Sustainable Terminology

Tue Apr 25 2023

Sustainability, in its simplest form, refers to the ability to meet the present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. While this definition is simple and straightforward, the conversation around sustainability is certainly not. Understanding the terminology and using it in conversation with colleagues and clients is crucial in today’s sustainability-focused packaging industry. The following terms will help lay the foundation of your sustainability knowledge—so let’s dive in!

Learning Objectives

  • By the end of this short lesson, you will be able to Define 15 key sustainability terms.

  • Circular Economy: A systematic approach to minimizing waste by maximizing the resources that are already in the system.1
  • Extended Producer Responsibility (ERP): An environmental policy approach in which a producer’s responsibility for a product is extended to the post-consumer stage of a product’s life cycle.2
  • Life Cycle Assessment (LCA):  A method to calculate the environmental impacts associated with a single product throughout its life cycle.3
  • Biodegradable*: The biological decomposition process of carbon-based materials by microorganisms (no timeframe).4
  • Compostable*: A subset of biodegradable, with measurable timeframes and specific requirements for degradation and toxicity.5
  • Recyclable*: Packaging that meets accepted design standards for recyclability, such as packaging with the right attributes for successful collection, sorting, and recycling in the real world.6

*Please note that states like California restrict products with terms such as recycle, biodegradable, and compostable.

  • Greenhouse Gases (GHGs): Gases found in the atmosphere that absorb radiation and emit heat within the thermal infrared range creating what is known as the greenhouse effect.7
  • Carbon Footprint: The total measure of greenhouse gases released in the atmosphere.8
  • Carbon Neutrality: Refers to a net-zero carbon footprint that is reached when the same amount of carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere as is removed, in turn, leaving a zero balance.9, 10, 11, 12
  • Carbon Dioxide Equivalent (CO2e): The number of metric tons of CO2 emissions with the same global warming potential as one metric ton of another greenhouse gas.13
  • Post-Consumer Recycled Material (PCR): Derived from an end product such as a clear water bottle or aluminum can that has completed its life cycle as a consumer item and would otherwise have been disposed of as a solid waste product .14, 15
  • Post-Industrial Material: The waste generated from the original manufacturing process that is used again in the same material (e.g., scraps from the roll of aluminum when making soda cans are melted down, rolled, and the process starts again).14, 15
  • Resin Identification Code: Specifies what type of plastic a package or product is made from; however, it does not imply whether the package is recyclable or not.6

Packaging is a language—and using the vocabulary appropriately will enable you to advance your projects farther faster. The terms we’ve discussed today are just a few of the concepts you need to master and implement as you seek a sustainable path. It’s a long journey to get where we need to be, but each small step means one step closer to a better world for everyone.

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Expand your knowledge of this subject by exploring related lessons and resources.

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