The stuff you buy isn’t nearly as recyclable as you think. Blame corporate America

p 1 90605651 the stuff you buy isnand8217t nearly as recyclable as you think blame corporate america

If you’re like most American customers, the time period compostable plastic evokes pictures of plastic luggage and packaging gently decomposing into grime over the course of some months. It’s affordable to assume this type of packaging is eco-friendly, based mostly on what we learn about composting. The truth is, this couldn’t be farther from the reality.

There’s an enormous discrepancy between how customers consider recycling and composting work, and the system that truly exists. Whereas problematic, it represents a possibility for manufacturers to fulfill customers the place they’re and supply packaging that features as customers already consider it does.

In a latest survey carried out by Sensible Design, respondents ranked compostable plastics as a extra sustainable materials than recycled plastic or paper fiber. Sadly, compostable plastic breaks down solely underneath the precise warmth and moisture situations of an industrial composting facility—a indisputable fact that solely 22% of individuals we surveyed had been conscious of. Toss a compostable plastic bag right into a landfill or composting bin, come again a yr later, and you’ll discover . . . plastic.


You’ll be able to chalk up a part of this misunderstanding to greenwashing, however there’s additionally a primary reality of human nature at play. Folks prefer to really feel they’re doing the best factor, they usually seize upon messages that assist this. If that emotional want is fulfilled, they have a tendency to droop their skepticism and interpret the message in essentially the most comforting means attainable. That is the principle purpose “wish-cycling”—placing issues in recycling issues that we want belonged there—is so frequent, driving the common contamination charge in curbside recycling to about 25%.

The challenge of customers behaving as if the system already works the way in which they need it to goes far past composting and recycling. The selections we make about what to eat, find out how to journey, and what to buy all have large environmental implications, however they’re typically constructed from a false utopian perspective, the place electrical automobiles and free-range beef don’t have any affect in anyway.

This is perhaps irritating after we’re simply making an attempt to do the best factor, nevertheless it affords clues on how manufacturers can work with customers to bridge the hole between notion and actuality, and encourage extra sustainable decisions.

Design backward from the dream

Shoppers’ fantasies present us the world they wish to inhabit, and types can use this data to inform them what to construct. If customers anticipate their compostable packaging to show into grime, perhaps the most effective resolution is to present them simply that. The U.Ok. model Snact, for instance, packages its fruit bars in a corn-and-wood-based wrapping that may decompose in a house compost bin. Even sturdy items like smartphones are getting redesigned packaging that may be simply recycled or composted within the backyard.

Spend money on infrastructure

In 2019, Nespresso invested greater than 1,000,000 {dollars} in New York Metropolis’s curbside recycling program to allow the restoration of its aluminum espresso pods. Pod-based espresso techniques have inherent issues with sustainability, however reasonably than reduce and run, Nespresso determined to sort out the problem head on. By creating the mandatory infrastructure, the corporate was in a position to stand out as a extra eco-conscious different.

Use pure applied sciences

Lengthy earlier than the appearance of plastic packaging, pure supplies like banana leaves and corn husks had been used to carry our meals. In the present day we’re seeing some companies, like a grocery store in Thailand, return to those roots and leverage pure supplies to exchange plastic packaging.


There are a whole lot of how to make our sustainability fantasies into actuality, however all of them begin with understanding what customers are literally doing. Solely then can we redesign the expertise to suit their habits, and never the opposite means round.

Charlie Paradise is a venture director and sustainability follow lead at Sensible Design; Jamie Munger is a technique director at Sensible Design.