Almost 30 years ago, the Brundtland Report created a definition of sustainability still widely used today. It said that “Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” More recent approaches consider a “Triple Bottom Line” or the three pillars of sustainability approach, which includes achieving a balance of environmental, economic and social sustainability outcomes.
In the quest for sustainability, however, a number of misconceptions or myths continue to endure, while new ones emerge. Here are two enduring misconceptions:
Misconception 1: Sustainability is all about recycling.
When people divert recyclable materials from the trash into the blue box, they see the difference they are making in terms of diverting solid waste. Unfortunately, however, recycling is still too often seen as being synonymous with sustainability. This belief is not true. “If you think you are living sustainably because you recycle,” noted a Scientific American article, “you need to think again.”
Reuse trumps recycling. Case in point, corrugated cardboard boxes used to transport fresh produce have a high recycling rate, but because they must go through a recycling process after each usage, they constitute a less sustainable option than Reusable Plastic Containers, or RPCs. According to an independent Life Cycle Analysis Study released in 2016, IFCO RPCs result in 31% lower CO2 emissions, 65% less water, 34 percent less energy as well as other benefits.
Misconception 2: Biodegradable packaging material is more sustainable than others.
Paper bags or plastic? “There is...a misconception among designers that some materials are intrinsically better because they are biodegradable or natural. Which is not always the case,” one sustainable design expert observed in a recent interview.
Dr. Leyla Acaroglu emphasized that the best solution in terms of sustainability is not necessarily the choice of material such as paper versus plastic, but rather, usage and end-of-life decision making. For example, when paper packaging is left to decompose in nature, it releases the carbon it has stored. Landfills, however, are anaerobic. Packaging material sent to the landfill is trapped without air and oxygen. In such an anaerobic environment, packaging made from cellulose releases methane, a greenhouse gas 25 times more potent than CO2.
Ultimately, the sustainability of a particular packaging type is dependent in part upon the entire system in place to facilitate its return to the natural environment or to efficiently recapture it for reuse or recycling. In pooling models, reusable packaging systems can be beneficial in that the carbon footprint of repositioning containers is significantly outweighed by the benefits of avoided manufacture of new containers.
So what is the best way to deal with misconceptions about sustainability in a complex world with complex systems? “It’s important to have a bit of a knowledge base that helps you make more informed decisions,” Acaroglu emphasized. “Asking questions and being curious is a really good starting point.”