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Terminology: what does "sustainable" mean when it comes to packaging?

Wondering what all those sustainability claims on packaging mean? Here's a breakdown of the most common terms, what they mean, and how you can make more informed choices about eco-friendly packaging.

Past research has shown that consumers often base their decisions on misleading assumptions when it comes to sustainability. Regularly it is not due to the lack of intent, but because of the lack of knowledge that consumers do not always choose the most environmentally friendly option. Wrong information and interpretive terminology frequently stand in the way. To help get started, here is a breakdown of the most common terms, their meanings, and how you can make more informed choices about eco-friendly packaging.

Recyclable packaging

Choosing a material just because it is recyclable is not necessarily better for the environment. When choosing between packaging made of different materials, recyclability is a poor predictor of environmental benefits. This is because different materials have different environmental impacts. Cardboard boxes are a good example of such a situation. Although cardboard is recyclable, it can be more energy-consuming and water intensive to recycle than using a flexible pouch for shipping similar products. Therefore, it is useful to investigate what actually gets recycled in your area, as recycling programs vary greatly.

Recycled materials

The amount of recycled materials in a package is something different to whether the packaging is recyclable. Nevertheless, the level of recycled content also does not guarantee that the product will have a low impact on the environment. Just because a package contains higher levels of recycled content (on a weight or percentage basis), this does not indicate that it has lower negative impacts. Different materials have substantially different production burdens, which should all be taken into account.


Although the term might suggest otherwise, compostable packaging cannot not always be broken down fully. It is hard to separate the non-compostable parts in a product from the compostable, which often causes the process to be messed up. Furthermore, even certain certified compostable items contain toxic chemicals. Oregon DEQ research has shown that some compostable items have higher environmental impacts than other options. Hence, this is not a good indicator for the environmental friendliness of your packaging.


If the material is bio-based, it does not guarantee a lower environmental impact. Some bio-based materials use more energy or water, resulting in more pollution than some fossil-based materials. In addition, bio-based materials are not necessarily compostable or degradable.

Tips and tricks

  • Change your default from recyclable to reusable instead

  • Buy durable when possible

  • Reduce your waste - To become more environmentally friendly, it is foremost very important to reduce the waste you produce. For example, processing thinner packaging material in order to contribute to waste reduction.

Making your packaging as environmentally friendly as possible means something different for every product. It is important to keep all environmental factors in mind when calculating the impact of your product, instead of singling out one criterion. With our straightforward advice and recommendations, you can create smarter packaging designs that minimize waste and keep materials out of landfill.⁠

Talk to us. Your packaging project will be in the safest and most capable hands - see website for quick and easy ways to get in touch⁠.


Herbes, C., Beuthner, C., & Ramme, I. (2018). Consumer attitudes towards biobased packaging— A cross-cultural comparative study. Journal of Cleaner Production, 194, 203–218. Retrieved from:

DEQ’s Materials Management (2017). Popular Packaging Attributes - Oregon. Retrieved from:


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