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3 ways to fix chaotic packaging sustainability definitions

3 ways to fix chaotic packaging sustainability definitions
When it comes to sustainable packaging definitions, speaking the same language fosters understanding and common ground.

Achieving a circular packaging economy should be everyone’s concern. Consumers, brand owners, manufacturers, municipalities—every person on the planet has a stake in addressing the problem.

Unfortunately, tackling the situation presents formidable obstacles. While there is widespread agreement that improvements must be made, there is little or no consensus around the terms used to discuss the problem. In the U.S. alone, we’ve counted at least 18 different definitions of “recycling” used across the U.S. How people define “circular economy” varies, as does the term for single-use plastics—even chemical recycling.

Lacking a common understanding dilutes our ability to engage in meaningful change. Why? Because confusion around definitions opens the door for emotional reactions, rather than informed decisions. Uninformed decisions leave lawmakers vulnerable to uninformed policy—and unintended consequences.

For example, public furor over single-use plastics has led to quick, policy proposals in several jurisdictions. Recent California legislation defines single-use priority plastics as the top 10 items typically found in coastal cleanups. This definition includes cigarette filters but excludes flexible film packaging. Others are banning plastic utensils and straws, which leaves foodservice professionals scrambling for alternatives.

Efforts to reach consensus

Not surprisingly, one body’s work to define a term often clashes with another’s. If, for example, one organization comes up with a definition that differs with the definition used by the International Standards Organization (ISO) or federal regulation, conflict is nearly inevitable. When these conflicts occur, confusion and discord create obstacles to sensible solutions.

The challenge in using undefined terms becomes exacerbated when we seek to regulate—especially across jurisdictions. For example, when Canadian leaders introduced the Ocean Plastics Charter at the 2018 G7 Summit, five of the seven countries signed on, but two (Japan and the U.S.) declined, due to lack of consensus over terms, goals and conditions.

As the global standards organization, ISO has been instrumental in defining several guidance documents offering a level of clarity. For example, the ISO 18600 Series of Standards on Packaging and the Environment and ISO 14021: 2016—Environmental Labels and Declarations, have achieved some success in attaining harmony around management of packaging material. The standards were created to help harmonize global practices related to packaging and the environment. Ideally, these should be the terms employed in global policy, but are too often overlooked. Granted these were last updated over a decade ago and lack emerging terms like single-use packaging, but they still provide a valued framework for defining existing and emerging technologies—such as chemical versus mechanical recycling.

The Federal Trade Commission also has been helpful in solidifying sustainable packaging terms. The FTC’s Green Guides, for instance, include guidance on how companies can market and label their products within the U.S. However, these also lack insight into emerging terms and how to use them within a regulatory context—they were designed to address marketing conflicts. Nor do they address global agreement—rather, they are restricted to products sold in the U.S.

You can’t manage what you can’t measure—and it’s difficult (if not impossible) to measure what you can’t define. So how can we move forward?

Let’s look at how decisions are made, what works, what doesn’t, and what the path toward greater clarity and common understanding might be.

Following a hierarchy

Stakeholders have a range of resources to turn to when deciding what definition to base policy and behavior on. How should they determine which guidance is the best? AMERIPEN believes it is best to base decisions on legal authority. From a legal perspective, the weight of defining terms follows this hierarchy:

First: Regulatory documents

These guidance resources should be considered first, over any other definitions used within the boundaries they cover (federal, state, local or otherwise). The definitions and terms in these resources carry the weight of the law, with possible enforcement attached.

Second: International Organization for Standardization (ISO)

If there isn’t a regulatory definition covering a term, then ISO standards should be used. These standards are embraced by the World Trade Organization, and member countries are encouraged to adopt these standards in the interest of global trade harmony. They have been developed through a consensus process representing global interests.

Third: Technical standards

Technical standards offer a context behind definitions and, while they do not define terms per se, they form the conditions under which a packaging claim can be validated.

Fourth: Association, organization or agency definition

These definitions, while they have no legal standing, still have value. They provide insight and context into how definitions impact practice, often inform future regulations, and may provide the basis upon which ISO and technical standards are formed.

Moving forward

While there is a legal hierarchy related to packaging terminology, in practice, dialogue informs each phase. Definitions created by organizations or media can influence policy development and ISO and other consensus-based processes are swayed by the public discourse, so how do we best move forward?

AMERIPEN believes the following are some areas that hold opportunity for increasing clarity and creating more informed processes for change.

1. Use ISO standards

The ISO already has offered up documents that provide increased clarity and understanding about recyclability, reusability, renewable materials, compostability and other key areas. These standards were developed as a result of a multi-year stakeholder process reflecting perspectives from across the packaging value chain.

We need to use these standards and reference them more than we currently do as we leverage terms and define new practices. These documents offer the best insight into globally accepted definitions and practices.

2. Industry collaboration

Discussing common concerns and problems is a powerful way to set and achieve packaging sustainability goals. When such discussions include industry stakeholders from every corner of the industry, from design to end-of-life processing, the end result is greater clarity—and a clearer sense of direction.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) is currently leading discussions to help harmonize U.S.-based definitions of recycling as part of its America Recycles Initiative. Additionally, industry coalitions are working with non-profits to help define terms like “single-use plastic” for direct application in policy.

3. Policy discussions

When packaging professionals have little or no contribution to packaging and recycling policy, the results frequently are less than ideal. It is important that all stakeholders be at the table when laws around material use, recycling and other areas are being discussed.

Working with the industry trades and supporting calls to engage in State-specific issues helps industry ensure policies that are implemented meet the goals outlined while avoiding unintended consequences that may be inherent without a full stakeholder perspective. AMERIPEN is a material neutral trade organization uniquely positioned to speak about packaging at-large, but all trades offer this opportunity to leverage industry expertise.  

For a look at the different packaging definitions for Recyclable, Reusable, Renewable, Compostable/Degradable, Recycled Content, Recovery, Chemical Recycling and Mechanical Recycling, as well as advice on how to achieve consensus, refer to AMERIPEN’s Packaging Materials Management Definitions: A Review of Varying Global Standards Guidance Document.


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