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What If “Sustainable Packaging” Just Doesn’t Exist?

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Finding truly sustainable packaging is exhausting. Plastic? An obvious and huge problem. Green? Says who? And now: Biodegradable? In what world?

Biodegradable materials are meant to decompose naturally with the help of bacteria and other living organisms. That’s to say, Mother Earth should have waste management in the bag!

However, according to the Biodegradable Products Institute, “biodegradable, like recyclable, merely describes the composition of a product. Its potential, not its inherent value. If a product is sent to a landfill and not disposed of properly in a municipal composting or recycling facility, it is still part of the problem, no matter what it’s made from.”

I Want This To Work, But …

This felt like a punch straight to my sustainability-seeking gut. Brands like Native, Ethique and Each & Every are killing it with the biodegradable packaging. However, the hard truth is that even brands with the best intentions can’t solve our country’s huge waste management problem.

Maybe you’ve heard me talk about “wish-cycling” before on The Tease, A.K.A. tossing an old beauty product in the recycling bin and hoping / praying something can be done. In March, The EPA wrote that America recycled and composted 35.2 percent of its municipal solid waste (MSW). However, that still leaves tens of millions of tons to sit in landfills.

Even for biodegradable products, landfills aren’t built to let these materials decompose –– and with good reason. Although uncontrolled biodegradation gets rid of MSW in landfills, it also leads to water pollution, methane gas emission and unstable sub-soil conditions. Woof.

Green, Mean Change Machines

In cities like San Francisco and Portland, progressive waste management systems make eliminating excess a real possibility. However, the majority of the U.S. still has to feel for a solution in the dark. Unfortunately, conscious consumers doing their best are still unable to do enough.

My only thought is that with social media making it so easy to speak directly with brands, customers should reach out before purchasing and simply ask: How is your product meant to be recycled? Personally, my new criteria is packaging that’s biodegradable and compostable –– meaning I can take care of the waste myself, either at home or with a local composting service. This way, at least I know where my trash goes.

Wait … Why Am I In Charge?

Still, without better waste management policies, us little people only have one solution: to purchase and use less. These aren’t exactly words of affirmation for beauty collectors and fanatics. However, I’ve gotten to a point where I have to ask: Is it worth it to continue killing the planet?

While I love the work that TerraCycle and Glo do in handling hard-to-recycle beauty packaging, the system has a ways to go in becoming accessible for our entire country.

Currently, I’m swapping in as many naked and refillable products as possible. Although this is a good first step, it also means there’s very little room in my routine for exciting launches. Honestly, though, I’m okay with that. Fast Beauty culture is impossible to keep up with, and even “sustainable” brands may not consider the life cycle of their packaging.

In the end, if I find one product that works for me and the planet, why not stick with it?

Darby Hoffman
Darby Hoffman
Darby Hoffman is a creative and branded content writer based in Chicago, IL. She specializes in topics related to sustainability, beauty technology, and consumer health & safety.