We don't always pay as much attention to the packaging on products as we should. There is actually a lot of information on packaging, and everything has a message. By paying more attention to packaging, and trying to understand it better, we can make better decisions about all the things we buy.
Food Nutrition Labelling
If you are trying to live healthily, you may well already have looked at the food nutrition labelling on the products you buy. This can give you a wide range of information about the content of the food – from its fat and sugar content, to its composition when it comes to vitamins, minerals, fibre etc.. The ingredients lists will tell you what is in a product, but the food nutrition labelling is also important, because it can help you see how (and if) the product will fit into a healthy diet, or is something you should only enjoy in moderation.
There are also often labels you will see on packaging that will give you some clues as to where the item inside came from, and whether or not it is a sustainable choice. Something might be perfectly healthy from your personal point of view – but it might not be quite such good news for the environment, or for those who produced or made it.
It is a good idea to look out for labels such as the Fair Trade labelling, for example. Fair Trade items have been produced in a way that is fair and ethical for producers, growers and/or manufacturers. Fair Trade producers also have to meet certain environmental standards. Also learn about BPI (Biodegradable Products Institute) and the OK Biobased label, created by TÜV AUSTRIA.
Other labels you might like to look out for are Rainforest Alliance, Global Organic Standards and other organic labels, and labels from Oekotex etc. on non-food products.
These sorts of labels can help you make more sustainable, ethical and informed decisions about all of the things that you buy.
When it comes to sustainability, labelling that denotes where an item comes from can also help you calculate its carbon cost in terms of miles travelled to reach you. And it can sometimes help you to find items from closer to home and cut your carbon footprint.
The numbers of the labels of plastic packaging and other plastic items will help you to decide not only how and where to dispose of the items, but also to decide whether or not you will buy such items in the first place.
You may have noticed the tiny numbers inside the recycling symbol. These numbers are refer to the Resin Identification Code (RIC), from 1988. Master this code and you will understand what sort of plastic the item is made from, whether it is recyclable and its other properties. Many people think that this symbol, no matter the number, means that the item is recyclable. But this is not the case. Many authorities are moving away from these codes and providing more consumer-friendly labelling. But knowing these numbers and what they mean will put you ahead of the curve and demystify materials and recycling – at least a little.
No. 1: Polyethylene Tetephtalate (PET or PETE)
Used For: Soda, water and other bottles; oven-safe food trays; other food jars and containers.
Recycling: This high grade plastic is commonly recycled – either into new plastic bottles/ packaging or into fabrics. Due to its characteristics, it is of higher commercial value than many other plastics and so is more widely recycled.
No. 2: High-Density Polyethylene (HDPE)
Used For: Milk containers, bottles for household cleaners, shampoos, shower soaps and other beauty products.
Recycling: Frequently recycled – used to make new cleaning fluid/ laundry detergent bottles, piping, floor tiles, picnic tables etc...
No. 3: Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC)
Used For: trays for fruit or sweet snacks; bubble foil and food foils.
Recycling: Not generally collected at the kerb. But some can be recycled into floor mats, mud flaps and panelling/ decking by specialist recycling schemes.
No. 4: Low-Density Polyethylene (LDPE)
Used For: shopping bags, highly-resistant sacks, and many food wrappings.
Recycling: Not generally collected from the kerb. But this is sometimes accepted at recycling centres, where it can be turned into compost bins, trash liners, shipping materials etc..
No. 5: Polypropylene (PPE)
Used For: Bottle caps, ketchup/ syrup bottles, furniture, luggage, toys, car trim etc..
Recycling: Often recycled, this form of plastic can be turned into trays, pallets, bins, brushes, ice scrapers etc..
No. 6: Polystyrene (PS)
Used For: disposable plates/ take out containers; meat trays; home insulation...
Recycling: Very environmentally damaging. Polystyrene should be avoided at all costs. It is not recycled at the kerb and is sometimes locally banned. However, it can be recycled in some instances.
No. 7: A Catch-All Category for Other Plastics
Used For: Baby bottles, CDs, nylon, sunglasses etc...
Recycling: Not usually recylable or recycled, though certain examples can be recycled into particular custom made products. It is important to note, however, that once recycled and down-graded, these items themselves are then usually non-recyclable.
Looking at everything written on packaging can help you make better and more informed decisions about what you buy. It can help you avoid items that are not great for your own health, or which are bad for workers or the environment. So you can move closer to a zero waste lifestyle and live in a more ethical, eco-conscious and sustainable way.