The Packaging Industry and How We Can Consume Differently, Part 3

Last updated on February 13, 2022.

Image of a green earth with green recycling arrows
Image by annca on Pixabay.

In my first article, I introduced the topic of packaging – its history, the current problems with packaging, and I introduced greenwashing. In my second article, I wrote about the terms biodegradable and compostable, and how those terms are often misused. Now we will explore bioplastics.

Bioplastics

Bioplastics are used in packaging which is then marketed as sustainable, and even as biodegradable. “Most biodegradable and compostable plastics are bioplastics, made from plants rather than fossil fuels.” Mike Manna of Organic Recycling Solutions explained just that in his appropriately titled essay, “The Myth of Biodegradability” in The Future of Packaging: From Linear to Circular.

But biodegradability hinges on two key factors. First, raw materials used in bioplastics are more sustainably sourced than petroleum-based plastic. “Many bioplastics are not 100 percent made of natural biomass. To be called a bioplastic, they generally have to be at least 20 percent derived from natural sources. What about the other 80 percent? Excellent question. Many bioplastics contain fossil fuel-based plastic resins and numerous synthetic additives – such as fillers, softeners and flame retardants – just like conventional plastics.”1

Green plastic bottle
Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay.

The second key factor is there would be less concern about pollution since these items would naturally degrade. But that is not how it works. “The latter factor, however, has mobilized a torrent of misinformation, misplaced optimism, consumer confusion, and headaches for recyclers and composters alike,” Manna wrote. They must be sent to an industrial compost facility to break down. As you know from my previous article, these facilities are few and far between. So bioplastics that require industrial composters are far from guaranteed to make it to one. Biodegradable plastics that do make it to an industrial compost facility will not create usable soil. It lacks the macro and micronutrients of regular compost. “It just doesn’t make environmental sense to take a plant, turn that pant into a highly refined petrochemical, only to then use it once and have it turn into something effectively worse than soil,” wrote Manna.

Bioplastics are made of either polylactic acid (PLA) or polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), both of which are #7 plastics. These cannot be recycled and therefore contaminate single-stream recycling systems, making entire loads of recycling unrecyclable. In many ways, bioplastics are worse for single-use disposable items than traditional fossil fuel plastics. 

“Often omitted is the amount of energy that goes into, and the negative effects related to, the growing, harvesting, and transportation of bioplastics. Also, in a world full of hungry people, do we really want to be pushing agricultural lands into production of plastics rather than food?” -Michael SanClements, author of Plastic Purge2

Plastic bottles floating in water
Bioplastics will not break down in nature or water. Image by Foulon Richard from Pixabay.

“Sadly, bioplastics do not present a solution for plastic soup or for reducing plastic litter.” -Michiel Roscam Abbing3

Renewable Sources?

Bioplastics are plastics made from natural, renewable sources, such as corn, sugar cane, or potatoes. “The thought is that plastics made with plants, as opposed to fossil fuels, will sustain the unstoppable trajectory of the world’s consumption with a more sustainable material,” Manna wrote. But bioplastics only have to be composed of as little as 20 percent of renewable material to be marketed (or greenwashed) as such, and can still contain a majority of fossil fuel-based plastic.4

Most importantly, renewable sources have to be grown and produced, and agriculture requires a ton of energy. “The corn that is used to make the bio-plastics is not organic,” so there are a lot of pesticides used. “The end result is that valuable agricultural land was used to create something that just gets thrown away,” said Céline Jennison, the founder of Plastic Tides.5

“As of now, turning plants into plastic remains more energy-intensive than recycling used plastic.”6

Corn is a crop used to supplement lots of resources such as gasoline (ethanol), agricultural feed, paper goods, and now plastics. While corn is not a fossil fuel, critics of it suggest that corn creates more problems by contributing to global warming, chemical pollution, and energy waste. It demands more nitrogen fertilizer and pesticides than other crops, and which are made from natural gas and oil. “Runoff from these chemicals finds its way into the groundwater and, in the Midwestern corn belt, into the Mississippi River, which carries it to the Gulf of Mexico, where it has already killed off marine life in a 12,000-square-mile area,” wrote author Michael Pollan.7

 “America’s corn crop might look like a sustainable, solar-powered system for producing food, but it is actually a huge, inefficient, polluting machine that guzzles fossil fuel—a half a gallon of it for every bushel.” -Michael Pollan

Cornfield
Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash.

