Let's talk about plastic (part 2)...

Dear Wicked Smart Recycler,
I get that you can only recycle plastic bottles, jugs, jars and tubs here in Massachusetts. Unfortunately, my favorite coffee comes in a non-recyclable plastic pouch. It’s #PlasticFreeJuly and I don’t know what to do – help!
Struggling Coffee Addict

​Dear Struggling Coffee Addict,

First off, kudos to you for taking the time, energy, and effort to re-evaluate and cut back on the amount of single-use plastic packaging in your life. We live in what has been dubbed the “throwaway culture” and we need more people like you.

When it comes to your coffee dilemma, I have good news and bad news…

Let’s start with the bad news. Unfortunately, there is no easy answer: as a consumer, making purchasing decisions based on the packaging type can be complicated. There are environmental and social trade-offs when it comes to different packaging types and there is no “right” answer.

The good news? The Recycle Smart Team has developed a shopping guide to help next time you’re in the coffee aisle at the grocery store (or any aisle for that matter).

Is the packaging necessary?
Ideally, try to avoid the packaging altogether. Many grocery stores have coffee available in bulk. Bring in your own reusable container (check first to see if the store allows this) for the ultimate zero-waste solution. For food and household staples that are not offered in the bulk aisle at your local store, you can check out this list of Massachusetts locations that offer bulk items or shop bulk online through options like Loop.  Or, to crowd source environmentally friendly packaging alternatives, try the Facebook group Zero Waste Massachusetts.

Recyclability isn’t always the gold standard. One of the key considerations that goes into package design is how to transport a product without it spoiling or breaking. While plastic pouches are not recyclable (yet), they are lightweight – thereby consuming less fuel to transport from distribution center to retailer -, use less plastic to manufacture than a rigid container, keep food from spoiling or getting stale and frequently have an overall lower carbon footprint than a comparable glass, rigid plastic or metal container  This is not an endorsement for single-use plastic packaging, but opting for the coffee that comes in a metal or glass container just because it’s recyclable may not actually be the greener choice. According to Oregon DEQ’s research, a general rule of thumb is that lighter, more compact packaging tends to be the most environmentally friendly option when you look at the entire lifecycle of the product, assuming that the material is disposed of properly when it is not recyclable.

Help close the loop. If you are choosing between two packages made with the same material (say two different boxes of cereal), opt for the one made with recycled-content (look for the 100% Recycled Paperboard Certification label pictured below or check the Buy Recycled Products Directory for plastic products). Obviously, your personal preference for the cereal inside is a key factor in your decision – but by choosing products made with recycled content, you help drive demand for a circular economy.

The Recycled Paperboard Alliance provides a third-party certification process for consumer packaged goods companies to verify that a package is made from 100% recycled fibers aligned with guidelines from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).

Convenience. Sometimes, the more environmentally friendly packaging options come at the cost of convenience (think snack-size servings of chips, cookies, nuts). Buying the larger version of the same product and putting snack-size portions in mini reusable containers for your kiddo’s lunch takes a little more time but reduces packaging waste.  Each of us can weigh the trade-offs between a little less convenience and a lighter plastic packaging footprint.  Maybe, using individual snack-size packages for long car trips and going with reusable containers for the daily routine is the right balance for you and your family?

Espresso yourself. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.) But in all seriousness, if your favorite coffee comes in non-recyclable plastic packaging and you want to see more sustainable options – speak up. Brand owners are increasingly attuned to consumers concerns about sustainable products and packaging.  Use your voice to express your opinions by contacting the brand owner through their website.  Consumers have more influence than you might think!

In the end, Struggling Coffee Addict, the answer to your question isn’t as straightforward as you might have hoped, but I know you will make the best decision for what works for you and your family.  I applaud your commitment to reducing your waste footprint.

Sincerely yours,

Wicked Smart Recycler


Did You Know?

It’s not just plastic grocery bags that can be recycled in the bins at your local supermarket. You can include other stretchy plastics like bread bags, zip-top bags, produce bags and wrap that comes around toilet paper and paper towels. Check out this short video to learn more about which bags and wrap can be recycled and what they become in their second life. Remember – these items do NOT belong in your household recycling bin. Find a plastic bag and plastic wrap drop-off location at a store near you. (We recommend calling first since some programs have temporarily suspended collection due to COVID-19 concerns).

Partner Spotlight: Boston University

A round of applause to Boston University for bringing the Recycle Smart message to campus! The Sustainability Program at BU aims to reduce the university’s environmental footprint by integrating greener practices into everyday life – and has done so by using elements of Recycle Smart’s Smart Recycling Guide in recycling and composting posters. Their website features on-campus recycling locations and information for students and faculty, including a link to the Recyclopedia. Thanks for sharing the Recycle Smart message; we can’t wait to see what comes next for BU!

What We're Reading:

Reduce, Reuse, and Recycle On – 

The Recycle Smart Team at MassDEP