How to Win an Argument about “Eco Friendly” Packaging

How to Win an Argument about “Eco Friendly” Packaging

Despite the rather bold title, I’m really not out to start arguments. I’m definitely not out to pick fights. I’d much rather we all got along :) So what comes below isn’t actually about arguing.

It’s about helping others see our point of view when it comes to waste (and that includes eco-friendly packaging). “Eco friendly” packaging is something I get asked about a lot.

It seems that not a week goes by without me having a conversation with somebody about single-use packaging, and why it isn’t the wonderful convenience item that we think it is.

I do not know how many times I have been told by a helpful staff member when I refuse packaging that there is no need to refuse, because “it’s eco-friendly / we recycle / it’s biodegradable”.

I cannot count how often well-meaning friends have shared links about the latest and greatest edible or biodegradable alternative to single-use items with me, expecting me to declare the waste problem solved.

Five years ago, this was me. I thought that if it had “eco-friendly” printed on it (preferably in green and with a nice leaf logo), then it was eco-friendly. I was waiting for science to invent our way out of all of the world’s problems.

But then I looked into it. I started researching, and asking questions, and finding answers that I didn’t really want to hear.

And I changed my perspective.

I’ve put together some of the most common comments I hear and facts I’m told; here’s what I might say in response. They are talking points and things to consider. Hopefully they will help you have better conversations with others about why single use packaging isn’t as great as people think, even if it’s stamped “eco-friendly”.

And if the need arises, maybe even win some arguments ;)

A Word About Arguments

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We’re not really trying to win at arguments, we’re just trying to help others see things from a different perspective. There will always be people who disagree, and that doesn’t matter: some arguments aren’t meant to be won. Don’t try to convert the non-convertable. At either extreme of a point of view is everyone else, and these are the people to have conversations with. The people who want to do the right thing, but find the information available confusing. Maybe they put too much trust in others’ claims about their green credentials (that was definitely me).

  • Think About Where People Are Coming From.

Everyone has their own unique set of circumstances. People who work in the packaging industry won’t love the idea of banning bags or disposable packaging. People who are busy, stressed and tired are far less receptive to new ideas and “help”!

  • Make it About Values.

Whether it’s the caring for the environment, protecting wildlife, helping others, embracing creativity or better health, think about the values that motivate people. People who are motivated solely by their own self-interests are not as common as you might imagine, but if you do come across somebody like this, walk away. You’re better off using your energy elsewhere.

  • Be nice.

Nobody likes a smart-arse, and nobody likes to be made to feel small. Simple things such as smiling, open body language (no crossed arms!) and using helpful language will all assist in getting the message across.

Winning the Argument About “Eco Friendly” Packaging

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This isn’t an exhaustive list by any means, but these are the questions I’m asked and conversations I have most often. I’d love you to add your own (questions you’ve been asked and answers you’ve given!) in the comments at the end :)

“But the packaging is eco-friendly!”

If, by eco-friendly, you mean not made with fossil fuels, that’s great! However, how is using resources (whether paperboard made from trees, or bio-plastic made from growing corn) to make single-use items that will be used for minutes actually eco-friendly?

Especially when you consider the planting, growing, harvesting, processing and shipping of these resources?

If you mean “eco friendly” because it’s biodegradable, are you ensuring that the packaging is composted? Are you personally composting it, or arranging for it to be so?

Plus did you know that some biodegradable packaging is made with fossil fuels?

If it’s just heading to landfill, that isn’t much more eco-friendly than just using regular packaging.

“It’s biodegradable so it will break down in landfill.”

Landfills aren’t big compost heaps, they are big tombs full of waste that are sealed. They are holes in the ground that are filled up, covered, and left for eternity. Waste breaks down anaerobically and very slowly, releasing methane (a greenhouse gas).

Nothing is breaking down to create space and allow more waste to be deposited. No goodness returns to the soil.

It’s a one-way system.

“It’s compostable.”

Being compostable is great, but only if it’s being put in the compost!

