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:

The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 1

Last updated on December 11, 2021.

Yellow excavator on mounds of waste, Indonesia
Waste pile in Indonesia. Photo by Tom Fisk from Pexels

“Most types of plastic packaging are economically impossible to recycle now and will remain so in the foreseeable future.”1

Waste. We have so much of it that we require large machinery to move it around for us. There’s so much waste that our landfills are overfilling; the ocean is polluted with plastic and toxins; and in parts of the world, people have to spend their days living and working surrounded by large amounts of waste.  This article is the first in a series about the impact of packaging and the packaging industry.

Most packaging comes from items we buy regularly. I recently purchased a bottle of Zyrtec. Almost all medicines come in plastic bottles, but I had to buy a plastic bottle of Zyrtec inside of more plastic packaging! I emailed the company to ask why and if they would consider ending the practice of overpackaging. Unfortunately, Johnson & Johnson, the owner of Zyrtec, sent a generic response: “We appreciate you reaching out to us with your concern. We always value the views and opinions of our consumers…We will make certain your feedback is shared with the appropriate management of our company.” This is the typical response I receive from companies but I keep trying nonetheless.

Zyrtec packaging. Photo by me
Zyrtec packaging surrounding the small plastic bottle of tablets. Photo by me

“Recyclable labels on..consumer plastic products do not provide truthful advertising to American consumers and are a cause of contamination and inefficiency plaguing America’s municipal collection and plastics recycling/reprocessing systems.”2

Packaging is Everyone’s Responsibility

I am a recycler and I encourage you to recycle. But unfortunately, recycling isn’t the answer. Globally only about 9% – 13% of plastics are actually recycled. Since recycling doesn’t work in our current systems, we have to find a better set of solutions. Less packaging is one idea.

Corporations and companies are not doing enough to prevent plastic pollution, especially through the packaging industry. They have the power to stop producing packaging with disposable plastics and the resources to create more sustainable packaging. But we consumers have power too, to convince those companies to change.

“As consumers, we don’t give ourselves enough credit for how powerful we really are…View your purchases as having a direct impact on the goods and services companies choose to make.” -Tom Szaky, TerraCycle

I recently read The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular by Tom Szaky and 15 packaging industry leaders. The book exposed me to more information than I knew existed about packaging and the packaging industry. Then I read other books and several articles about the packaging industry. So I decided to share what I’ve learned with you, in several posts.

Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable "convenience". Photo by me
Single baking potato sold in plastic packaging for microwavable “convenience”. Photo by me

“And then there’s the ubiquitous plastic packaging, which envelops practically every product imaginable, from apples to eggs, foam bath to lipstick, toy cars to printer cartridges.”3

Packaging history

How did we get to today, where we have packaging for every single item? Packaging inside of packaging? So much packaging, often made from either mixed materials or unrecyclable materials, that we now have a waste crisis? How did we get here?

Packaging used to be sustainable and reusable with very little waste. Glass bottles held soft drinks, milk, medicine, etc. Consumers returned these and the companies sanitized and refilled them. During World War II citizens collected scrap metal, paper, rubber, and even cooking waste. Cities sometimes issued quotas for recycling.

Beginning in the post-war era, packaging increased to make life more “convenient” and “easier” for women running households. At the same time, the global population was growing at a higher rate than ever before – tripling between 1950 and 2010. Consumerism grew along with increased wealth and disposable income in the western world. Plastic packaging in all forms became cheaper to create and ship while increasing convenience for consumers.

Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955 about "throwaway living".
Life Magazine article of August 1, 1955

The False Notion that Plastic is More Sanitary

Plastic also became the “sanitary” way to serve and sell food, a somewhat false notion that persists even today. While plastic can prevent foods from cross-contamination and spoilage, it is not the only material that can do so. There are many options but sadly, plastic has become the standard.

DuPont advertising for cellophane wrapped produce
“Clean and fresh” advertising of DuPont cellophane to increase convenience.

“The spreading fear of a contaminated environment has spawned legions of buyers of bottled water, pasteurized egg and dairy products, and irradiated meats and seafood. Packaging can be highly misleading, however.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

For a full history of plastic packaging and plastic in general, I recommend  Susan Freinkel’s Plastic: A Toxic Love Story.

