Woman checking label of package with smartphone

As conscious consumers, we want greener packaging options to limit the environmental impact when we shop and eat. But even when packaging producers and retailers provide more sustainable options, how can we recognize them when shopping? One way is to look for product labels that identify sustainable packaging.

Although a product’s packaging provides only fleeting value, 82 million tons of containers and packaging materials  were discarded as waste in U.S. in 2018. Packaging accounts for 28.1% of municipal solid waste. Rethinking packaging to make it more sustainable will require many changes, including:

  • Efficient use of materials to reduce the volume of packaging and the amount of fuel used to transport the product to stores and homes
  • Designing packaging for easy recycling in the circular economy
  • Recycling investments by product manufacturers to ensure local recycling options are available everywhere
  • Using recyclable or reusable materials in packaging
  • Using biodegradable or compostable materials
  • Using responsibly sourced fiber to design packaging (and removing plastic from packaging in general)
  • Avoid the use of concerning materials that are harmful to human or environmental health

Fortunately, there are numerous packaging certifications that can help shoppers find greener options. But the number of eco-labels also makes keeping track of which ones deal with sustainable packaging a challenge. To help with your shopping, here is a quick reference about which labels to watch for.

BPI Compostable

The Biodegradable Products Institute is the leading biodegradable plastics association in North America, and it offers third-party certifications for products and packaging. This can help consumers identify plastics that are designed to biodegrade. These products are guaranteed to be compostable in an industrial composting facility, and will not decompose not in a residential compost pile.

BPI Compostable label
Source: Biodegradable Products Institute

Corrugated Recycles

This symbol identifies that packaging contains corrugated cardboard and is readily recyclable. The symbol was created by the Corrugated Packaging Alliance and Fibre Box Association, trade associations representing North American cardboard packaging manufacturers. If a box isn’t recyclable due to a waxy coating, it cannot display this symbol. However, the Corrugated Recycles symbol does not mean that the packaging contains recycled materials.

Corrugated Recycles labels
Source: Corrugated.org

FSC Certification

Many shoppers are looking for alternatives to plastics, and paper packaging is an appealing option. Paper is widely recycled and is a renewable resource. How a forest is managed impacts plant and animal species, human rights, and worker safety. Sadly, many of the world’s forests aren’t managed for sustainability, which has significant impacts on water quality, wildlife habitat, and the climate crisis.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to sustainable forest management. Look for the FSC labels on various packaging, paper, and wood products to ensure the product meets the FSC standard for biological diversity and human rights.

FSC-certified labels
Source: Forest Stewardship Council

GreenBlue Recycled Material Standard (RMS)

GreenBlue, along with multiple stakeholders, has created clear rules and definitions to help advance the use of recycled materials by organizations in North America. The Recycled Material Standard third-party certification may describe the recycled content in packaging or display information about the manufacturer’s commitment to providing local recycling options.

RMS-Certified labels
Source: RMSCertified.com

International Sustainability and Carbon Certification (ISCC)

The ISCC certification confirms that products contain recycled and bio-based materials. This program focuses on traceability throughout the supply chain for agricultural and forestry raw materials for numerous consumer-facing products and packaging.

ISCC logo
Source: ISCC-system.org

New Earth Approved

A New Earth Project’s vision is to rid the world’s oceans, lakes, and rivers of plastic pollution. It started as a collaboration between Atlantic Packaging, surfers, outdoor enthusiasts, and the packaging supply chain concerned about plastic pollution in our waterways. They quickly started exploring options to fix the issue now within the supply chain, leading to broad changes. For more background, listen to our recent interview with Atlantic Packaging CEO Wes Carter.

New Earth Approved packaging products are designed to replace disposable, single-use materials used by e-commerce companies. These more circular shipping products include padded mailers, paper mailers, craft paper, and flatback tape.

New Earth Project logo
Source: A New Earth Project

Recycling Symbol

Although we can all identify the recycling symbol, three arrows chasing each other, sometimes its presence on items does more harm than good. While the label means the material is recyclable, your local recycling program may not be able to accept it. Similarly, if labeling on a product states it contains recycled materials, it doesn’t necessarily mean the item is recyclable.

Because contamination is a crucial concern for recyclers, it’s essential that we sort our recycling properly. The best way to do this is to identify what your local recycling program accepts, but even this can be difficult to discern if the item is made of plastic. While the U.S. used to send most of its plastic waste to China for processing, several years ago China banned the import of our recyclable waste due to high levels of contamination. Now, a lot of the United States’ plastic waste ends up in landfills, even if consumers correctly sort it and put it in a recycling bin.

recycling symbol
Even if an item bears this symbol, don’t assume you can recycle it locally.

USDA BioPreferred

This voluntary label by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) shows that a product has been independently tested and is a biobased product. Products with this symbol contain ingredients made from plants and other renewable agricultural, forestry, or marine resources but do not contain food, animal feed, or biofuels.

The USDA created minimum biobased content requirements for numerous product categories. The label also displays the percentage of certified biobased content in the product and packaging, which can help you focus your buying on products with the best environmental profile.

USDA BioPreferred Label
Source: BioPreferred.gov

Next time you go shopping online or in stores, keep an eye out for the logos on product packaging. Understanding packaging labels — along with familiarity with what your local service accepts for recycling and composting — can help you align your purchases with your values. These established labels help unravel some of the mystery in finding more sustainable packaging options.

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.