Minimise – go for the least packaging you need

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!

Some examples of over-the-top, absurd packaging which have been nominated in the Unpackit Awards for worst packaging are:

Blister packs (toys)

Fruit on a polystyrene tray wrapped in plastic

Individually wrapped prunes

Vacuum-packed corn

Recycle  – reclaim resources

Recycling is well-established around the country, and it’s a base-line requirement for good packaging. 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.

This can be achieved with glass, cans, paper, cardboard and PET plastic (plastic with a 1 in the recycling triangle on the bottom), but it requires a very clean, uncontaminated recycling stream and the right reprocessing material. Closed loop recycling is not the norm around the country right now.

Recycling in your area

Most councils with kerbside collections recycle paper, cardboard, glass 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. Different areas recycle different materials, go the website for your council to find out what can be recycled in your area. 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.

PLA can’t be recycled in NZ

PLA is another relatively new material which can’t be recycled or composted in New Zealand. It’s often promoted as being environmentally friendly because it is made from corn, rather than oil, and is used to make corn-starch bags, coffee cup liners and lids, plates and bottles.

The volumes of PLA are not big enough to make a recycling stream here, so it goes into recycling as a contaminant of the PET stream. Because it can’t be recycled, the best place for PLA is in the rubbish. The only exception that we’re aware of are cardboard bio-cups containing a very thin liner of PLA which can be composted.

It’s not all that easy to tell if something is made from PLA, because it feels and looks very like PET (see-through and hard).

How do I know if it’s PLA?

PLA usually has a seven in the triangle on the bottom, which adds to the confusion because seven stands for mixed, low-grade plastics, and PLA is not a plastic. It is a polylactic acid, a biopolymer made from plants.

PLA can sometimes be identified by a “PLA” stamped underneath the seven or by a logo with a flower inside. If you identify something as being made from PLA, the right place for it is in the rubbish bin.

Re-use (over and over and over…)

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 centers 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.

Look for good design

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.

Degradable Plastic Bags

New packaging is often marketed with buzz words that make people believe it is green or environmentally friendly. “Degradable” is a popular description for plastic which has been made more heat and light sensitive. “100% degradable” plastic bags sound like they will break down and disappear harmlessly, and they are a better option for the environment.

But, is that really true? A university study in England released in January 2010 concluded that the best way to dispose of oxo-degradable (otherwise known as degradable or bio-degradable) plastic bags is in the landfill. The study conclude that in the anaerobic environment of a landfill, the evidence suggests that degradable plastic bags do not break down. In this case they have the same environmental impact as normal plastic bags. If they do break down outside the landfill, the study said that there is concern that the plastic fragments may be ingested by insects and animals, but this has not been investigated.

“Degradable” plastic bags might sound good, but they’re still part of the same old plastic-wrapped throw-away thinking. Taking your own bags is an easy step towards a new way of thinking about packaging.

Clear and accurate labelling

Labelling on the packaging should tell you, as a consumer, what the packaging is made from and how best to dispose of it. All plastics should have a triangle on the bottom with a number in it, which will identify the type of plastic it is made from and allow it to be recycled properly.

Labelling should clearly and accurately state whether packaging can be recycled or not. Which materials  can be recycled varies from town to town. In those cases, a generic “please recycle” label can be confusing to the consumer. Materials which can be recycled in some places in New Zealand but not others, include plastics 3 through 7 and tetra-pak (soy milk and juice containers).

PLA (made from polylactic acid, a biopolymer made from plants) can not currently be recycled or composted anywhere in New Zealand. PLA can often be identified by a symbol of  a flower and PLA stamped underneath the 7 on the bottom of the container. Labelling on Charlie’s Honest Water Eco-Bottle (which is made from PLA) asks the consumer to “please recycle”, despite the fact that there is no kerbside collection in the country which collects PLA for recycling.