“Corn is hardly sustainable, not the way it’s grown in this country. Farmed at an industrial scale, corn requires vast amounts of herbicides and fertilizer. With heavy rain, these inputs run into waterways and pollute drinking water.” -Elizabeth Royte8

Example: Coca-Cola Plant Bottle

Coca-Cola plantbottle advertisement
Coca-Cola introduced the PlantBottle in 2009.

“We replaced up to 30% of the petroleum used to make PET plastic bottles with material from sugar canes and other plants. The result? You’d have to take nearly 1 million vehicles off the road to achieve the same reduction in CO2 emissions that PlantBottle™ has achieved since 2009.”9

These claims are questionable. Supposedly, this particular alternative to traditional PET (#1) plastic can be recycled with regular PET plastics. However, how much petroleum does it take to produce sugarcane? As for the CO2 reduction, how did they come up with this calculation?

Empty Coca-Cola bottle lying on the beach
Photo by Maria Mendiola on Unsplash.

The company has vowed to “use at least 50% recycled material in our packaging by 2030.”10 Why haven’t they been doing this all along? Coca-Cola released an advertisement about a “Coke Bottle Made With Plastic From The Sea,” which was made with plastics picked up by volunteers on beaches on the Mediterranean Sea.11 Volunteers who used their free time to pick up trash on beaches because it’s the right thing to do. Coca-Cola easily has enough money to pay employees to do the same thing. A true solution would be to stop pollution by eliminating this type of packaging.

What about other real solutions, like reverting back to glass bottles? We know that glass is 100% recyclable and does not leach toxins and chemicals. Glass can also be managed through a container deposit system, and can truly be a part of a circular economy.

Example: Procter & Gamble

Advertisement for Head and Shoulders bottle made from recycled beach plastic

Procter & Gamble designed a shampoo bottle using recycled beach plastic. They partnered with TerraCycle and SUEZ, a waste management firm. Again, it was using volunteer labor for the collection of plastic polluting beaches. “Sourced through partnerships with beach cleanup organizations already picking up litter on the shores of oceans and other waterways, ocean plastic originally headed for landfills was used to establish a new supply chain,” wrote Virginie Helias at Procter & Gamble. But ‘plastic originally headed for landfills’ is misleading. Much of this plastic had likely already been sent to the landfill or recycling center before and then ended up in the ocean anyway! “Ocean plastic products are seen by many as a distraction that takes attention and resources away from source reduction, while only cleaning up a tiny fraction of ocean plastic,” wrote Jennie Romer, lawyer and sustainability expert.12

Procter & Gamble’s goal is to make 100% of its packaging recyclable and reusable by 2030. While this is a respectable goal, it should focus on reusable packaging since recycling is not the answer. If we stop the disposable stream at the source, that would be far more impactful than all of the recycling systems combined. P&G can do better and have the resources to do much more.

Are there other solutions?

“The key takeaway about bioplastics: They are NOT the solution to plastic pollution and toxicity problems. They will likely play a role, but given their mixed character and the chemical additives most of them contain, relying on them is not a replacement for making a concerted effort to reduce all plastic use at the source.” –Chantal Plamondon and Jay Sinha13

Plastic substitutes are not the answer, just as synthetic biodegradable materials and recycling are not the answers. We also cannot possibly recycle all the plastic away at this point. We know that only 9% of plastic sent to recycling facilities is recycled.

But there are other packaging innovations out there. We’ll explore those in my next post, Part 4. Please subscribe and share, and thanks for reading!