Cover of Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

The Current Situation

“Packaging and containers are the largest segment of municipal solid by waste by product category.” -Beth Porter, author of Reduce, Reuse, Reimagine

Packaging today is out of control. Despite solutions and ideas and innovations, there is far too much packaging in everything, made of all material types. “Today, the average American throws out at least three hundred pounds of packaging a year,” according to Susan Freinkel. In 2017, nearly 30% of U.S. municipal solid waste was from containers and packaging according to the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).4 This amounted to 80.1 million tons. The EPA estimated that about 50% of that was recycled but only 13% of plastics were recycled (but the number is most likely under 10%).

“About half of all goods are now contained, cushioned, shrink-wrapped, blister-packed, clamshelled, or otherwise encased in some kind of plastic.” -Susan Freinkel, Plastic: A Toxic Love Story

Many types of packaging are not recyclable. Even the ones that are recyclable are often not recycled. One solution is to avoid purchasing as many products in packaging as possible, something I often write about. You can read my article on going plastic-free with food consumption.

The sad truth is that branding and marketing often drive packaging design, rather than environmental issues. This is beginning to change, but not at a fast enough pace to keep up with the rate of consumer packaging disposal.

“More often than not, the perceived value of being ‘green’ is trumped by bottom-line costs.” -Daniel Imhoff, Paper or Plastic

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is advertising or promotions in which green marketing is deceptively used to persuade the public that an organization’s products, aims, and policies are environmentally friendly when they are not. Let’s call this what it is: this is false advertising. Here’s a video with excellent explanations:

I encourage you to read up on greenwashing because it’s everywhere!  Many companies participate in this practice. Remember the Volkswagen scandal? Volkswagen intentionally advertised low emissions vehicles but they actually equipped those vehicles with software that cheated emissions testing. Those vehicles emitted as much as 40 times the allowed amount of pollutants. While that’s an extreme example, this happens all of the time and it can be so subtle that you aren’t aware of it.

Please see my list on how to avoid greenwashing.

Consumers expect companies to dedicate themselves to making a positive social or environmental impact…they want to be able to trust them to prioritize ethics. – KoAnn Vikoren Skrzyniarz, founder and CEO of Sustainable Life Media, “Consumers Care,” The Future of Packaging

In my next article, I’ll detail some of these greenwashing terms, such as “biodegradable,” “compostable,” and “bioplastics”.

Thank you for reading! Please watch for future parts of this series by subscribing.

“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 resource:

Article, “The cost of plastic packaging,” by Alexander H. Tullo, Chemical & Engineering News, October 17, 2016.

Footnotes:

Happy Earth Day! But every day should be Earth Day…

Illustration of the Earth
Photo by Pixabay from Pexels.

Happy Earth Day!

Established in 1970, Earth Day celebrates 49 years this year. Next year will be a huge anniversary! The first Earth Day “led to the creation of the United States Environmental Protection Agency and the passage of the Clean Air, Clean Water, and Endangered Species Acts.” You can read the full history of Earth Day at earthday.org.

April 22 marks Earth Day every year. It’s an important day to recognize our beautiful planet, but many of us believe Earth Day should be Every Day. We can make a difference every day. We can be the change. We can participate in daily practices that are small but add up when many of us do them! Follow my blog to learn about changes you can make. Additionally, Earthday.org provided this list of actions, and the good news is a great many of them are small and simple but have a big impact.

How do you celebrate Earth Day?

Earth Day is a day of education and support for protecting the environment, preventing pollution, preserving and protecting all species, curbing climate change. The first thing you can do is commit to change. Pick one change and start there. Refuse plastic, start composting, drive less. There are hundreds of things you can do! Here are ways you can change your habits around food and here are 100 steps to a Plastic-Free life. I’ve also got a recommended list of books.

The next thing you can do is educate yourself, and then others! Many people have no idea about plastic pollution in our oceans. I doubt everyone knows how many species are now classified as endangered. Many believe recycling is enough but it isn’t. Some still believe global warming is a farce.

