Atlantic’s Sustainability Glossary is a resource to understand the “alphabet soup” that often makes sustainability confusing to our customers. We’re in the process of building out this glossary by topic area, so check back soon for more information!
In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste – the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place by keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible. This can be done through material reuse and recycling, as well as avoiding products that can’t be reused or recycled. The transition to the circular economy is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials.
Greenwashing is the act of giving a false impression or giving misleading information about how a company’s products are more environmentally sustainable through unsubstantiated claims. Greenwashing can come in many forms, such as using poorly defined terms such as “natural” or failing to tell the whole story (e.g., claiming something is made from recycled material when, in actuality, only a small amount of it is made from recycled material).
Life Cycle refers to the various stages that a product goes through from its initial conception and design to its eventual disposal or end-of-life (EOL). This concept is often used in product development and environmental assessments to understand the overall impact of a product on the environment, economy, and society. From a sustainability point of view, products’ life cycles are often examined to understand the sustainability of their feedstocks; the nature of the manufacturing processes that go into making them; the “use phase” by the consumer; and the fate of the product when it is disposed. Understanding the life cycle of a product can help businesses make informed decisions regarding product improvements, resource allocation, and sustainability considerations, including factors such as recycling, waste management, and environmental impact at each stage of the product’s existence.
Waste & End-of-Life
Materials that are biodegradable can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces by bacteria, fungi, or microbes to be assimilated into the surrounding environment. Typically, the word “biodegradable” is used to mean that the material breaks down into innocuous products that are already found in nature. Some items are naturally biodegradable and can be useful to the earth, like food and plants. Other items can decompose but cause harm to surrounding ecosystems by releasing toxic chemicals. For example, even plastic can biodegrade because it eventually is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces that are absorbed into the Earth, but it takes an incredibly long time and releases toxins along the way. Because anything that eventually breaks down can be called biodegradable, it is often a misleading term used for greenwashing. There are not strict standards in the packaging industry about what can be called “biodegradable.”
A term that is used to cover several types of structures, formulations, and end-of-life outcomes for plastics. It is sometimes meant to refer to plastics that are sourced from biobased materials. Other times, it is used to refer to plastics that are designed to be biodegradable or compostable. It may also be used to refer to plastics that are both bio-based and biodegradable/compostable.
“Compostable” refers to a product or material that are biodegradable under specific, human-driven circumstances. Composting requires human intervention. During composting, microorganisms break down organic matter. Humans help by adding the water, oxygen, and organic matter necessary to promote relatively fast biodegradation. When the degradation is complete, the final product is called compost, which is a nutrient-rich organic material that can be added to soil. Composting contributes to the circular economy because it is a way to “recycle” nutrients and organic matter into something useful (compost), rather than sending those nutrients and organic matter into a landfill, where it can no longer be used. Compostable items only become compost if they’re composted, meaning that they do not become compost if they are sent to a landfill or go into the ocean. Anything that is compostable is biodegradable, but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable since, as we mentioned in this guide, anything can biodegrade if given enough time. “Compostable” does have a strict definition in the packaging industry. Products certified by BPI or TUV Austria, or products that have met testing standards such as ASTM D6400 or EN 13432, can be composted reliably.
Some petroleum-based plastics have additives in them that promote degradation after a certain period. You may see them called “degradable,” “oxo-degradable,” “photo-degradable,” or even “biodegradable.” These technologies are not making the films compostable. Rather, the plastic just fractures into microplastics. It is Atlantic’s position that degradable plastics do not offer salient environmental benefits and may do more harm than good since they cause microplastics and reduce the recyclability of plastics.
End of life
In a sustainability context, “end of life” (sometimes abbreviated “EOL”) refers to the stage in a product’s or material’s lifecycle where it has reached the end of its useful life or has become no longer functional or usable for its original purpose. At this point, the item has become waste or is no longer in active use. The concept of “end of life” is highlights the need to consider the entire lifecycle of a product or material from its creation to its disposal. The environmental impact of a product is not only determined by its use but also by how it is managed after it is no longer needed or functional. In the context of waste management and environmental responsibility, sustainable practices aim to extend the life of products through repair, reuse, and recycling, rather than immediately discarding them as waste. This approach reduces the demand for new resources and minimizes the environmental burden associated with the production of new goods.
A feedstock for a product is the raw material that is used to produce goods, finished goods, energy, or intermediate materials. In the sustainable packaging world, we often refer to packaging’s feedstock, whether it is trees to make paper, petroleum and petrochemicals to make plastic, or other biomaterials to make things like bioplastics. Sustainability advocates want to ensure that the feedstock for a given packaging material is sourced responsibly.
How2Recycle is a program of GreenBlue, which also houses the Sustainable Packaging Coalition. How2Recycle is the leading labeling system for consumer packaged goods to indicate whether the item is recyclable. The program currently has four labels: “Not Yet Recyclable,” “Check Locally” (for items that are recycled curbside in 20-60% of communities in the US), “Widely Recyclable” (for items recycled curbside in 60%+ of communities in the US), and “Store Drop-off” (for some plastic films for retail store drop-off). The system also assesses whether there are end markets for the materials in question.
Incineration (sometimes “waste-to-energy”)
Incineration is one method of disposing of waste through burning in a controlled environment like an incinerator. This may be in contrast to sending waste to a landfill. Incineration is also sometimes used specifically to handle hazardous waste as a safer alternative than landfills. Some incinerators are designed to generate energy through the incineration process in the form of electricity or heat, a process called waste-to-energy. While incineration helps reduce the volume of physical waste in a way landfills do not, it also produces harmful air pollutants. Waste-to-energy is seen as a least-preferred way to manage waste by the waste management hierarchy.
Industrial compostable vs. home compostable
Industrial composting facilities optimize the heat and moisture conditions, as well as use grinders and chippers, to facilitate the biodegradation of compostable materials into compost. This is in contrast to residential or home composting, where a household can keep a composting bin in their backyard. Home composting doesn’t allow for the same optimization of conditions to facilitate biodegradation of as many materials as industrial composting does. Products that are certified as compostable must include instructions about whether the item is both home and industrially compostable, or if it is just industrially compostable.
Sometimes called “dumps,” landfills are the oldest and most common form of waste disposal wherein waste is simply dumped into a designated area. Modern landfills are often strictly managed to confine waste to as small an area as possible and reduce is volume by compacting it. Landfills often are covered daily with inert material such as layers of soil or broken glass. In landfill environments, materials break down very slowly, if at all, and often emit methane because of the anaerobic nature of the degradation. Landfills have to be carefully engineered to minimize methane release into the atmosphere, and many landfills are now able to capture this methane and convert it to natural gas for use in fuel or electricity.
Material Recovery Facility (MRF)
A materials recovery facility, materials reclamation facility, or materials recycling facility (MRF, pronounced “murf”) is a specialized plant that receives, separates, and prepares recyclable materials for marketing to end-user manufacturers. Many consumers best understand a MRF as where their single-stream recycling goes to be separated. At a MRF, a variety of mechanical and technology-driven processes are used to separate paper, plastics, glass, and metals. Once materials are separated, they are baled into large bundles that can be sold to manufacturers, who then turn those materials into new products. Many MRFs still rely on crude separation mechanisms and manual labor to segregate materials, while others are able to invest in more technological solutions, such as optical sorting, to automate sortation.
Microplastics are tiny particles of plastic, typically measuring less than 5 millimeters in size. They are the result of the breakdown of larger plastic items, such as bottles, bags, and packaging, through processes like weathering, UV degradation, and mechanical action. Additionally, some products, like microbeads in personal care products, are intentionally manufactured as microplastics. Microplastics can also be formed from the fragmentation of larger plastic debris found in the environment, like those from discarded fishing nets or other plastic waste. These particles are small enough to be easily ingested by aquatic organisms and can enter the food chain, potentially posing risks to both marine life and human health.
Municipal Solid Waste (MSW)
MSW is simply trash disposed of by the general public. It is varied in its composition and may include food, packaging, consumer goods, durable goods, and more. Typically, MSW is used in contrast to categories such as medical waste, agricultural waste, construction and demolition waste, or other industrial waste. Consumer packaging often becomes part of the MSW stream.
In its broadest form, an item is “recyclable” if it is capable of being reprocessed into a new item with acceptable quality and performance characteristics. However, while many materials and products could theoretically be reprocessed into other products, it may not be logistically or economically feasible to do so. Items may become harder to recycle if they are not collected or sorted in a certain geography. For example, glass, while being easily technically recyclable, is often not collected by municipalities. So while glass may be technically recyclable, it may not actually be recycled by a certain community. For this reason, it is helpful to be more specific about in what venue the material is recyclable – “curbside-recyclable” typically refers to materials that 60%+ of the population can place in their curbside bin. “Store drop-off-recyclable” refers to certain plastic films that are able to be recycled through store dropoff programs at retail locations. Packaging is recyclable if it can be collected, sorted, reprocessed, and ultimately reused in manufacturing or making another item.
Renewable refers to resources or energy sources that can be naturally replenished or regenerated within a relatively short period, allowing for continuous and sustainable use. Some definitions stipulate that the resource can be replenished in a human lifetime. Unlike finite resources, such as fossil fuels, which are depleted over time and cannot be replaced, renewable resources have the capacity to be naturally restored, making them more environmentally friendly and conducive to long-term sustainability. In the context of packaging sustainability, one issue with traditional plastic packaging is that it comes from a non-renewable resource. Paper and other biomaterials come from renewable resources.
Waste Management Hierarchy
The waste management hierarchy indicates an order of preference for action to reduce and manage waste and is usually presented diagrammatically in the form of a pyramid. The hierarchy ranks the various management strategies from most to least environmentally preferred. The hierarchy places emphasis on reducing, reusing, recycling, and composting as key to sustainable materials management. Meanwhile, energy recovery (see “waste to energy”), incineration, and landfill disposal are least-preferred options.
Greenhouse Gas Emissions & Climate Action
Carbon dioxide (CO2)
CO2 is a colorless, odorless gas that is composed of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. It is a naturally occurring component of Earth’s atmosphere, making up a small but vital part of the air we breathe. Carbon dioxide is produced through various natural processes, including respiration, volcanic eruptions, and decomposition. One of the most significant sources of carbon dioxide emissions is the burning of fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas for energy production, transportation, and industrial processes. Deforestation and land-use changes also contribute to increased CO2 levels by reducing the number of trees that absorb carbon dioxide through photosynthesis. Like methane and nitrous oxide, CO2 is a greenhouse gas (GHG) that traps heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. Excessive carbon dioxide emissions have become a major environmental concern since they are GHGs that contribute to climate change.
“CO2-equivalents,” also written as “CO2e” or “CO2-eq,” is a term used in the context of measuring and comparing GHG emissions from various sources. It is a way of expressing the global warming potential of different greenhouse gases relative to CO2. Since different greenhouse gases have varying abilities to trap heat in the atmosphere, they are converted into a common unit (CO2-equivalents) to make comparisons more straightforward. CO2 is commonly used as a reference because it is one of the most prevalent greenhouse gases and has a relatively long atmospheric lifetime. Other greenhouse gases, such as methane (CH4) and nitrous oxide (N2O), have significantly higher global warming potentials per unit of mass compared to CO2, meaning they have a stronger heat-trapping effect. When expressing emissions as CO2-equivalents, the emissions of each greenhouse gas are multiplied by its global warming potential (GWP) to convert them into the equivalent amount of CO2 that would have the same impact on climate change over a specific time period, usually 100 years.
A carbon offset is a reduction in GHG emissions made by one party to compensate for the emissions produced by another party. This is typically achieved by investing in projects that reduce or remove GHGs gases from the atmosphere, such as renewable energy, energy efficiency, or reforestation projects. The reduction in emissions is then quantified and can be purchased as a carbon offset by companies or individuals looking to offset their own emissions. One of the main criticisms of carbon offsets is that they are sometimes seen as a way for companies to continue emitting GHGs without actually reducing their carbon footprint. In other words, carbon offsets can be seen as a “license to pollute,” allowing companies to offset their emissions rather than making the necessary investments in renewable energy or energy efficiency measures to reduce their emissions.
CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project)
CDP, formerly known as the Carbon Disclosure Project, is a non-profit organization founded in 2000. The organization’s mission is to encourage companies, cities, states, and regions to disclose their greenhouse gas emissions and climate change-related risks and opportunities. CDP works with institutional investors, major corporations, and government entities worldwide to encourage transparency and accountability in reporting on climate change. The organization also provides a platform for companies and other organizations to disclose their climate change data and strategies, which can then be used to benchmark and compare performance. CDP’s platform is widely recognized as one of the most credible and influential sources of climate change data in the world.
Greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions
Greenhouse gases are a group of gases, including carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide, that trap heat in the Earth’s atmosphere. When the concentration of greenhouse gases increases beyond natural levels, it can contribute to global warming and climate change. You may see the terms “carbon emissions” and “greenhouse gas emissions” used interchangeably, but methane, nitrous oxide, and some other gases can have warming effects as well. GHG emissions are often measured in carbon dioxide equivalents, usually abbreviated CO2e, to measure the total impact of all GHGs emitted.