If it’s heading to landfill, it isn’t going to compost. If it’s put in the recycling bin, it isn’t going to compost. And depending on whether it needs hot composting or cold composting to break down, it might not even compost in the home compost bin. I wonder, what are the composting facilities like in your local town/city?

“Wait…Isn’t this disposable coffee cup made of paper?”

Sure, it looks like paper, but actually it has a plastic polyethylene lining. If you think about it, if it was only paper, the hot coffee would seep right through!

Being a mixture of materials, disposable coffee cups are difficult to recycle, so are likely to end up in landfill.

“I can plant this biodegradable coffee cup / coffee pod / other single-use item in my garden and it will grow seeds!”

I have no idea how many coffees you drink in a week, or how big your garden is, but are you telling me that every time you drink a coffee you’ll be planting the waste in your own back garden? That seems like an awful lot of effort to go to!

You could always use a reusable cup or plunger coffee, buy some seeds from the garden centre, and save yourself all that digging!

(Unless you’re just slinging it out of the window and hoping that it seeds… but that sounds like littering to me.)

If it’s still ending up in landfill, sealed underneath a layer of rock, there will be no seeds sprouting – it is just too deep and not the right conditions.

“It’s okay… I will recycle it.”

Recycling is better than throwing away, but it is still hugely energy intensive and in no way a perfect solution. Recycling isn’t a virtuous cycle: products don’t get recycled back into the same thing. Plastic in particular is downcycled (made into something of inferior quality.)

Your disposable packaging is likely made from brand new resources, and recycling them won’t stop new resources being used to create more disposable products.

Plus… is the material is even recyclable in your local area? Theoretically recyclable isn’t the same as actually recycled.

“It’s made with recycled content.”

Recycled content – so no new resources? Or just less new resources? What recycled content are you using, and what is the source of the materials? How are you collecting these materials – are they local, or from interstate, or overseas? How are they transported?

Is it 100% recycled content, or are you mixing some virgin product in there too? What percentage is recycled product? Can the product be recycled afterwards? Will it be? (Let’s not be theoretical about this!) What about the packaging – is that 100% post-consumer recycled content too?

Of course, from a waste perspective, single-use but with recycled content is still single-use.

“Paper bags use three times the energy to produce than plastic bags.”

True, paper bags are more energy intensive than plastic ones to produce, but that isn’t the whole story. Paper bags are made from trees or wood products, which is a renewable resource, and can be sustainable managed.

They are also biodegradable, don’t create long-term litter problems and don’t harm or suffocate wildlife. Plastic bags are made from fossil fuels and last forever.

Of course, reusable bags are even better!

Now I’d love to hear from you! This is by no means an exhaustive list so let’s make it bigger and better! Tell me, what are the most common questions that you’re asked? What answers do you give that seem to surprise people the most? Is there anything you’re unsure about? Any claims you’ve read or seen that you don’t know whether to believe? Anything you’d like more clarity on? Are there any of these reasons that (like me) you used to believe, until you looked into it a little bit more? Anything else you’d like to add? Please tell me your thoughts in the comments below!

16 Responses to How to Win an Argument about “Eco Friendly” Packaging

  1. Fantastic article! My fiance always says that he thought that future and science will solve these problems, like you said too. And then he realized that we are the future…
    I will share your post in Zero Waste Ireland facebook group.
    Thanks

  2. So they try to encourage you to use single use packaging by saying “it’s biodegratable”, “eco-friendly” or “compostable”? Lucky you, I’d say. In Russia they will tell you “but it’s free” and look at you as if you are an alien if you respond that “no packaging is ever free”.

