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:

Plastic Free July!

Hi everyone, July is almost here! What does that mean for you? Hotter weather, fireworks and barbecue, maybe a new fiscal year?

Well, did you know it could also mean PLASTIC FREE JULY?!

What is Plastic Free July?

“Plastic Free July is a global yearly challenge where millions of people give up single use plastic during the month of July. It aims to raise awareness of the amount of single-use disposable plastic items in our lives and challenges people to do something about it.” 1millionwomen.com.au

I wanted to write a short post to introduce you to this annual challenge. It was created by the organization plasticfreejuly.org.

Why Go Plastic Free and Not Just Recycle?

Because only 9% of plastic sent to recycling actually gets recycled.

Because recycling is NOT the answer.

Because plastic has entered every ecosystem across the planet.

Plastic containers of convenience food at the supermarket.
Plastic is embedded in our culture, especially surrounding convenience foods. Photo by me.

Let go of Shame

Are you just discovering the ramifications of disposable plastics? Or are you still struggling to take your first step toward eliminating disposable plastic from your house and life? Or have you already gone plastic free?

Whichever situation you find yourself in, the first thing you need to do is let go of any guilt or shame. I don’t want you to feel those emotions when it comes to your habits surrounding plastics, because negative feelings won’t propel you to action.

I want you to feel enlightened, hopeful, enthusiastic. If you’re just starting and you’ve already thought about these issues then you’ve already consciously taken the first step. Go you!

Sign up to take the Challenge!

Resources

There are many organizations, websites, films, and social media groups dedicated to the plastic crisis and about going plastic-free. I’ve listed my favorites on my Recommended Websites page. Please check out some of my other posts related to plastic here and here.

Sea turtle on beach sand.
Image by Amanda Martino on Pexels.

Beyond July

July is a great month to become aware of the problems and to start. However, once July is over you can keep going! You can help prevent the plastic crisis from getting worse. Be the change!

Before you go, if you have four minutes, please watch this video from The Story of Stuff Project:

Thanks for reading, Happy July!

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.

Homeschool Pre-K Lesson on Pollution & Environment

In 2015, I began doing homeschool pre-k lessons with my son. I would put together little thematic lesson plans that we would do together one morning per week. Each lesson would usually incorporate art activities, sensory activities, books related to the topic, a play activity, and writing. I mixed these up with the occasional music component, educational video, trip to a related museum, or nature adventure.

In late 2016, I decided to broach the topic of environmental issues and pollution. Even though he was only 3, I thought my son would get something out of it, and in retrospect, he did! So I thought I’d share some of the activities we did. Feel free to use or share any of these ideas!

Oil Spills

My son still recalls the activity where we put toy animals into blue water polluted by an oil spill. I was inspired by Almost Unschoolers which I found through Pinterest. They used feathers in their experiment, which I did as well as adding toy animals. Both showed how oil spilled in the water stayed on the animals. Here’s what we did:

We started with plain blue water to represent the ocean.

We started with plain blue water to represent the ocean. I used Sargent watercolor magic to dye the water but you can use blue food coloring too. Definitely place a towel under your container – it’s going to be messy and oily!

Next, I mixed cocoa powder with vegetable oil, as recommended by Almost Unschoolers. We started with feathers but then I quickly realized that he’d love playing with his toy animals even more.

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

We added a few more animals as we continued to play and experiment. He observed several times that the oil wouldn’t simply rinse off of the animals nor his hands.

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son experimenting with toy animals in the "oil spill."

My son had so much fun that he asked me to do it again several months later!

Recycling & Composting

Recycling sticker game from the Dollar Tree.I bought a sticker set from the Dollar Tree which included four disposal cans with stickers. The cans represented plastic, paper, aluminum, and compost. My son took the stickers and placed them on the appropriate can and he only needed a little help. It was a fun activity to do together! I also found a similar printable game here.

 

 

Pollution Jar

The last activity we did was to create a pollution jar. I got the idea from Pinterest but cannot credit the blog because it no longer exists. I asked my son to help me choose pieces of trash of various types of materials. We chose different types of plastics, papers, string, etc. We did not use any food waste.

Our pollution jar.

Then we filled the jar with tap water and put the lid on.

Our pollution jar.

We kept this jar for over a year. Over time the materials did not break down, especially the plastics. While that may be obvious to an adult, this was new and interesting information for a preschooler. He thought it was cool. I will say that when I disposed of it, the smell of chemicals from that jar was disturbing.

Other Ideas

We took a walk along the Tennessee River for that lesson as well, just to notice our surroundings. What sounds did we hear? What animals did we see? Did we notice any litter along the river? We talked about how the rivers and oceans are connected; that oceans are full of life; and that water and air are our most precious resources. Even if a young child doesn’t understand everything you’re explaining, know that they are absorbing some of it and admiring your knowledge.

Photo of my son at the Tennessee Aquarium.
We also managed a trip to the Tennessee Aquarium!

If you search “pollution lesson preschool” on Pinterest or Google, you’ll find a ton of additional great ideas!

I hope you can use some of these ideas with your little one. Feel free to ask questions or leave your own idea in the comments below! Thanks for reading, and please subscribe below!

All photos in this post were taken by me.