BySarah Lozanova

Oct 9, 2019
woman in store reading label on cardboard box

Shopping can be a very challenging task for the eco-minded. We vote with our wallets, so it is also a great opportunity to influence manufacturers and vendors. Yet, without conducting exhaustive research, it is very difficult to know the whole story behind the products we buy.

Even though packaging makes up just one part of a product’s impact, it is one of the most obvious ones. Almost one-third of municipal solid waste is product packaging, so it is a good place to start when making green purchases.

Is a Product’s Packaging Sustainable?

A lot of packaging is comprised at least partially of plastic. Unfortunately, it has been increasingly criticized for being petroleum-based and wreaking havoc on ecosystems when improperly discarded. An astonishing 40 percent of the plastic produced is for packaging that is used just once and then discarded.

There are many actions that manufacturers can take to produce more sustainable packaging. Among them:

  • Materials efficiency reduces the total amount of raw materials used and can even save energy in transportation.
  • Design for recovery involves manufacturers thinking of the end of life and how to ensure that materials have value beyond a single use.
  • Eliminating unfavorable materials prevents harmful materials from being used in packaging, preventing environmental and human health issues.
  • Responsible fiber sourcing ensures that renewable materials are used in way that promotes health throughout the ecosystem and beyond.

Labels are one of the easiest ways to determine the sustainability of a product. Research by Tetra Pak shows that there is a growing interest among shoppers to make green purchases. This encourages corporations to make greener products and to make it easy for us to spot them in the stores. Now, more than half of shoppers look for environmental logos on packages when making purchases, and that number is on the rise.

Unfortunately, packaging often lacks useful information or are even makes misleading claims. Logos at least ensure that environmental claims are verified by a third party and meet standardized criteria. As increasing attention is put on making green purchases, how can product labels help us make eco-friendly shopping choices?

How2Recycle Directions

It’s often difficult to determine if the packaging is actually recyclable, even if it contains the recycling symbol. Expanded polystyrene (better known by the brand name Styrofoam) often contains a number 6 recycling symbol on it, yet most recycling centers don’t accept it. Some types of packaging, such as potato chip bags and toothpaste tubes, are not recyclable at regular recycling facilities. Other materials need to be prepared for recycling in specific ways, such as removing the product label or discarding the cap. Not all recycling facilities process the same materials. This means that it’s likely that some of what you place in your curbside bin is not actually being recycled.

How2Recycle is a standardized labeling system that is being utilized by some companies. Their informative packaging icons provide some of the most vital recycling information and can help you make more informed purchases. They will tell you if you how to prepare the materials for recycling and if the packaging is widely recycled or not.

How2Recycle sample labels
How2Recycle labels help you assess if the material is widely recyclable, not recyclable at all, or recyclable but only in some communities. Image: How2Recycle

The How2Recycle logo shows that manufacturers are thinking about the end of product life and want consumers to be informed. If some of your favorite products do not display this label, urge the manufacturers to provide more recycling information.

FSC Certification

Paper packaging can be a more sustainable alternative to plastic products. After all, it is widely recycled and is made from renewable resources. Unfortunately, many forests aren’t properly managed for sustainability. Obviously, it is nearly impossible to know if plant and animal species, indigenous peoples’ rights, and forest workers’ safety were protected when trees were harvested.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting sustainable forest management. Look for the FSC labels on products to ensure a standard biological diversity and human rights. The packaging can be FSC certified as well as paper and wood products themselves.

Tetra Pak recently surpassed the milestone of 500 billion packages labeled with the FSC label. “Responsible sourcing is a growing area of synergy with our customers,” says Igor Popovic, Global Account Director PepsiCo at Tetra Pak: “We set a roadmap towards 100% FSC certified volumes with PepsiCo that we have completed earlier this year. These actions allow both companies to contribute to sustainable forest management and actively engage consumers in this journey.”

Product Greenwashing

Just as there are reputable labels that indicate verify certain standards, beware of false claims on packages. Without third-party verification, it is difficult to tell fact from fiction. Some products may claim that the packaging contains recycled content, but this is difficult to confirm.

In the absence of labels, there are also some common sense indicators for greener packaging. Does the product have excessive packaging that is used primarily to make a product look more appealing? Does it contain materials that aren’t collected in your area, such as Styrofoam or molded plastic?

On your next trip down the shopping aisle, keep an eye out for these useful labels for more informed green shopping.

By Sarah Lozanova

Sarah Lozanova is an environmental journalist and copywriter and has worked as a consultant to help large corporations become more sustainable. She is the author of Humane Home: Easy Steps for Sustainable & Green Living, and her renewable energy experience includes residential and commercial solar energy installations. She teaches green business classes to graduate students at Unity College and holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio Graduate School.