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Reusables vs. Compostables: Which Are More Sustainable?

In this blog, we break down the myths around compostables being the most sustainable packaging solution and show you how reusable packaging options are actually much better at diverting waste from landfills.


stacked reusable containers and cups

The Importance of Waste Reduction

The average university student produces 640 pounds of trash per year, which adds up to about 13.4 billion pounds of trash produced on college campuses annually. With landfills predicted to be at capacity in the US within 62 years, it’s clear that waste reduction needs to be a main priority from the national level to the campus level, and all the way down to the individual level.


So how can we reduce waste? One major area we can focus on is reducing our packaging needs and ultimately eliminating single-use packaging. There are many types of packaging that are positioned as sustainable, but what's actually best for the environment is murky. To clear things up, we've broken the most popular types of packaging down for you below:


table of different packaging types with their commonly used materials and impacts

The Pros and Cons of Compostables

But if it’s compostable doesn’t that mean it’s sustainable? Let’s break down the good and bad of single-use, compostable packaging:


Pros

Convenient. Single-use compostables are the most convenient option for when you don’t want to deal with washing reusable plates, cups, silverware, etc.


Made from organic materials. Most compostables are made from carbon-based biomaterials like bagasse (sugarcane), bamboo, palm leaves, wood pulp, etc. In theory, they should easily break down into organic matter or humus, which leaves behind no plastics or chemicals of concern.


Cons

Still single-use. While compostable packaging options have been heralded as the more sustainable option, trash is trash. A compostable container is still single-use meaning it will still be considered waste after you’re done with it.


Resource-heavy to manufacture. It takes a lot of land, water, and energy to create compostable packaging. Because they are made from organic materials, we need to account for the land and water used to grow the organic materials that are then made into compostable packaging.


Advanced composting facilities needed. Compost facilities need to be really advanced to properly break down compostable packaging and the reality is that most composting facilities in the US do not have these capabilities.


High chance of user error. Compostables need to be properly composted vs. thrown out as trash and that requires a lot of trust in the user. Unfortunately, a lot of compostable packaging ends up in the landfill as a result of user error.


Adds high levels of methane to landfills. When organic materials like compostables end up in landfills due to user error, this creates higher levels of methane which is a greenhouse gas that is 84x more detrimental than C02 over its first 20 years in the atmosphere.


Why Reusables are the Most Sustainable Packaging Option

Designed for circulation. Reusables are made from durable, sanitizable materials that are designed to keep these packaging solutions in circulation without needing them to be remanufactured. This continual use of a single reusable packaging item eliminates hundreds of single-use packaging items from entering the landfill, reducing solid waste by up to 86%.


Reduced manufacturing needs. Additionally, the long lifespan of a reusable packaging solution drastically cuts down on manufacturing resources required per use. And it’s a major plus when reusables can be manufactured using recycled materials!


Reduced user error. Because reusables can be tracked (like with Topanga.io’s track-and-trace technology), there is a clear process in place for handling broken reusables that need to be retired and properly recycled or disposed of. User error is nearly eliminated thanks to the intentionality of a reusables program run by trained operators.


Ensured circulation. It’s important to remember that reusables are only superior to compostables if they are actually returned and reused! Typically, reusable packaging must be reused 2–4X to outperform single-use, and that's even accounting for the water required to sanitize it. Topanga's ReusePass program helps ensure that reusable packaging is actually reused enough times to be superior to single-use materials of all types.


Overall, reusable packaging wins over disposable products based on six environmental metrics:

  • GHG emissions

  • Water consumption

  • Resource extraction

  • Waste generation

  • Litter generation

  • Plastic pollution


Conclusion

The real environmental difference in packaging types lies in 1) the material it’s made out of and 2) what you do with it once you’re finished using it––reusables must be reused to truly be the more sustainable option. A circular economy, which favors reusable products and packaging, is key to sustainable consumption. In 2019, 1.9 billion metric tons greenhouse gases were emitted from waste alone. By prioritizing circularity and the switch to reusable packaging over single-use, we can help divert massive amounts of waste from landfills.


Ready to Switch to Reusables?

Making the switch from disposable and single-use packaging to reusable containers shouldn’t be difficult. Our technology-powered reusable packaging platform here at Topanga.io helps make that happen. Our software suite manages and optimizes every step––from fulfillment to tracking to the customer experience––making it easy for businesses to launch their own reuse programs and reap the benefits of improved customer engagement and ROI.


Whether you’re in the food service, healthcare, beauty, travel, or other industry, we can help you on your journey towards reusables. Contact us for more information or to schedule a demo of our reusable packaging platform. We’d love to chat with you!



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