Want to know which packaging is good for the environment and which just looks good? Use these six simple rules to guide you on your quest to make good packaging choices.
1. Go nude if you can
Don’t use packaging if it’s not needed. The easiest way to avoid food packaging is to look for local sources of food. Farmers markets are a good place to start – the food is usually super fresh so doesn’t need to be packaged for a long shelf-life (meaning better taste and a happy body). Farmer’s market all around the country are leading the way in delivering fresh local food to consumers with minimal or no packaging. The Dunedin farmer’s market is showing how far markets can go, with its move to be waste-free.
Choose the least amount of packaging to do the job. Obviously products sometimes do need to be packaged to get to your place in peak condition, but the trick is to look for a product with the least amount of packaging to do the job. Good design considers function as well as beauty.
Bananas wrapped in plastic? No way! Individually wrapped prunes? I don’t think so. T-shirt in a box? Save your money and resources by choosing a nude one. It might be a fine eco-looking t-shirt box made from recycled cardboard, but it’s still going to end up in the recycling bin. Plus you’re paying for it!
3. Choose good design
Look for innovative packaging which can be reused and recycled. Well-designed packaging does the job perfectly. A classic example of well-designed packaging is the humble egg box. It protects a very fragile product and allows it to be transported. It’s made from one of the lowest grades of cardboard (which can be made from recycled cardboard), can be re-used many times and it is recyclable at the end of its life.
Often design is linked with innovation. New packaging that is well-designed can solve problems. But sometimes new products can create new problems too.
4. Refill or reuse
Reuse the same container as many times as you can. If you have to buy something in a container, look for one that can be re-filled. You can either use it again at home or support shops which can refill it, such as Bin Inn or organic shops. A re-usable container that can be refilled many times before being recycled is a better option than one which goes straight to the recycling bin.
Glass jars and plastic containers are useful for preserving, freezing and storing food. Some recycling centres or second-hand shops will take glass jars with lids to pass on to people making jam.
Taking your own bags is a great place to start reducing the packaging coming into your house. New Zealanders use over one billion bags a year. Buy some reusable bags. Keep them in the car. Take them to the shops.
If you forget to take your own bags to the supermarket, you can always ask for a cardboard box. Some supermarkets now keep a pile of them handy for customers to use.
Recycling keeps the resources in the system. Recycling is well-established around the country, and it’s a base-line requirement for good packaging. Most packaging that can’t be recycled goes to landfill, and then the resources tied up in that packaging are lost for good. The ideal is that the product made from the recycled material will be of the same quality as the original material.
Most councils with kerbside collections recycle paper, cardboard, glass and tins and cans. Plastics are more variable, with some councils recycling only plastics 1 and 2, while others recycle all plastics from 1 through to 7. Find out what can be recycled in your area and all over NZ on the smart packaging website. To find out what type of plastic a container is made from, check the number in the recycling triangle on the bottom.
Avoid containers made from several different materials combined, because they can’t be recycled. Soft-drink “cans” made from plastic and metal may look new and exciting, but they can’t be recycled. Tetrapak and other composite packaging, which is made from layers of plastic, metal and paper, is only collected for recycling in a few places in NZ as it is difficult and costly to separate the materials from each other.
6. Watch out for greenwash
Don’t be fooled by eco-friendly promises which don’t reflect reality. Greenwashing is the deceptive use of green PR or green marketing in order to promote a misleading perception that a company’s products are environmentally friendly. The proliferation of so-called green products into the market place in the last ten years has been astounding. In just one year in the US they estimate there 73% more “green” products on the market than in 2009.* New Zealand is experiencing a similar boom.
To avoid being greenwashed always make sure the claims can be backed up and look for recognised accreditation marks. You could even call the company and ask them to explain their claim or make a complaint to the commerce commission if you think it’s false or misleading.
There is a law against greenwashing, if falls under the banner of the Fair Trade Act which prohibits false and misleading consumer information. The Fair Trade Act is administered by the Commerce Commission. The Commission has published a set of Guidelines for Green Marketing to deal specifically with environmental and green claims. The primary requirement for any organisation making an environmental claim is to ensure their claims are accurate, scientifically sound and can be substantiated.
Help for businesses
The Smart Packaging website was built by the Unpackit team to provide a resource for businesses looking to make better packaging choices or just to find out more about different packaging materials.
It contains detailed information about common packaging materials and their end of life scenarios in NZ and also a whole section on the newer area of bioplastics. There is information about what can be recycled and where all our recycling ends up and a a stack of great reports for people who just can’t get enough information about packaging.
The Packaging Council of NZ has a great code of practice which is available to all its members. We’d also recommend checking out the Sustainable Packaging Coalition in the US and the UK based organisation WRAP.