Written in collaboration with Coopérative Incita
Every day, we have to wrap or pack all kinds of things in order to preserve, store or transport them.
When we talk about packaging, we tend to think about single-use materials. However, there are several more environmentally friendly and reusable options out there. This column discusses various types of packaging, from single-use to creative and reusable alternatives.
Understanding the world of single-use packaging
With the widespread use of packaging in multiple forms, it can be difficult to distinguish between the various characteristics of single-use packaging and their environmental impact. Let’s start with an overview of single-use packaging and the challenges it poses.
This type of packaging consists of four materials: paper/cardboard (unsoiled), metal, glass and plastic.
To determine if plastic packaging is recyclable, simply look for the logo with the three arrows in the shape of a triangle and identify the number in the centre. If it is 1-2-3-4-5 or 7, the packaging can be recycled.
Plastic bags are the exception to this rule. For a bag to be recyclable, it must be stretchable (like bread bags and grocery bags). If, as you try to stretch it, the bag tears (like a cereal bag), it is not recyclable. To facilitate the sorting of plastic bags at the sorting centre, it is best to fill a bag with several recyclable bags.
Number 6 plastics are not recyclable, and it is best to avoid using them because they end up in landfills.
It is strongly recommended to rinse recyclable packaging before placing it in the recycling bin to avoid contaminating other materials and improve the working conditions of employees in sorting centres.
Polystyrene – Styrofoam (#6)
Polystyrene cannot be disposed of with recyclable materials. It must be taken to the permanent collection point, located in the Public Works parking lot (50 Terra-Cotta Avenue).
Biodegradable and oxobiodegradable packaging
You should ask yourself two questions when a product (packaging or otherwise) is identified as biodegradable: how long does it take the product to decompose and what is its impact on the environment?
For example, a tree leaf that falls to the ground biodegrades in a few weeks and nourishes the soil where it falls. Meanwhile, it takes a plastic bag a few thousand years to biodegrade, and it pollutes the environment.
Therefore, the term biodegradable tells us nothing about the material or the product.
Oxobiodegradable plastic is a regular plastic with an added substance that accelerates its fragmentation into plastic flakes that also take thousands of years to break down. Therefore, oxobiodegradable plastic is not a more environmentally friendly option.
Compostable packaging is presented as an environmentally sound solution. However, this type of packaging also has its drawbacks.
Like its single-use counterparts, this packaging requires a lot of resources, energy and packaging for something that is often used for only a few minutes. Moreover, this packaging commonly ends up in the garbage and, therefore, in landfill.
Note that several compostable packages look a lot like conventional plastic and are mistakenly put into the recycling bin. Because they are not made of the same plastic, they end up contaminating the plastic at the sorting centre.
Is one single-use material better than another?
It’s important to keep in mind that single-use packaging, regardless of what it is made of, is not a sustainable solution. Reusable forms are still a better option.
As with single-use packaging, there are lots of reusable packaging choices! Here’s a brief overview.
Before setting out for the store to buy all kinds of reusable containers, take a peek in your pantry! You probably already have everything you need! Whether your containers are plastic, glass, stainless steel or silicone, there’s bound to be something you can use. If not, thrift stores offer a broad range of reusable, inexpensive containers.
Glass jars are very popular among zero-waste proponents because they are extremely versatile. Whether to pack your lunch (salad, soup, snacks, etc.), carry a hot beverage or use when bulk shopping or for preserves, glass jars win the gold star for zero-waste! If you don’t have any, take a trip back to the thrift store and pick some up.
Wax food wraps
Presented as the replacement par excellence of plastic wrap, wax wraps are fabrics coated in beeswax can be used to wrap snacks or cover leftovers in a bowl. The heat from your hand is enough to soften the wrap so that it adheres to the surface of your choice. You can make them yourself or buy them locally.
Note that this type of packaging is not recommended for certain foods, like meat and cheese, because you can’t use very hot water to clean it.
Reusable sandwich and snack bags
These bags come in all sizes and colours and are often made of waterproof fabric. While they are not airtight, they are perfect for sandwiches, snacks and pies. They also have the great advantage of being machine washable. Like wax wraps, you can make them yourself or buy them locally.
Using what you have on hand
Several everyday objects can be used for packaging. For example, leftovers in a bowl can be covered with a small plate (and vice versa) and your job is done! Taking a sandwich to go? A dishtowel can do the trick and you won’t need a paper napkin!
Some stores also offer returnable containers to encourage the use of reusable packaging. A case in point is La tasse, a reusable and returnable coffee mug available in a network of participating cafés across Québec. Several zero-waste grocery stores and zero-waste grocery delivery services also use a system of returnable containers to reduce waste.
Giftwrapping, the eco-friendly way
For the Holidays, or any other special occasion, here are a few alternatives to wrapping gifts in disposable materials.
- Reuse paper you already have around the house, like newspaper, flyers, children’s drawings or wrapping from previous years. Be creative!
- Use colourful fabric, like an old scarf, sheet, tablecloth or napkin.
- If you prefer to buy wrapping, avoid metallic paper, bows and ribbons.
Regardless of the item to be wrapped, give the environment a helping hand by always using reused and reusable materials!