, but multiple of these and I’ve also since found them along the Tennessee River. It dawned on me that these items were not left behind by careless beach-goers, but more likely washed up from trash and from sewage disposal that made it into the ocean. It turns out they are colloquially known as “beach whistles” among litter collectors.

"Beach whistle," or tampon applicator
“Beach whistle,” or tampon applicator

What can you do?

In general, the best thing you can do is cut down on disposable items and especially single-use disposable plastic items. Even if you’re not leaving these items on the beach, they’re making it onto the beaches and the items are only a portion of what’s washed up from the ocean. Meaning, there’s way more in the ocean.

The answer is to not use disposable items. It sounds difficult, but it can be done. Just work on solving one problem at a time – that’s what I’m doing and sharing with you on this blog!

Beach sunset

Thanks for reading, please subscribe in the box above. Love your beaches and ocean. And keep being the change!

This post does not contain any affiliate links. All images in this post were taken by me.

Inspiration abounds on Hilton Head Island

Hilton Head Island after sunrise
Hilton Head Island just after sunrise.

If you read my post about my family’s weekend trip to Hilton Head Island last fall, then you already know how much we love the island. We recently returned from a week-long trip there, and inspiration was all around! Besides the natural beauty of the island and the gorgeous beaches, there are many environmentally conscious things I appreciate about Hilton Head Island.

My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
My son sitting in the surf, looking out at the vast and beautiful ocean.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.
Sunset on Hilton Head Island.

Plastic bag ban in Beaufort County, South Carolina

They implemented a plastic bag ban last fall, and I am here to tell you that from a tourist’s perspective, businesses have not been hurt by this. People were shopping in all the shops and supermarkets and the plastic bag ban did not seem to deter anyone from spending money. I have not found any studies on the result of this ban in the last 8 months, but I imagine the impact has been huge!

Unfortunately, I did find one article indicating that Target and Walmart are using supposedly “reusable” plastic bags. But since they are made of the same material as regular plastic bags, they defeat the whole purpose. I did not happen to shop at either store while there so I did not witness this first hand. As the article noted, that is disappointing.

At the other shops and stores I visited, I personally received only paper bags when I didn’t have my cloth bags with me. I love it! Can’t we do this everywhere?

Dunes with a palm tree.
Gorgeous dunes on HHI.

Wildlife

There’s a lot of cherished and protected wildlife on the island. We saw all types of birds, including pelicans – my favorite! We saw dolphins, tons of fish, and several types of crabs. There are also bald eagles, alligators, and turtles living on the island but we didn’t personally get to see those this time. The local government’s website educates on sustainable living, the types of local wildlife, native plants, biodiversity, ecosystems, and how everyone can help protect those things.

Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Pelicans flying in a line over the ocean near sunset.
Baby crab, dark gray.
Baby crab!

Sea Turtle Conservation Efforts

Although we did not see sea turtles this trip, we saw at least 7 cordoned loggerhead sea turtle nest areas. They were marked with orange signs provided by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, which alerts the public about the protection of this endangered species through federal and state laws.

Loggerhead sea turtle nest sign, cordoned and marked by the South Carolina department of Natural Resources.
Loggerhead sea turtle nest, cordoned by the South Carolina Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area), cordoned off by the SC Department of Natural Resources.
Three loggerhead turtle nests on the north end of the island (Port Royal area). The SC Department of Natural Resources cordoned the nests.

Many Atlantic coast towns have laws, regulations, and organizations to protect sea turtle nests. On Hilton Head Island, lights on buildings and hotels cannot shine in the direction of the beach. People are only permitted to use red or “turtle-safe” flashlights on the beach between 10 p.m. and 6 a.m. between May and October. They have a volunteer organization that patrols, monitors, and reports on sea turtle nests. They also clean up beach litter and plastics.

I read this article about a Kemp’s Ridley turtle making a nest on Hilton Head Island, a first-time event for the most endangered of all the sea turtle species! Wow!