 

“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, “What you need to know about plant-based plastics,” by Sarah Gibbens, National Geographic, November 15, 2018.

Post, “The Truth & Consequences of Bioplastics,” EcoLunchbox.com, accessed July 5, 2021.

Article, “Why biodegradables won’t solve the plastic crisis,” by Kelly Oakes, BBC Future, November 5, 2019.

Footnotes:

Breaking Up With Dawn

Last updated on November 28, 2021.

Dawn soap
Dawn dishwashing liquid soap.

I’ve used Dawn dishwashing detergent my entire adult life. It seemed to work better than every other brand I  tried. The concentrated version seemed to go a lot further than other brands, therefore giving me my money’s worth. Even after I started reducing the number of products in plastic packaging that I buy, I kept buying Dawn. I used it not only to wash dishes but also used it in my Easy DIY all-purpose cleaner.

And, I was supporting clean-up efforts and saving wildlife after oil spills, right?

I believed that Dawn products were helping clean and save wildlife after oil spills. And I think they do in some cases, as well as raise money to donate toward rescue efforts. According to a 2010 article in the Washington Post after the major BP Deepwater Horizon spill, Dawn is legitimately used by the International Bird Rescue. “After a 1971 oil spill, the California-based nonprofit group began experimenting with products including paint thinner and nail polish remover to find the least traumatizing method for cleaning oiled animals.”1 So in 1978, the International Bird Rescue started a relationship with Procter and Gamble, the makers of Dawn. “Through trial, error, and our tenacity to find a solution, we discovered that Procter and Gamble’s Dawn dish soap, was the golden ticket! It was inexpensive, effective, readily available, and Procter and Gamble was excited to learn about this somewhat unusual use of their product.”2

Procter & Gamble heavily markets Dawn’s Saving Wildlife campaign toward conscientious consumers. Their advertisements pull at our heartstrings. One moved me to tears, which I originally shared in this post. The URL for that specific video changes frequently, so I decided to just let you search “dawn oil spill commercial” on YouTube where you’ll find many of these commercials. But the footage was not of wildlife actually affected by an oil spill. The commercials are a “simulated demonstration” and some have a caption indicating “no oil used.” I’ve read they coat the animals with a mixture of tempera paint and corn syrup so they can simulate cleaning the animals on camera. I find this to be a questionable practice.

Oil covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.
Oil-covered bird. Photo by Mike Shooter on Shutterstock.

But Dawn is petroleum-based – so does that mean they’re part of the problem? 

NPR did a segment on this very issue after the BP oil spill disaster in 2010, looking at the story in detail and interviewing people from both sides. The overall conclusion was that yes, Dawn does help remove crude oil from the animals. But this is because the grease-cutting part of the solution is made from petroleum, according to Procter & Gamble, who was interviewed for the segment. There are alternatives to using petroleum products but that needs testing. Meanwhile, rescuers and veterinarians are sticking with what works, because, in the end, they are trying to save the animals’ lives.3

Yet others find the product to be hypocritical because Dawn is a petroleum-based soap.4 A writer for Treehugger.com wrote:

“The sad irony of the whole thing is that Dawn is petroleum-based. Every bottle of Dawn used to clean a bird actually adds to our nation’s demand for oil. Not only are we using an oil-based product to clean oiled birds, but we’re increasing the incentives for companies to drill for more oil, making it more likely that there will be another spill. Which, incidentally, will be great for Dawn’s marketing. It’s one big beautifully incestuous circle.”5

oil rig, Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash.
Photo by Zbynek Burival on Unsplash.

What about animal testing?

Procter & Gamble, owner of the Dawn brand, does do animal testing. They have committed to the #BeCrueltyFree Campaign in recent years but have not yet achieved that status. If you want non-animal-tested and cruelty-free products, avoid Procter & Gamble brands and products.

