By Bonita Davis, Master Recycler and SE Resident

Recycling, plastic pollution and climate change now have our attention with a growing number of news reports, documentaries and discussions about how to take action. 

Simply going to the grocery can be a little stressful when we want to make not only the best food selections, but also wish to consider reducing waste. 

Beyond remembering to bring our own shopping bags, we may be thinking about the best packaging or form to buy our products. Sometimes, the marketplace does not always make it easy to decide.

Just days after Oregon’s January 1 bag ban went into effect, I spotted a heavier mil plastic bag on display at a grocery check stand emblazoned with I Am Recyclable printed on the side. Other bags for sale were printed as Reuseable. I set out to discover how easy it to become confused by packaging.   

Found on the grocery shelves were packages wrapped in earthy brown and green tones, often with graphics depicting butterflies, birds, mountains, trees, wind turbines and leaves. 

The words compostable, recyclable, biobased, reuseable and biodegradable were found as frequently as the phrases uses less energy, PVA free, chlorine free, BPA free, made of recycled content, saves water, trees, and energy, (this is) a safer choice, save the planet (when you choose this product) and the chasing arrow recycling triangles surrounding resin identification numbers. 

Packaging messages urged me to care more, reuse, compost and recycle responsibly. Next came product attributes of pure, all natural, organic, certified humane, fair trade and free from artificial flavors and colors.  

How do we make our best choice given this confusing roster of product and packaging attributes? It helps to realize that there is fierce competition between manufacturers to have us select their product and being earth friendly is a big appeal. 

A little greenwashing might even be in play; making a product seem more environmentally friendly than it actually is. While some claims are backed by certifying organizations, others mean very little, other than being a marketing strategy.

I turned to a fascinating set of reports from DEQ entitled Popular Packing Attributes to learn more about the environmental impacts of different types of packaging across the lifespan of the product from extraction, manufacture, distribution, use and eventual discard. 

If interested, take some time for this deeper dive into the science behind packaging materials in the reports at  oregon.gov/deq/mm/production/Pages/Materials-Attributes.aspx.

Food packaging is essential for transportation safety, preventing damage, bruising, spoiling and breakage, but does result in the creation of even more waste. Calculating the environmental friendliness of a packaging material goes beyond its recyclability. 

The manufacturing of packaging materials involves energy, natural resources, shipping (fossil fuels), labor and eventual disposal impacts. Calculating that when out shopping would be cumbersome, so what is helpful in making purchasing decisions?  

These ideas might help:

• The less unnecessary packaging, the better

  Buy just what is needed in amounts that will be used and not wasted

  Choose durables over single-use containers, particularly with food and beverage purchases

• Buying products made with Recycled Content supports the recycling market

  Select products that can be repaired or reused

• Switch to products with zero to low toxicity

• Go straight to the source for where-to-recycle information by searching for the recent copy of The Curbsider at portlandoregon.gov; visit recycleOrNot.org for instant answers in full color or call the experts at the Metro Recycling Hotline 503.234.3000.

• Put non-recyclable packaging waste in the garbage, not in the blue rollcart.

• Packaging made from bio-based, compostable or biodegradable materials are not part of the lawn debris/food scrape collection in the green rollcart. In our area, these items are disposed of as garbage.