15 Sustainability Terms You Need to Know

Demand is rising for more sustainability-conscious products across the board, and specifically in the realm of consumer packaging. However, as shoppers become increasingly environmentally conscious, there has been a proven disconnect between shoppers saying they desire more eco-friendly options while not empowering themselves with the knowledge necessary to take action.

“In a 2019 study conducted by the Hartman group with respondents between the ages of 18 - 73, they found that 78% were familiar with the term ‘sustainability’, yet only 22% could identify a sustainable product, and 15% could name a sustainable company.”1 

More specifically, terms such as “biodegradable” and “compostable”, just to name a few, have become sustainability buzzwords, while there is often a lack of understanding of the full meaning behind them. Read our post on Addressing the Knowledge Gap here.

The purpose of this post is to bring some clarity to the conversation, defining some of these often-used expressions around the topic of sustainability.

15 Common Sustainability Terms 

Bio-based:  Bio-based materials are derived from living organisms, such as corn or sugarcane. Bio-based plastics, or simply bioplastics, can be either recyclable, compostable, or sometimes both. “Bio-based” is not the same as “biodegradable”; miscommunication can lead to incorrect disposal of the package.  

Biodegradable: A biodegradable material can break down in the natural environment. To make this claim, brand owners must be able to prove that the entire product or package will completely break down and return to nature within one year or less.  

Circular economy: Economies that fully maximize the use of products and resources, most distinctively marked by their capability to repurpose a resource at the end of its lifecycle by contributing it to the creation of a new product.

Closed-loop: An economy characterized by its obtainment of an equal input value needed to manufacture new resources to its output value of used resources.

Compostable: Compostable means that a material can break down under specified composting conditions. To claim “compostable”, packaging must meet qualifying standards, such as those set by the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) or ASTM. Specifying if the package is intended for industrial or home composting facilities is also required. 

Composting: Converting complex organic materials into soil and fertilizer. 

Ecological footprint: A human’s impact on the environment in terms of how much land is needed to produce the number of resources we consume and absorb the level of waste that we produce.

Natural resources: Resources that are produced independently in nature and are utilized as such.

Reuse: Using a material again for the same purpose that it was originally made for. The original product is usually not altered in any significant way before being used again. 

Recycling: The process of recovering material from waste and turning it into new products. The original product is destroyed in this process but is used to create new products. 

Recyclable: True recyclability goes beyond just being technically recyclable: there must be consumer access to a recycling program, a recycler must be able to process the material, and there must be an end market. Under a newly proposed global definition for plastic recyclability, a package must meet the following four conditions: 

  • Made with a plastic that is collected for recycling, has market value, and/or is supported by a legislatively mandated program. 
  • Sorted and aggregated into defined streams for recycling processes. 
  • Can be processed and reclaimed/recycled with commercial recycling processes. 
  • Becomes a raw material that is used in the production of new products. 

Renewable energy: Energy that is used from sources that are constantly being reproduced.

Sustainability: The ability for something to continue at a certain rate, or in this case, the effort to exist without completely depleting the Earth of its natural resources.

Upcycling: Using materials again but in a manner different than its original intent. The original product is left mostly intact, utilizing its shape, form and material for a different purpose. 

Zero-waste: An effort aimed at eliminating waste by reusing the entirety of any used resources and reducing the consumption of new resources.


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1.https://www.supermarketperimeter.com/articles/4388-filling-the-sustainability-knowledge-gap; summary of The Hartman’s Group, Sustainability 2019: Beyond Business as Usual


Topics: produce packaging, fox packaging, recylable, sustainable, Plastic Packaging