Once you’re aware of what’s going on, there’s no turning back. Your conscience will help guide you. Your knowledge will help you guide others.

Homeschool Lesson for Earth Day

There are so many ideas on the internet and on Pinterest especially for homeschool lessons on Earth Day, the environment and pollution, and endangered species. I wrote about a lesson on pollution and the environment that I did with my son a while back, but I also did special lessons about Earth Day when he was preschool age. Children will understand why we want to protect our world by learning simple things that explain what the Earth is, what the Earth looks like, and about all the animals, birds, ocean creatures, and humans that inhabit this great planet.

We did an easy puzzle of the Earth, coloring sheets of the planet, tracing activities, and counting games using the Earth as a theme. I found all of them as free printables on the internet from sources like teacherspayteachers.com and blogs like this that I found through Pinterest.

We made a paper mache globe based on a blog post from Housing a Forest. Here’s what ours looked like (my son was only 3 at the time):

My son painting our paper mache Earth.
My son painting our paper mache Earth. Photo by me.
The "completed" version of our paper mache Earth.
The “completed” version of our paper mache Earth. Photo by me.

We also read books about the environment and protecting our world, like the one below, which teaches that we need to take care of our Earth every day. You can find many other recommended books on my Children’s Book page.

Earth Day Every Day book cover

 

But even if you don’t have children, you can still help people understand when the topics come up in conversation. And those conversations will come up. Won’t you be excited to share your knowledge?

What else can you do?

So. Many. Things.

You can plant trees (maybe even hug them!), clean up litter (join the Litterati!), join an environmentally conscience community organization, refuse disposable products, grow a garden at home or in your community, take the bus or ride a bicycle to work, eat healthier foods that aren’t processed or sold in wasteful packaging, strive for zero waste, donate to back an educational project or school program, go minimalist, donate to help protect a species, etc. Just pick something that speaks to you and do it.

Love the Earth. Then help spread that love.

You can also subscribe to my blog to learn more with me as I continue my journey!

Tennessee leaders prohibit local governments from being able to issue bans on single-use pollutants

Last updated August 7, 2021.

I know. That doesn’t make any sense.

I read this article and was thoroughly confused at first. Why on Earth would anyone vote for such legislation?

Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019.
Front page article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press, March 8, 2019

The physical copy’s headline is “Protecting Plastic” and is on the front page of the newspaper. The first sentence summarizes:

A surprise amendment to a state bill would make it illegal for municipalities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for many single-use plastic items that have polluted Tennessee waterways at an alarming rate.

This ridiculous measure was added on at the last minute. “The bill is being passed as an amendment to a totally unrelated bill, which pertains to county district boundary maps.”

The article, “Amendment to Tennessee bill would make it illegal for cities to regulate, prohibit or charge a fee for single-use pollutants,” explains that House Bill 1021 is just that. This would mean that there could be no single-use disposable plastic ban in Chattanooga, Tennessee. There could be no plastic bag ban or in Knox or Davidson County. No city or county would be able to lead the way for the rest of the state with a ban. And the State of Tennessee, so far, has no interest in producing legislation banning these types of materials.

They are called “single-use pollutants” for a reason

Often made of plastic, single-use items are created specifically to be purchased and used only one time by the consumer. The consumer then disposes of the item. Even if the consumer recycled that item, we know that only 9% of plastics are actually recycled.

Many single-use items surround food, convenience foods specifically. Here, I define convenience foods like fast foods, processed and packaged foods, convenience store foods, and take-out food.

Single-use items made of plastic include:

    • Straws
    • Disposable drink cups
    • Fast-food or take-out containers
    • Plastic utensils for take-out or fast food
    • Single drink bottles (soda, water, juice)
    • Coffee cups and plastic cups from coffee and juice bars
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay.
Photo of single-use disposal trash, mostly from food and beverages. Image by filmbetrachterin on Pixabay

In addition to those, think of single-use plastic bags. Feel free to read my posts on the film Bag It or on one southern coastal town that took measures in 2018 to ban single-use plastic bags to protect the environment. I think we should be thinking the same thing, and I know many agree.