An oiled gannet getting cleaned at a rehabiliation center after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill.
An oiled gannet getting cleaned after the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill, at the Theodore Oiled Wildlife Rehabilitation Center, June 17, 2010. Image by Deepwater Horizon Response on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY-ND 2.0).

What about the ingredients in Dawn?

I decided to check into the ingredients of Dawn through the Environmental Working Group (EWG). Dawn Ultra Concentrated Dishwashing Liquid (Original), the very product I used to regularly buy, received a D rating (on A-D, F grading scale). One of the main concerns was the lack of ingredient disclosure. There are not many laws in the United States regarding chemicals in household ingredients and products. Procter & Gamble is not required to tell us what is exactly in their product. Many companies like to keep their ingredients and formula a secret, to prevent others from copying. EWG’s Top Scoring Factors for this Dawn product were “Poor disclosure; May contain ingredients with potential for acute aquatic toxicity; general systemic/organ effects; bioaccumulation.”6

Procter & Gamble claims to be using biodegradable surfactants in Dawn and claims to be trying to improve and reduce packaging. But this giant corporation has made only a few changes over the last decade – it’s too little, too slow.

Before (left) and After (right) oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center.
Before and After oiled Brown Pelican washed at the Fort Jackson, LA Oiled Wildlife Center, May 14, 2010. Photo courtesy of the International Bird Rescue Research Center on Flickr, Creative Commons license (CC BY 2.0).

Plastic-free dishwashing?

Dawn dishwashing soap has been one of my hold-overs from going plastic-free that I haven’t been able to kick yet. Then one weekend, I ran out. I used to buy economy-size bottles, tricking myself into believing that buying a larger plastic bottle was better than lots of little bottles. But I was unable to find that size again at my regular grocery store. And short of running around to Target or Walmart or searching online, I decided maybe this was a good opportunity to try something different. Here were my options:

Seventh Generation dish soap.
Seventh Generation dish soap. Photo by Marie Cullis.

Ugh! My only choices were plastic, plastic, and more plastic. However, this store also carries Seventh Generation brand dish soap. If you’re not familiar with this brand, they use ingredients they believe to be safe and healthy as well as using post-consumer recycled packaging. The bottle that I purchased is a plastic bottle marked “100% recycled plastic.” They also list all of their ingredients on the back of the package. Last, Seventh Generation does not test on animals.

Unfortunately, before using this product at home, I checked the EWG’s site to see if they’d tested it. Sadly, it only received a C rating, meaning “some potential for hazards to health or the environment. At least some ingredient disclosure.” While they found their ingredient disclosure good, they found that this dish soap has ingredients that have some concerns, mostly aquatic toxicity, respiratory effects, and skin irritations. Seventh Generation does follow the regulations for the EPA Safer Choice certification, but EWG still found concerns. But it has much safer ingredients than most of the brands on the shelves of most stores.

washing a fork, Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash
Photo by Catt Liu on Unsplash.

What am I going to do next?

Dawn and most other major brands of dishwashing soap are going to have the same issues with plastic packaging, animal testing, and unsafe ingredients. With all of those things combined, I am going to try going plastic-free on dish soap after I use this bottle of Seventh Generation. Because even that 100% recycled bottle has an afterlife. And there is no guarantee that that plastic bottle won’t end up floating in the ocean someday.

I am experimenting with using bar dish soap and baking soda. I’ll update this post once I’ve experimented and have some good results to share. What about you? Can you try a new solution for washing dishes plastic-free, toxic-free, and animal-friendly? Join me in the adventure and be the change. Please share and subscribe, and thanks for reading!

Update, March 15, 2019: We have been using plastic-free bar soap for a couple of months now to wash dishes. And it’s working well! We just rub the scrub brush and Skoy cloth against the soap and then wash our dishes and pots. I’ve been trying different brands.

I’m also now using baking soda for cleaning pots, especially those that have stains or black areas. I learned this advice from Beth Terry at myplasticfreelife.com, and it does work – look how clean I got this pot!

Footnotes: