The big lie of recycling and biodegradable packaging: why it is not enough

We know that our Planet is in danger . We see images of plastics on our beaches, in the forests. We notice climate change more and more every year and we see that natural disasters increase. We are becoming more aware, although it is a long process until we all are and we can take action. In this context, one of the most widespread practices in society is recycling. However, the system in Spain has pending challenges. Furthermore, we are involved in a maelstrom of terms like “biodegradable”, “eco” and “biocompostable” in the packaging of supermarkets with which it seems that we recycle more, that we pollute less. But it's not like that. We explain why on this World Recycling Day .

Let's start with the good news. The Eurostat study of the European Union of 2016 showed that Spain recycled the 70. 3% of your packaging waste, which means that 7 of each 10 Spaniards recycle. These figures, according to other studies, have improved in recent years. We could say, looking at this data, that we are doing things right when it comes to recycling. It is true that the population has increasingly implemented these actions in their routines and recycling containers have reached almost all of Spain. But there's still too much to do.

Raquel Iglesias , general director of Dríade Soluciones Medioambientales affirmed that there is a lot of confusion regarding the recyclability of packaging that we see In the supermarkets. In most of them, we read that they are recyclable but, in many cases, the material can be, but due to the design of the product, the process is not completed.

This problem occurs especially in plastics . “A PET bottle, those of water, for example. It is hinted that PET is very recyclable and it is, but it is transparent. If it is a bottle of another color, it reduces recyclability. There is also opaque PET, in cleaning and cosmetic products, shampoos. As of today, these containers do not have an effective recycling “, he indicated in an interview with Hypertextual .

Half recycling, biodegradable as marketing

The problem is in the terms. The labels that we see on some packages do not reach the final stage of recycling and, therefore, do not really comply with the entire process. We explain it: when we deposit a container in a container, it later arrives at a classification plant , where it divides according to its material. The current recycling measurement does not measure until the final stage, which is when the container reaches the recycler. That is the key point, because that is where many are discarded and cannot be recycled for reasons such as their design.

Also, in some cases the problem comes much earlier. In separation plants, the waste passes through a cylinder close to 10 centimeters in diameter to discard food remains that may have remained in the plastics. But the cylinder is large enough for containers to drop that should actually be recycled, such as for example a yogurt or a bottle cap .

To try to make this problem visible and, above all, so that the population is aware of it, the company led by Iglesias has developed a methodology with which measures the recyclability of the container . They analyze from the design of a container to its labels and adhesives to be able to determine if there are quality or material losses during the process. The result is measured in a percentage of recyclability and, for consumers, an “eco-label” was launched that scores packages from 0 to 5 stars , “so that the consumer has an exact vision of which containers are exactly recyclable, “concluded Iglesias.

For companies, in addition to recommendations on how to improve these percentages in the event that the recyclability of their products is low, they are provided with a certificate. The problem, however, is that this process is completely voluntary and many companies decide not to implement “ecolabels” because their competitors do not. “Some have reached a recyclability of 90% but do not want to announce it because the competition has not been subjected to this analysis, he is putting that his packages are 100% recyclable, although the recyclability is very low ” .

'Biodegradable' sounds better than it really is

Reciclaje y biodegradables
Markus Spiske / Unsplash

Many times, we think that we are doing things well and that with recycling correctly we have already done a great part of the work. We have seen that this is not the case. But the problem, as Raquel Iglesias explained, is in the materials used for the packaging. In this context, we have seen more and more in recent years labels that affirm that this product is biodegradable or biocompostable . Under the term “bio” it seems that everything is more sustainable, healthier and less polluting. “But that does not mean that they can be thrown into the environment and that they will disappear, which seems to be what some people think.”

Iglesias explained that materials with these characteristics also have a specific recycling process that, if not properly complied with, can be harmful . “A biocompostable container has to be in the composting container and not in the normal plastic container. If it is mixed it affects the entire recycling chain because those materials behave differently,” he said.

But, beyond consumers, supermarkets are the first to seem to take advantage of the terms “bio” to hang the medal for the fight for the environment. This is a marketing strategy for some. This is stated by Alba García , responsible for the Greenpeace Spain Plastics Campaign and, in an interview with Hypertextual , He stated that the organization has been talking to supermarkets for a long time to try to make a greater commitment.

Some of them have started to implement the reusable bags for fruit and vegetables, a positive measure, but the problem is that is not reported duly to consumers. “They do not even announce that there is a cotton bag, that I pay for it and can bring it back. If the disposable bags are not eliminated and the reusable ones are not reported, what is the use?”

On the other hand, denounces the expert, some supermarkets have improved the packaging materials, but continue to do bad practice of them. He has summarized some of these practices in a ranking where he scores the efforts of supermarkets to reduce their plastic footprint.

“I go to a supermarket and I find an avocado tucked inside a biodegradable mesh. And so with many products. We are talking about waste reduction and end of use and disposal. You are not going to change a plastic container for a paper one. If it is not reusable, nothing is being solved. “

The commitments, therefore, are limited in some companies. Some of them claim that they will reduce their plastics – not that they will eliminate them – and end up putting thinner packaging on the market. But plastic, after all. Additionally, no supermarket has reported the totality of its plastic consumption , added García. This means that, if they announce that they have reduced it by 50%, the consumer It does not have a comparative value.

In recycling and packaging, the key is commitment

Currently, it is difficult to know if what we can do as consumers to reduce plastic consumption is sufficient. The labels we see on the packaging -from those that claim it is 100% recyclable to the famous ones ” bio “- can be misleading . “It is a shame because we confuse people, who will bet on that product thinking that it is doing well and that then it is useless,” condemned Alba García.

However, this is not the fault of consumers, of which a majority will not be an expert in the recycling system.

“There is a very big responsibility not to confuse the public and look beyond your marketing. That says a lot about how they act companies before a problem. “

The solution is complicated if many companies are not willing to commit and if the public is not properly informed. For Alba García, the key is to promote reusable packaging every day. For fruit, vegetables and any other food. Meanwhile, supermarkets claim that a tough strategy for this change is complicated by food waste -some can spoil within a few days if they are not packaged.

However, the organization Friends of the Earth released a report in 2018 studying how food waste has gone rising to the same level as disposable plastics. And, in the case of food that really needs a container, that it be reusable, García proposes.

For his part, Raquel Iglesias explained that it is difficult for a radical change to be implemented in the Spanish recycling system. However, measures can be approved to help improve it, such as containers with low recyclability pay more than those that are. In short, incentives for companies to improve in this regard. These are just examples of how we can help our Planet. They are small actions if we contemplate the complete x-ray of the current situation, but no less necessary .