Decoding common terms and eco-labels on waste management and recycling
In response to the increased awareness of environmental impacts, businesses are putting labels and claims on their products to appeal to environmentally conscious consumers. With so many claims and “eco-labels” available, it can be challenging to distinguish between products that are “greenwashed” and those that are actually safe for the environment. Our guide on identifying eco-labels will help you make better choices towards a greener future and better health!
Eco-labels have been designed to effectively convey fundamental details regarding recyclable materials, dangerous compounds, and the source of raw resources. But shopping “green” might be complicated! The terms “natural,” “eco-friendly,” and “biodegradable” are often used to describe products. All of these terms are basically useless because there is no formal definition for them. In reality, many businesses purposefully use vague language like this in their marketing efforts to make their products appear better for the environment and you than they actually are. The eco-labels covered in the article below will help customers identify products that are less damaging to the environment and promote better waste management.
The “three chasing arrows” icon, which denotes that a product or packaging can be recycled or contains recycled material, is possibly the most widely recognized recycling symbol. Although products have this recycling symbol to indicate that they include recycled materials or could be recycled, this does not always mean that they can be recycled again. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), for instance, claims that paper can only be recycled five to seven times before it begins to degrade. In the same way, only certain types of plastic can be recycled, and every time plastic is recycled, the polymer chain grows shorter, so its quality decreases.. To improve quality and keep up with newly developed plastics on the market, virgin material must be added to recycled plastic each time it is processed. Therefore, if something is recyclable, it only applies for a short time. One exception is glass, which can be recycled indefinitely without ever losing its quality or purity.
Plastics Identification Code
Most plastics have the “three chasing arrows” symbol, which includes three arrows in a triangle with a number in the centre. However, you do not need to memorise all the polymer types for their recyclability as the number just indicates the type of plastic used and does not imply that a product is recyclable. There are seven different types of plastic, and the higher the number, the harder it is to recycle the material. Plastics 1, 2, and 5 can usually be recycled, however 3, 4, 6, and 7 are sometimes more difficult to do so.
- Polyethylene Terephthalate (PET): This type of plastic includes single-use plastic bottles, containers, condiment bottles. It is often turned into more containers, carpets, furniture, fleece and fibre.
- High-Density Polyethylene (PE-HD): This is a low weight, high strength plastic used in some retail plastic bags, milk jugs, shampoo bottles, cleaning detergents and soaps, etc. It can be recycled into pipes, pens, detergent or shampoo bottles, oil bottles, floor tiles, lumber, benches, traffic cones, outdoor furniture.
- Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC): You can find this kind of plastic in toys, some food containers and wraps, vinyl siding, blister packs, windows, plastic gloves, water-resistant clothing. The recyclability of this material is limited, accepted by some plastic lumber makers for recycling into decks, panelling, speed bumps, fencing, binders
- Low-Density Polyethylene (PE-LD): This includes thin plastic bags used for bread and frozen foods, some plastic containers and cling food wraps, squeezable bottles including toothpaste tubes, furniture. It can be recycled, but you need to check to make sure it’s accepted locally; it can be turned into trash can liners, compost bins, shipping envelopes, and lumber.
- Polypropylene (PP): Common products made from this material include straws, yoghurt cups, some food containers, furniture, luggage, toys, medicine bottles, rope. They can be recycled, but check to make sure it’s accepted locally; it can be turned into brooms, brushes, cables, bike racks, rakes, pallets, trays.
- Polystyrene (PS): This kind of material can be found in styrofoam containers and cups, some takeout containers, meat trays, egg cartons, and packing peanuts. It is rarely accepted to be recycled, and low demand for recycled styrofoam has limited its acceptance; however it can be turned into insulation, vents, egg cartons, foam packing, takeout containers, rulers.
- Miscellaneous: The plastic with this number includes plastics not included in the previous six categories, including BPA, polycarbonate, bio-based plastics such as PLA (polylactic acid), acrylic plastic, fibreglass. You can find those materials in three- and five-gallon water bottles, food containers, sunglasses, bulletproof materials, signs and displays, nylon, baby bottles, sports equipment. It is generally not recyclable, but bio-based plastics can sometimes be composted; some can be turned into plastic lumber.
Pre-consumer and Post-consumer Waste
A product that bears the claim “made from recycled content” may also contain pre- or post-consumer garbage, or even a combination of the two.When a product is made from pre-consumer recycled content, it is made from manufacturing waste that never actually reached consumers. These waste items include scraps, rejects, trimmings, and other items that end up on the factory floor but are reused rather than thrown away. Post-consumer waste, such as the aluminium cans and newspapers you put in your recycling bin for collection, is waste that has been used by a consumer, disposed of, and kept out of landfills. Products with pre- and post-consumer recycled material are far better than those with 0% recycled content, but if you want to choose a more environmentally friendly option, post-consumer recycled is the way to go. Post-consumer plastics divert garbage from landfills and toward recycling facilities, hence lowering the amount of plastic waste. However, recognize that once materials become mixed with varying degrees of recycled content they become increasingly harder to recycle again in the future.
