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Honesty In Materials

by The Dieline on 02/01/2019 | 3 Minute Read

 It’s time to educate yourself as a designer in the materials you design with and stop leaving the material selection to suppliers or in the hands of vendors.

As packaging designers we create memorable user experiences, we compete to the death on the shelf and protect products to deliver revenue to the brands we partner with. Brands are also starting to take responsibility for their packaging waste, even though the current state of our recycling infrastructure is far too confusing to sort out in a single article.  

That said, we can’t afford to remain uninformed about the terminology used to differentiate alternative-plastic substrates as we work towards closing the loop on sustainable packaging. The future of packaging is just getting started, so let’s dive into these terms and shed light on the reality of these labels.

Degradable, Biodegradable, or Compostable? 

With new materials making eco-claims daily, consumers fail to see the difference between degradable, biodegradable, and compostable packaging, throwing them all into recycling bins.Degradable materials break down into smaller bits. Petroleum-based plastics break down into micro-plastics, become harder to sort, and ultimately find their ways into our soils and oceans. Proper degradation occurs in specific environments that combine exposure to sunlight (UV), oxygen and heat— landfills are unable to provide these requirements. Substrates used for packaging labeled “degradable” may degrade in a single month, three years, or 100 years. As of this writing, there are no decomposition speed requirements associated with degradable materials. Be sure to ask your supplier about the requirements for optimal decomposition speeds when designing with these materials. If industrial processing is required for the proper breakdown, consider how the brand will ensure its proper disposal. 

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Biodegradable materials are broken down by fungi or bacteria into carbon dioxide, water and other naturally occurring elements. This doesn’t mean you can throw them in your yard and watch them disappear. Industrial composting facilities are required to process your biodegradable materials, but because these facilities don't pick-up curbside, designers need to ensure there is a system in place for consumers to return the packaging easily.  Biodegradable packaging placed into recycling bins will either be sorted out and placed in a landfill, or contaminate the recycling waste stream.

Compostables and bio-plastics are similar to biodegradable plastics in their make-up and are processed in similar ways, but never together. Neither material degrades in a landfill, nor are they recyclable in your curbside bin. Consumers are given a false sense of security in their decision to purchase products in compostable packaging as many municipalities are unable to process these materials.Placing compostable, degradable or biodegradable materials into your curbside recycling bin contaminates the waste stream. The quality of the resulting recycled raw material is compromised as it is combined with plastics and additives meant to break down. Consumers with good intentions have been attempting to recycle these materials for years, and they have unknowingly compromised our waste streams. The results of these compromised waste streams can be seen in the state of recycling today and in China’s National Sword policy.

The future’s not all bleak, though. As consumers are demanding fewer plastics overall, brands are being urged to focus on papers, reusables and to take ownership of their own waste. Removing the recycling responsibility from consumers is a step in the right direction, and it allows for previously unrecyclable materials to be collected and recycled en masse.

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What Can Be Done Today 

Partner with companies like Design Packaging that work to increase the use of PCW papers, reusable packaging for retail and e-commerce solutions, as well as educating both consumers and brands on what sustainability will look like in the future.

Companies like Terracycle are making it easier for brands to be responsible for their waste by collecting everything from bottles, pumps, tubes, and even cigarette butts then converting them into playgrounds, new packaging, and more.

Yes, there are a lot of materials to choose from, but understanding their true impact on the environment comes with digging deeper and asking the hard questions. We work closely with operations and logistics teams at each brand, material supplier and manufacturing partner to streamline our supply chain and reduce carbon footprints daily.

Go here to learn more about Design Packaging!

Go here to learn more about Design Packaging!

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