Plastic bag found in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me.
I found this plastic bag in a parking lot not far from the Tennessee River. Photo by me

“Shortly after the [City of San Jose] imposed its Bring Your Pwn Bag Ordinance in 2012, single-use plastic bag debris decreased by 89 percent in storm drains and 60 percent in creeks and rivers. Bag bans work.” -Anne-Marie Bonneau

The Tennessee River is already polluted with microplastics

In a study published late last year, a German scientist revealed at the Tennessee Aquarium’s Conservation Institute that there is an extreme amount of plastics and microplastics in the Tennessee River. More than other large rivers with larger populations. And that river leads straight to the Gulf, dumping those plastics into the ocean as well. So why would we stop local governments from trying to do the right thing by protecting the environment, along with human health? Why are we protecting plastic?

Plastic bottle floating in the Tennessee River. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me.
Plastic Powerade bottle floating in the Tennessee River across from the Tennessee Aquarium. I was able to fish it out. Photo by me

“Single use plastics clog our stormwater systems, pollute our waterways, kill wildlife and eventually result in microplastics in our water system,” the Tennesse chapter of the Sierra Club wrote. “Local communities know best how to handle their unique challenges with single-use plastics, and unless the state wants to enact a ban across Tennessee, the General Assembly should stay out of their way.”

Politics

Regardless of political party, if you’re a Tennessean, you are most likely connected to the outdoors. Whether it’s fishing, hiking, biking, climbing, or boating, Tennesseans love our outdoor activities. And we like to share them with the tourists who visit here. We want to protect tourism in large and small cities in Tennessee, many of which are connected to the Tennessee River. So what sense does it make to jeopardize our beautiful outdoor spaces by proposing legislation to make the environmental problems worse?

State Representative Susan Lynn explained that regulations and bans surrounding single-use pollutants should only be implemented at the state level. Local governments should not because they “stand to create a patchwork of very confusing local regulations that make it really hard to run a business and very expensive.” Obviously, I completely disagree. That leaves no place for one municipality to lead the way for the rest.

Tennessee Senator Mike Bell supports the bill as well. He advocates for uniform state regulations regarding business. He claimed in that article that Tennessee was rated “Number 1” in the nation for small businesses in recent years. I searched the internet to verify this information and was unable to find information. I did not that find a source that even places Tennessee in the top 5, including reputable sources such as Forbes and Fortune.

Another supporter of banning plastic bans

Grant Kidwell, the Director of energy, environment, and agriculture task force at the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC), said he does not believe bans are the right way to deal with the pollutants. ALEC is a non-partisan voluntary membership organization of state legislators “dedicated to the principles of limited government.” However, placing a ban on bans at the state level is not limited government – isn’t that over-governing?

Kidwell’s work has focused mainly on energy, although he’s written at least one article before arguing that there are too many bad food and plastic bag policies. Even so, he wrote that “the type of container people use to buy food, clothes, or any other items is a decision that should be made by businesses and their consumers.” Great, let the people decide. But don’t stop them from advocating for a local ban through state legislation.

“We believe it’s better to try to improve public waste collection.,” Kidwell also said. Clearly, he does not understand that our waste management systems are broken. Or that single-stream recycling systems are inherently dysfunctional.

Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me.
Photo of a fast food meal I had last year on the road. I now try to avoid any restaurants that serve plastic and more plastic. Photo by me

Oil

The real worry is that those protecting plastics are really trying to protect oil and natural gas interests. Plastics are made from both materials, petroleum and natural gas. Companies producing petroleum and plastic products will protect their interests, and often over any environmental or human health concern. The United States is the largest consumer of oil by nation, consuming nearly 913.3 million metric tons of oil in 2017. We are also the largest natural gas consumers in the world.

What can you do?

I called both of my representatives’ offices to oppose the bill, and my messages were “passed along.” However, I am sad to report that House Bill 1021 passed the House and Senate and Governor Bill Lee signed it into law on April 12, 2019.

But you can ban single-use disposable plastics from your own life. Avoid purchasing single-use products!

Feel free to leave me a comment below, and don’t forget to subscribe. Thank you for reading.

 

Footnotes: