An attribute is a quality or feature regarded as a characteristic of or inherent part of something or someone. Recyclability is an example of an attribute for packaging that says the packaging may be recycled. Because recycling is typically beneficial, many people assume that recyclable packaging also has lower environmental impacts than non-recyclable packaging, even though recycling and recyclability are different concepts.
Environmental impacts vary greatly and are caused by complex interactions between manmade and natural systems, both living and nonliving. Environmental impacts can be local or global. Freshwater toxicity is an example of an environmental impact that may be felt regionally, while greenhouse gas emissions affect the global climate regardless of where they are emitted.
How attributes and environmental impacts interact is illustrated below. Both can be used as design criteria, but attributes don’t describe an actual positive environmental outcome. Whereas if we designed to optimize for greenhouse gas emission reduction for example, then we’d be comparing packaging alternatives based on their global warming potential, a quantifiable measure.
The following entities comprised the advisory group for this research. Representatives were included from scoping through the development of the final report. Their input is reflected in the final technical report. However, recommendations at the end of each attribute-specific technical summary are the recommendations of the Oregon DEQ.
- County of Alameda, CA
- StopWaste.org, CA
- Washington Department of Ecology
- Portland Metro, OR
- City of Seattle, WA
- Minnesota Pollution Control Agency
- Sustainable Packaging Coalition
- Sustainable Purchasing Leadership Council
- City of Eugene, OR
- U.S. Green Building Council
- City of Portland, OR
- NEWMOA – Northeast Waste Management Officials Association
This study was a meta review of existing published scientific analysis of the environmental impacts of packaging and food service ware. The method used to evaluate environmental impacts was life cycle assessment (LCA). Although the review of these analyses through the lens of attributes is new, the primary research was drawn from published LCAs conducted by researchers worldwide. The following criteria were applied consistently:
- Publically available research between 2000-2017
- Published and peer-reviewed studies that followed IS0 14040, 14044
- Limited to credible and publically accessible sources and journals
NOTE: In order to make apples to apples comparisons, all comparisons reported in the research are those found within studies. Therefore, all parameters (e.g. for system boundary, method, results, time, geography, technology) remained consistent for those comparisons.
One of the advantages of LCA is that comparisons are based on functional equivalency. One typically doesn’t compare a material to another material for its own sake (e.g. glass to plastic). It can be done, but that isn’t very useful because we know that a kilogram of glass is very different than a kilogram of PET plastic in its function and utility. In LCA one normally would compare a glass bottle to a PET plastic bottle of equal function, for example, to sell one liter of orange juice. That is a fair comparison because the function is the same.
LCA can be used to study materials currently in commerce, given current production and handling systems, but it can also be used to compare “what if” scenarios. This allows analysts to consider the potential benefits of different types of improvements, which can be useful for prioritization.
Most studies however focus on the world as it exists today, as opposed to a hypothetical future world. Clearly, the current world is known (and real) while hypothetical future conditions are, by nature, speculative. While one can consider future scenarios (such as “how would the results change if 90 percent of wastes were recycled?” or “how would the results changed if all industrial processes and transportation were powered entirely by solar energy?”) these types of assessments are speculative – and must be applied consistently to different systems being studied, not just the system that a reader expects or hopes to be favorable.
However, the four attributes included in this study may not be highly relevant either. “Biobased” and “compostable” are not the same as “marine degradable”. Indeed, many biobased and compostable resins do not degrade in marine environments. “Recyclable” and “recycled content” are also not the same as “marine degradable”. “Compostable” enables composting and “recyclable” enables recycling, but few composting or recycling programs in the US keep debris out of the oceans.
Of course, marine debris is not the only way that materials impact the oceans, and other types of potential marine impacts can be evaluated using LCA. These include eutrophication, eco-toxicity potential, greenhouse gases (both in aggregate, and also CO2 by itself, given how CO2 emissions contribute to ocean acidification), and fossil fuel use.
Recyclable and compostable are design criteria and attributes specified by brands, institutional buyers, and citizens. They are aspirational attributes, meaning that they hold the potential for recycling or composting at the end of its useful life. The package may or may not be actually recycled or composted.
Recycling and composting are end of life treatment routes. They are related to the two design criteria but not the same thing at all.
Many factors determine whether a recyclable (or compostable) item is actually recycled (or composted). Some of those factors include access to recovery services and facilities (collecting and sorting), the behavior of individual households or other waste generators, available technology to process the materials, format of the package, loss or leakage due to contamination, and quality of the processed material. Just because an item is recyclable does not guarantee it will be recycled.
Further, just as some materials are recyclable and others are not – because they are made of different materials – those different materials may require different feedstocks and industrial processes to produce, and result in different environmental impacts. Just because a material is recyclable or compostable does not guarantee that its production results in lower impacts, or that its impacts are obviated by recycling or composting.
Within life cycle assessment, there are several different methods of accounting for the environmental impacts and benefits of recycling, and specifically, the avoided impacts when recycled materials substitute for virgin resources. In the technical summary for recyclable packaging, we only show comparisons from those studies that assign the full benefit of recycling to the recyclable material. Similarly, in the technical summary for recycled content packaging, we only show comparisons from those studies that assign the full benefit of recycling to the product that is made from recycled material. In these ways, we only draw results from literature that uses an accounting framework that is favorable to the attribute in question.
For additional details on recycling allocation and accounting methods, please refer to the technical report
Due to budget and time imitations, DEQ was not able to evaluate all of the materials and attributes that are commonly used in association with them. We prioritized the scope of this research based on current programmatic and policy momentum. Significant policy efforts are focused on making packaging 100% recyclable or compostable, and significant procurement attention is devoted to biobased and recycled content. This public and private momentum led DEQ to narrow the scope to understand whether these four attributes for packaging deliver the environmental benefits that are widely assumed.
Our literature review shows that when comparing different materials recyclability alone is not a reliable predictor of environmental benefits. The life cycle impacts of materials is complex and attempting to simplify that to a single attribute such as recyclability does not consistently result in lower impacts. In general, one would be safest to pick the lightest package option, so long as the material is disposed of properly (for example, in a modern landfill) if not recyclable.