5 min read
Why is plastic a problem?
By now it's common knowledge, this miracle product from the 50s has become a huge problem for us in the 21 century, and unfortunately for generations to come. For us to skip long lectures, here are just some cold-hard facts about plastic:
Some hard-to-swallow facts, aren't they?
What is considered eco-friendly packaging?
Eco-packaging or sustainable packaging is a broad term, but most commonly it implies using materials that are easily disposable in a way that doesn't burden the environment. E.g. materials like paper, glass, or metal are usually in that category. To be fair, we must say that every material used for packaging will leave an impact on the environment, and neither of them is completely carbon neutral. Glass or metal is easily recyclable, but the process of recycling requires heat, that must be produced by burning some type of fuel. Paper is usually biodegradable, but it comes from trees. Nothing is perfect, but some choices are much less risky than others.
Not to forget that production of all of the above materials (including plastic), takes up a lot of land, water, heat and transportation.
So in the end, the question of what is sustainable doesn't have a onedimensional answer. But if someone would be making a list from more to less sustainable materials, it would most certainly look like this:
Paper is light in transport and biodegradable, plus it can be sourced from recycled sources. Unfortunately in the cosmetic industry, its use is limited to its properties, which in its raw form don't tolerate oils and moisture.
Aluminum packaging is also a sustainable option, where it can be easily reused or recycled, even more than once without losing its natural properties. It is light, easy to ship and is inert, i.e. no toxic chemicals is going to end up in the product.
Glass can be a great choice for cosmetics since it is also an inert neutral material, there are no chemicals that are going to be leached into the product, which can happen with some type of plastic containers. Glass can be recycled in full, and it will not lose any integrity or quality when it is repurposed into a new item. Since its fragile, it is a bit more difficult to ship on a distance, thus it requires using additional materials in packaging.
Can plastic be eco-friendly?
To be fair, plastic has its share of good properties, like being very cheap to produce and easy to transport. Unfortunately, its chemical properties when degrading in nature can be concerning. When it is properly separated, it can be recycled (not too many times, unfortunately), but due to the many different types of plastic out there, the lack of recycling facilities globally, and the limitations of recycling technology today, it is not easy to recycle it. With that said, it's no surprise that only about 10% of plastics worldwide are recycled. When it ends up in nature, it breaks down for hundreds if not thousands of years. Fortunately, there are more and more brands out there that are becoming conscious about the need of finding other solutions, that might be more expensive but are better for us all in the long run.
Biodegradable vs compostable - what is the difference and why does it matter?
These terms are sometimes used interchangeably today, but they are very different, and it can mean a world of a difference when it comes down to an average consumer and the way the materials are separated for recycling.
Did you know, what a banana peel and a plastic bag have in common? They are both technically bio-degradable. What makes a difference is the amount of time it takes for them to break down, and while in the case of a banana it is measured in weeks or months, in a plastic bag example it is measured in hundreds and thousands of years. Even then, the plastic will probably leave some kind of residue.
So as you see, a material can be bio-degradable but it doesn't have to be compostable. Compostable usually would mean that it can be broken down to organic materials that will pose no threat to the environment, given the right conditions. E.g., a brown paper bag with no colors is compostable, but a bright and shiny colored cookie box might not be.
And to add another level of complexity, there are different types of composting, depending on the conditions needed for the material to compost. Some of us living in houses are used to have a compost bin in the back yard. Unfortunately, that does not mean that you can throw in every packaging or product that is labeled compostable. For something to be labeled compostable, it has to be able to break down in an industrial composter within 6 months. Industrial composters produce higher levels of heat, moisture, and micro-organisms, that are needed for composting.
Is bio-plastic an answer to our prayers... and why it is not?
It would be great to have a material that would be cheap to produce, could be thrown in nature and that would just disappear in a short period of time. Ah, that would be a dream. But wait, there's this thing called bio-plastic, made from plants, isn't it precisely that?
To answer that, we must first understand what bio-plastic really is. It is a form of plastic alternative, usually made from plants like corn or sugar cane. It is marketed as a solution to the plastic problem, but a lot of scientists out there are raising questions is that the case. The upside is bio-plastics doesn't need fossil fuels to be made, but on the downside, it is not so easily compostable as you might think. It takes an industrial composter, with a temperate above 50°C, among other special conditions to break it down. That means, if you throw bio-plastic in the ocean or it ends up in your local landfill, they are going to be with us for a long period of time, and it will pose the same threat to the environment as regular plastics.
Also, a new study shows, that just because it is made from plants, doesn't mean it is non-toxic (link to research: link: https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0160412020320213?via%3Dihub). How toxic is it? Well, the frightening truth is no one knows for sure. A study of 43 commonly used food containers (like chocolate wrapping paper, wine corks and drinking bottles) shows that a vast majority of them (>80%) contained more than 1.000 chemical compounds in them, with some of them having even more than 20.000! And even in a best-case scenario, when they end up in the compost, these chemicals can end up in the food we eat. Come to think of it, it's sad, but maybe it's better they don't get recycled. And with the number of chemicals in them, it is virtually impossible to keep track of the long-term impact they will have once they enter the food system.
Even if we forget the chemical part for a second, since this is such a new field, there are a lot of problems in the chain of waste management. Take an example of food service ware. Both the plastic ones and the plant alternative options look essentially the same, and if they are not labeled differently, you might throw them all in the same (i.e. wrong) recycling bin. That leads to confusion for consumers, and also contamination of compost with plastic. It actually became a big problem in Oregon, where all 13 industrial composter facilities stopped taking compostable food service ware. When plastic ends up in the compost production chain, they have to stop the production, taking it out with their hands, plus their product (which is supposed to be organic compost), can no longer be called organic, thus losing its value. I mean, who can blame them, right?
What can you do to lower the impact?
While we live in a day and age where information is free and available, there are a lot of variables that in the end can determine what is the impact of our choices. We all know the usual good advice, like avoiding plastic bags, carrying your own water bottle around, order take out without food serving ware, and we should stick to it. Chose products that contain more recyclable and compostable materials, and try to avoid the ones in plastic. Also, recycle as much as you can and while shopping, do it wisely. Your money holds the power to persuade big brands to make a change to sustainability.
We at JouJou Botanicals carefully design our products to be as sustainable as they can. E.g., our soaps are are packed in paper and cardboard, we use glass for our bath tea, and glassine paper for our fizzer bombs. Just so you know, glassine paper is an excellent substitute for plastic wrap packaging. It is resistant to moisture and grease, and although is not be completely see-through, it can be recycled just like regular paper.
Also, for all the shipping we reuse and repurpose boxes and filling, and all new fillings we use are biodegradable. Most of it is corn-starch peanuts, which are biodegradable in water, and paper.
If you are interested to see more, you can check our sustainable collection here