Methane (CH4) is a colorless, odorless, and highly flammable gas. It is the primary component of natural gas and is one of the most potent GHGs in terms of how it contributes to climate change. Methane has a higher global warming potential (GWP – see above entry for CO2 equivalents) than carbon dioxide over a 100-year timeframe, typically estimated to be around 25-28 times more potent. This means that one ton of methane emissions would be expressed as 25-28 tons of CO2-equivalents, depending on the specific GWP used in the calculation. Relevant to a sustainable packaging conversation, methane is produced in landfills by decomposing trash that is degrading in an anaerobic environment. As such, sending trash to landfills is not only a waste of resources, but a problem from a climate perspective as well.
“Net-zero” generally means that the amount of greenhouse gas emissions created and the amount of greenhouse gas emissions removed (for example, via carbon capture and storage) from the atmosphere are equal, resulting in no net increase of atmospheric greenhouse gas. The SBTi’s definition takes the term “net-zero” a step further. Their standard for corporate net-zero targets, in line with keeping global warming to 1.5°C, require rapid and deep emission reductions. Companies must take action to halve their emissions by around 2030. Likewise, long-term deep emission cuts of at least 90% before 2050 are crucial for net-zero targets to align with science. In other words, companies must reduce their emissions by 90%, and only the final 10% can be abated through mechanisms such as some types of offsets. This is why science-based targets are seen as focusing more on the “zero” part of “net-zero” versus the “net” part.
The Paris Climate Accord is an international agreement adopted in 2015 by the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) that aims to limit global warming to well below 2 degrees Celsius (3.6 degrees Fahrenheit) above pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit the temperature increase even further to 1.5 degrees Celsius (2.7 degrees Fahrenheit). The accord requires countries to regularly report their emissions and their progress in implementing climate policies, and to increase their ambitions over time. The ultimate goal of the Paris Climate Accord is to achieve a net-zero greenhouse gas emissions balance in the second half of this century.
Science Based Targets (SBTs)
SBTs are data-driven commitments companies make to reduce GHG emissions. The commitments are validated by the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi). When SBTi validates a company’s goals, it is ensuring that the company’s goals are in line with the Paris Agreement. Targets are considered ‘science-based’ if they are in line with what the latest climate science deems necessary to meet the goals of the Paris Agreement – limiting global warming to well-below 2°C above pre-industrial levels and pursuing efforts to limit warming to 1.5°C. SBTs are considered the gold standard in corporate climate action because of the level of validation and the kind of climate action required.
Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions
- Scope 1 emissions: “Scope 1” refers to the direct emission of greenhouse gases (GHGs) from sources that are owned or controlled by a company or organization. This includes emissions from sources such as combustion of fossil fuels in boilers, furnaces, and vehicles owned or operated by the organization, as well as emissions from chemical reactions that occur during the manufacturing process.
- Scope 2 emissions: “Scope 2” refers to indirect GHG emissions that are associated with the consumption of purchased electricity, heat, or steam. These emissions are produced by a third party, such as a utility company, but are a result of a company’s own activities. For example, if a company purchases electricity from a power plant that emits GHGs during the production of that electricity, the emissions associated with that electricity consumption would be considered Scope 2 emissions for the purchasing company. Scope 2 emissions are one of three categories of greenhouse gas emissions defined by the Greenhouse Gas Protocol, which is a widely used accounting tool for measuring and reporting greenhouse gas emissions.
- Scope 3 emissions: Scope 3 emissions refer to all indirect greenhouse gas emissions that occur in a company’s value chain but are not included in Scope 2 emissions. These emissions are a result of the company’s activities but are produced by sources that are not owned or controlled by the company, such as suppliers, customers, and transportation and distribution networks. Examples of Scope 3 emissions include emissions from the production of purchased materials and products, transportation and distribution of products, waste disposal, and the use of sold products. Scope 3 emissions are often the largest source of emissions for companies, and measuring and reducing these emissions can be challenging due to the complex nature of the value chain. However, many companies are increasingly recognizing the importance of addressing Scope 3 emissions to achieve their sustainability goals and reduce their overall carbon footprint.
- For an overview of emissions scopes, check out Atlantic’s video.