Biodegradable and Compostable
In an effort to minimise the impact on the environment, more and more plastics are marketed as being bio-based, degradable, biodegradable, or compostable. This isn’t as simple as it sounds. The following are a few of the descriptions you could see on bioplastic products, or you can also refer to our Venture Lab definition factsheet for more information:
- Bio-based: This refers to the product’s origins, i.e., the fact that it was created using a renewable resource like corn, wheat, potato, coconut, wood, shrimp shells, etc. However, there may only be a little amount of recyclable plastic. They may or may not be compostable or biodegradable. To make sure that biobased plastics are good to the environment in ways other than just reducing the use of fossil fuels, it is crucial to look at their whole life cycle.
- Degradable: This means plastics can break down into tiny pieces that spread throughout the environment. This is pointless since all plastics will ultimately break down, which is undesirable because larger pieces are more difficult for wildlife to mistake for food.
- Biodegradable: This refers to the product’s end of life and indicates that it will break down in the environment through the activity of naturally occurring microbes including bacteria, fungus, and algae, albeit it offers no guarantees about not leaving a harmful residue behind. It will break down into gases (CO2), water, residue and biomass and can leave microplastics. ‘Biodegradable’ products may or may not be made from renewable or plant-based resources. It is also unknown in what conditions and for how long it will undergo microbial degradation. Biodegradable does not always mean compostable, but everything that’s compostable is inherently biodegradable.
- Compostable: The material will break down within a specified time frame and into non-toxic materials, which will add value to the planet’s ecosystem through nutrient-rich materials. . Compostable products can be categorised to be home-compostable, industry-compostable or both.. Industrially or commercially biodegradable products need higher temperatures and specially designed microbial conditions in order to be turned into usable compost. The majority of compostable materials only break down in commercial composting facilities, so be sure that your area offers this service; if not, you’ll have to toss it in the trash because they can’t be combined with regular plastics. A better alternative is home compostable material; the composting process produces a nutrient-rich soil, similarly as a result of the breakdown of organic waste such as food scraps, grass clippings, leaves, and tea bags. This occurs over a period of months normally in a backyard compost barrel, or a home compost bin.
Given the information above, consumers should be aware that manufacturers are free to label products with whatever claim they want, including “natural,” “bio-based,” “plant-based,” “biodegradable,” and “compostable.” This causes additional problems by contaminating the regular recycling stream. The more conscientious and responsible ones will obtain certification from a third party, leading to labels like those from the European Bioplastics “Seedling” logo or the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI in North America), etc. These are the 4 popular eco-labels on waste and recycling you can find on plastic alternative products:
BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute)
The BPI offers third-party certification for product and packaging makers as well as brand owners as the top organisation for biodegradable plastics certification in North America. The “BPI Compostable” logo indicates that a package or product has undergone independent testing and verification in accordance with ASTM D6400.
This does not, however, imply that you may dispose of a BPI-certified product in your household compost unless it is specifically indicated. These products have to be delivered to a commercial composting facility, which first reduces the size of the bioplastic before producing high temperatures and maintaining ideal conditions for the breakdown of the material. A caution that says “COMMERCIALLY COMPOSTABLE ONLY / FACILITIES MAY NOT EXIST IN YOUR AREA” is typically included with the BPI Compostable label. Do not recycle bioplastic if your city or town has not built a bioplastic composting facility since it may interfere with regular recycling procedures designed for petroleum-based plastic.
The Seedling logo is a registered trademark owned by European Bioplastics. It proves that a product is certified industrially compostable according to the European standard EN 13432.
When properly certified, the product will entirely degrade in a commercial composting facility under carefully monitored conditions (such as temperature, moisture, and time), leaving only water, biomass, and carbon dioxide left. The best place to dispose of a product with the Seedling logo is in the organic waste collection. However, the product could be disposed of in the residual waste container if there isn’t a specific pickup for organic waste.
USDA Certified Biobased Product
The BioPreferred Program was launched by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in 2002 to promote the use of biobased products. This initiative, which is a part of the Farm Bill, aims to reduce American dependence on petroleum products while boosting the use of renewable agricultural resources. The USDA Certified Biobased Product label is intended to inform customers about the product’s biobased composition. The product’s label guarantees that it includes a specific level of renewable biological components that has been confirmed by the USDA.
SCS Global Services is one of the top third-party certification and standards organisations in the world, specialising in everything from clothing and jewellery to green construction and food consumer labelling. Their kingfisher logo may have appeared on product packaging. The “Recycled Content” certification certifies that the packaging meets or exceeds ISO 14021 and FTC Green Guides criteria and is made of pre- and post-consumer recycled material.
Taking into account the above arguments, the only certain option is to embrace reusables and reject single-use plastics. If you must select a throwaway item, go for one made of a material that is simple to recycle, such metal or glass. If plastic is required, make sure it can be composted at home and was created with biodegradable ingredients.