    • Thanks for your comment Gayla! Here in Australia, it isn’t so much that people try to persuade me to use it by saying these things, it’s more that they justify their own actions. If money is truly an issue, then using “free” resources is understandable (of course, I agree completely that nothing is ever “free”). But I’m of the opinion that if you can afford a kale smoothie from the Farmers’ Market or a takeaway cappuccino, then you can afford to do the right thing. I would argue that anybody who can afford takeaway coffee can afford the reusable cup. You can “make” them out of heavy duty jam jars, it doesn’t need to be expensive! ;)

  3. When discussing with people (rather than arguing), try listening to them first. See if they talk about any values and tap into them. Ask them where they are coming from (no time – convenience – want to spend more time with loved ones/having fun, supporting good product – values locally made/small business/quality food – values community or food availability. These can all be handy to use in suggesting why no packaging is a better option.
    When replying, just give a suggestion of how it could be done in a better way, and mention the benefits. It may not sink in straight away, but if you’ve appealed to their core values then it will sink in later…

    • Hi Sarah, I totally agree about making it about values. I originally planned to write a whole piece on this, but my posts have a tendency to become lengthy essays and I took it out. But yes – values is all about finding common connections and understanding. I truly believe that most people want to do the right thing, and values is a great way to connect with this.

      And yes, I’m a big believer in planting seeds (or preparing the soil)! People like to come to their own conclusions and feel like they are making their own choices.

      You put it far more succinctly than I would have managed to Sarah! Thank you :)

  4. Fantastic article Lindsay.
    At the moment I’m trying to ban the supply of disposable coffee cups in my office – as we have plenty of mugs available in the cupboard and most people use their own anyway.
    I’ve been hit with a few questions like ‘but what about the amount of water and detergent it takes to wash your mug every time you use it?’
    I am pretty sure it takes far more water and energy to manufacture and transport paper cups, but I was wondering if you had any statistics about this?

    • Exactly Lana, much more energy (and water because water is used in mining and refining oil and then turning into plastic, not to mention trees cut-down to make the paper). Besides that, you’re also then dealing with the disposable cups clogging up landfills and possibly leaching chemicals into the ground water. I don’t have stats, but I’m sure you’re right. I once had someone ask me what do when you can’t remember to bring a reusable cup- simple! ask for your coffee in a mug! He thought this was most unhygienic until I pointed out that he uses cutlery and water glasses at cafes all the time and this is essentially the same thing!

    • Thank you Lana!

      Good luck with the mission! That is a really good question, and I don’t have any statistics about that actually. I do like the info that KeepCup have on their website about disposable cups though which may be of some use? http://vs.keepcup.com.au/

      I would say another alternative is to come up with solutions. It all depends how many people are in your office, how receptive they are, whether you have a dishwasher, pot plants or outside space, but here are some ideas:

      – One person washes all of the cups at the end of the day so the sink isn’t being continually refilled

      – Have a watering can or bucket to hand for rinse water that can be given to a pot plant or poured outside into a garden

      – Where people have their own cups, encourage rinsing without detergent between drinks, and use less detergent.

      Hope that helps and let me know how you get on! :)

  5. I find that leading by example is much more likely to have an effect than ‘preaching’. I am trying to talk to owners of small local businesses that I use about single-use packaging free choices and suggest that they might offer little incentives for people bringing their own containers.
    I think that it’s important that we normalise using our own bags/boxes when making purchases. When the plastic bag charge was introduced here in Wales there was a bit of an outcry, but now almost everybody carries their own shopping bags around with them and it’s never really discussed.

    • I couldn’t agree more! :) I’m pretty sure it is a universal truth that nobody likes to be told what to do! But sometimes people don’t understand the choices we make, and being able to explain them can be helpful.

      I love that you’re trying to talk to small business owners. If you can get them on board, that is change multiplied! Starting coversations is such an important part of our movement.

      The government keeps intervening with any attempts to ban bags in WA. I think the other states in Australia are on board, but our politicians wouldn’t be out of place in the 1950s… : /

  6. Wow! I can’t ask any Q & A about eco friendly packaging because you said everything here. Only rigid mind won’t accept this truth post.

  7. Thank you for this article, I really like it! I’d love to use some of your points for a post on my (still small Italian zero waste) blog, if you don’t mind – I’d obviously give credit to you :)

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