By some estimates in my reading, we generally handle on the order of 50 packages a day of various sorts (a box of cereal, a loaf of bread, or a box from UPS all count here). In any of them, we can reasonably ask the question, “Is this packaging sustainable?”

It turns out, there are lots of definitions of sustainable packaging, and most of the literature is focused on how to make packages more attractive to a buyer, rather than how to make it better for the environment. For our purposes, I will use the definition that sustainable packaging is “packaging that reduces the environmental impact and ecological footprint.”

Achieving that goal can involve either the materials used or the way in which they are used. As consumers, we get little to say about those, in any direct way, but we do get to choose companies that follow better practices. We also get to think about it when packing things ourselves.

For materials, we clearly need to avoid anything that cannot be easily recycled. That starts with packing beads of any sort. The old “plastic peanuts,” made from Styrofoam, are less used today but have to absolutely be shunned. There are also some so-called “biodegradable” or “compostable” packaging beads on the market now, and those need to be avoided as well. There is no recycling or composting plant anywhere nearby that can handle those beads. They can only be trashed, and none of them will decompose in a landfill, whether they are called bio-degradable or not.

Bubble wrap, we’ve noted here in the past is plastic, but, if the bubbles are popped first, can be recycled with the other plastic films at Hannaford. It’s actually made from the same stuff as plastic bags and other flexible food packaging. The same applies to the “plastic pillows” we sometimes see in packages from various manufacturers that come in the mail. Padded envelopes, if plastic film themselves, and lined with bubble wrap, can also be recycled at Hannaford, but take the labels off (or cut them out) first. Paper envelopes with bubble wrap liners are not recyclable because they are made from incompatible materials. Please skip those.

For our own use, reusing paper and cardboard are probably the best choice. I like crumpled newsprint for almost anything we ship across the country to our adult children. I have also used folded pieces of cardboard in difficult spaces in the package.

Cardboard is interesting stuff because the industry can no longer survive without recycled products. The cost of virgin materials is just too high. Cardboard also offers an established recycling system, and it performs well in transit. The larger the pieces, though, the more easily it can be sorted and recycled. Shredded paper can be a nice packaging material, but be sure there is a way to handle it at the other end of the shipment.

Locally, Garbage To Garden can compost it, but it can’t usually be recycled because it just blows around in the sorting equipment. A waste-to-energy operation can also sometimes take it in a clear bag and move it around the sorting equipment before being baled with other paper, but our current local processors are not able to do that. Rules and opportunities differ in other parts of the country.

In the end, of course, it’s best to start with as small a package as possible and avoid fillers altogether.

The Recycle Bin is a weekly column on what to recycle, what not to recycle, and why, in Brunswick. The public is encouraged to submit questions by email to [email protected] Harry Hopcroft is a member of the Brunswick Recycling and Sustainability Committee, though his opinions are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the committee.

Comments are not available on this story.

filed under: