Ranking Zero Waste Packaging

A question that I’ve gotten a lot is how to know what your buying actually comes in zero waste packaging and what materials actually constitute zero waste packaging. There are many things that go into what makes packaging zero waste, and there are many different definitions of what zero waste packaging is to different people. Personally, my definition on what makes something zero waste relies on two things: how easy it is to reuse and how easy it is to recycle and/or compost. So I will be rating the following packaging materials on those two/three things.

Cardboard/Paperboard

  • Recyclability: 4 out of 5
  • Compostability: 4 out of 5
  • Reusability: 3 out of 5
  • Average: 3.6 out of 5

So let’s talk about cardboard and its newer brother paperboard. Cardboard is one of the easiest materials to recycle and it’s been reported by the EPA that as much as 91% of all cardboard gets recycled each year. Unfortunately though, cardboard can only be recycled around 5-7 time before its fibers become too short to recycle again, which is why I gave it a four. It is super easy to recycle, but doesn’t have an infinite lifespan in a circular system.

Cardboard and paperboard is actually really easy to compost, and for most aerobic composters is one of the main ingredients. It can be difficult if you don’t know what you’re doing as a first time composter and don’t properly maintain your composter. As long as the cardboard is broken into small pieces and given the proper environment, you should have no problem composting. 

Lastly, when it comes to reusability, there are a ton of options. I’ve saved boxes that I’ve gotten as packages for moving to and from college for the past four years, and cardboard is used in a ton of DIYs and crafts on Pinterest. The only reason that I gave it a 3 out of 5 is because the smaller the box, the harder it is for me to reuse, especially the boxes that soap bars and other beauty products come in. I just don’t have a need for them, so the size of the box can be a limiting factor on how reusable it is.

Overall, I like cardboard as a zero waste packaging alternative since it is so easy to recycle and there is a huge market for recycled cardboard. I also like that it’s compostable and able to return back to earth like it should.

Paper

  • Recyclability: 4 out of 5
  • Compostability: 4 out of 5
  • Reusability: 4 out of 5
  • Average: 4 out of 5

When I talk about paper packaging, I mean using paper bags and envelopes, but also that brown packing paper that gets put into boxes to cushion your deliveries. Paper and cardboard have the same lifespan of recyclability. After being recycled around 5 to 7 times, the fibers that make up the paper just get too short and can’t be used to create new paper, but paper recycling is almost everywhere now and uses less water (and trees) than creating new paper. 

Paper and cardboard also have the same properties and traits when it comes to composting, so it gets the same score as cardboard there too. Where I think cardboard and paper differ most is in reusability. Paper packaging is so nice because it can be reused very easily if you know what to do with it. My grandma always had a basket where she has tiny, note card-sized sheets of paper that she had cut up from excess paper, and she used them for everything. She made lists with them, wrote down scores when we played games, and drew on them. A lot of the paper came from junk mail and flyers that she had gotten over the years, and she never had to go out and buy a notepad or sticky notes because of it. 

Another thing I have been seeing in the community are people saving those large sheets of kraft paper that gets put in with their packaging and using that to wrap presents when it comes to birthday and Christmas gifts. I also saw one person smoothing out the paper and cutting it up into sheets of paper for her kids to draw on. 

I thought I should add that there are some companies that are packaging their products in seed paper or creating business cards from it, which you can plant after use. The most common kind of seed paper I’ve seen is wildflower seed paper. I think that honestly that is an amazing way to make sure that your packaging is actually being reused for a great purpose after the fact. I’ve also seen seed paper being used for wedding invitations and thank you cards, which is just another way to get people to actually dispose of your invitation in a way that creates something new for the environment. 

Overall I think paper is a really great way to package goods if at all possible. Since it’s not as durable, I understand why most zero waste companies opt for cardboard over paper.

Aluminum

  • Recyclability: 5 out of 5
  • Reusability: 3 out of 5
  • Average: 4 out of 5

Aluminum is amazing in the recycling category because there is no limit to how many times aluminum can be recycled. Aluminum is one of the most valuable metal resources on the planet, so it is important to recycle it as much as we can. My grandpa always recycled cans and took them to the recycling center to get the 5 cent deposits back, and my family would collect our cans every week and take them to him every Saturday. I thought it was so weird when I went to other people’s houses, finished a can of pop, and they didn’t have a can bin. They would just throw them away, and even as a little kid I thought that was so wasteful. I try my hardest now to recycle cans whenever I’m not home because I know how valuable aluminum can be.

When it comes to reusability, I can see more being done with soup cans than with pop cans. I have seen some really cute DIYs of people taking beer cans and making them into succulent planters, but I think it would just be better to recycle them. Tin cans are just great for holding tiny objects, like paper clips, pushpins, pencils, and even your toothbrushes. The fact that after use, most if not all tin cans are lidless can limit what you can do with them.

Glass

  • Recyclability: 5 out of 5
  • Reusability: 4 out of 5
  • Average: 4.5 out of 5

The glass jar is basically the unofficial mascot of the zero waste movement, and for good reason. Glass, like aluminum, is 100% recyclable and can be recycled endlessly without losing purity or integrity.

I also think that glass has way more options for reusability when it comes to living a zero waste lifestyle. For me, I use jars for drinking glasses, I use them as propagation vessels for my plant cuttings, and I also use them to store foods. Right now I have a cute little jar that holds my loose leaf tea and a larger jar that holds my sugar for sweetening it. Part of me did it for the aesthetic, I won’t lie, but I also did it because it was better to keep those things in a sealed jar rather than an open paper bag. At some point though, you get to a place in your journey where you don’t really need any more jars or bottles, so that’s why I gave glass a 4 for reusability.

Naked Packaging

  • Overall: 5 out of 5

Now it is time to talk about the only real “zero waste” packaging option, and that is simply no packaging at all. Lush is one of the frontrunners in offering products “naked” with no packaging whatsoever, all you get at the end of your shopping is the paper bag that they come home in. Sadly, in order to find naked products anywhere, you most likely have to find a small shop that offers such products, and there are not a ton of options online for naked packaging. Even though it isn’t widely available yet, it is the best option and the only true “zero waste” one since there is no packaging to even waste in the first place.

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