The Coastal Discovery Museum has an “Adopt-a-Nest” Program, which not only sponsors the protection of a sea turtle nest but also supports the museum’s educational programs. Of course, this idea excited me so I absolutely adopted a nest while writing this post! They emailed me to let me know that my nest will be the 277th one this year and that they’ll keep me informed on the progress of my adopted nest.

Can I inspire you to adopt a nest as well? Just use the link above!

Baby sea turtles on the beach.
Photo by Skeeze on Pixabay.

Coastal Discovery Museum

The Coastal Discovery Museum on the island is a great non-profit and Smithsonian Affiliate, dedicated to educating and protecting the natural resources, history, and ecosystems of the region. Their mission “inspires people to care for the Lowcountry,” through their many programs, exhibits, talks, and tours. What a great organization.

We’ve visited several times in past years but this year we did a Dolphin and Nature Cruise with the museum and really enjoyed it. And yes, we did see dolphins! The museum docent provided a dolphin skull replica and spoke about the anatomy, diet, and lifestyle of the local dolphins. The captain provided a rich tour about the history and nature of the island. Both the captain and museum docent were very knowledgeable and kept the passengers engaged for the entirety of the cruise. They even let each of the kids drive the boat for a few minutes!

My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.
My son driving the boat on the Dolphin & Nature Cruise.

Beach Trash

Hilton Head Island’s beaches are very clean and well maintained. And there are both trash and recycling cans up and down the beach. Even so, I still picked up about 300 pieces of trash during my week there. Of course, I logged these through Litterati (see also my post on Litterati). My next post will be about the types of trash I found and what you can do to prevent beach trash and ocean pollution!

Thanks for reading, and please subscribe!

All photographs in this post were taken by me except where otherwise indicated.

Support “The Story of Plastic”

Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash
Rubber duckies are actually made of plastic. Photo by JOSHUA COLEMAN on Unsplash

Have you ever heard of The Story of Stuff? It’s a 20-minute film that is “a fast-paced, fact-filled explanation of the consumerist economy.” It began with the writer and the founder of The Story of Stuff Project, Annie Leonard. She’s an amazing person and a leader in environmental and social issues. It is 100% worth your time to watch, I promise!

The Story of Story Project has since come out with more than a dozen high-quality short documentary films that explain the relationship between consumer products and environmental problems. But their newest one is really exciting!!! It’s called…

The Story of Plastic

“These days, more and more of our Stuff is being made from one very problematic material: plastic.” They want to tell the hidden stories surrounding plastic. The production, the pollution, the health hazards. This is their first feature-length film. Here’s a trailer for their film:

Do we need another film about plastic?

Yes, we do. There aren’t enough of them. The ones that do exist are really good and the message is getting out, but we need even more people to hear and see and understand the message: Plastic is ruining our environment, poisoning us (cancer, endocrine and thyroid diseases, etc.), and littering our landscape. The Earth is SO Beautiful – don’t we want it to stay that way?

And recycling is not the answer because only 9% of our plastic is actually getting recycled! That means 91% is ending up in landfills, the ocean, the rivers and lakes, beaches, parks, and our neighborhoods. It even ends up in our food and water that we drink.

plastic waste environment, Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash
Photo by John Cameron on Unsplash

The Story of Stuff Project is fundraising to complete this project. Please help me support this worthy cause. They are asking people to become “a Plastic Insider by starting a recurring monthly donation supporting The Story of Plastic production fund today.” There are insider perks: your name will be in the credits of the film and you gain access to behind the scenes videos. Here’s a video of supporters who spend their lives on a sailboat:

I signed up as a monthly, recurring donor today. Can you help too? You can also make a one-time donation in any amount you’d like. And if you’re really ambitious, you can create your own Facebook fundraiser!

“The Story of Plastic isn’t just a movie. It’s a call to action.”

Are you as excited about this film as I am? Leave a comment below! Thank you for reading.

Update 04/30/2020: This film has been released! It’s available on amazon.com and other places listed on the Story of Plastic’s website. I can’t wait to watch it!