• Glossary of Terms

    If you're confused by sustainability vernacular you're not alone. In fact, battles are still being waged over the definition of "sustainability" itself. But whether we're talking about the upstream extraction of energy needed for the production of goods, or the downstream tactics of production, sales, waste, and recovery, each step deserves sustainability scrutiny. The tricky thing is every step of the supply chain has its own culture, and language. With that in mind, this glossary of terms will be a living document, expanding as we wander down rabbit holes and talk with experts in every field.


Materials that are biodegradable can be broken down into increasingly smaller pieces by bacteria, fungi, or microbes to be assimilated into the surrounding environment. Some items are naturally biodegradable and can be useful to the earth, like food and plants. Other items can decompose but cause harm to surrounding ecosystems by releasing toxic chemicals. For example, even plastic can biodegrade because it eventually is broken down into smaller and smaller pieces that are absorbed into the Earth, but it takes an incredibly long time and releases toxins along the way. Because anything that eventually breaks down can be called biodegradable, it is often a misleading term used for greenwashing. There are not strict standards in the packaging industry about what can be called "biodegradable." ANEP only supports biodegradable materials that can degrade in a human lifetime and that do not leave behind harmful substances.

Bottle bills (also known as container deposit laws) are a proven, sustainable method of capturing beverage bottles and cans for recycling. The refund value of the container (usually 5 or 10 cents) provides a monetary incentive to return the container for recycling. You may have seen text on soda bottles or cans listing the states where you can return the container to receive the deposit back. Bottle bill states have higher recycling rates and lower littering rates. States with bottle bills include California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Iowa, Maine, Massachusetts, Michigan, New York, Oregon, and Vermont, as well as all Canadian provinces.

In our current economy, we take materials from the Earth, make products from them, and eventually throw them away as waste - the process is linear. In a circular economy, by contrast, we stop waste being produced in the first place by keeping materials in circulation for as long as possible. This can be done through material reuse and recycling, as well as avoiding products that can't be reused or recycled. The transition to the circular economy is underpinned by a transition to renewable energy and materials.

"Compostable" refers to a product or material that are biodegradable under specific, human-driven circumstances. Composting requires human intervention. During composting, microorganisms break down organic matter. Humans help by adding the water, oxygen, and organic matter necessary to promote relatively fast biodegradation. When the degradation is complete, the final product is called compost, which is a nutrient-rich organic material that can be added to soil. Composting contributes to the circular economy because it is a way to "recycle" nutrients and organic matter into something useful (compost), rather than sending those nutrients and organic matter into a landfill, where it can no longer be used. Compostable items only become compost if they're composted, meaning that they do not become compost if they are sent to a landfill or go into the ocean. Anything that is compostable is biodegradable, but not everything that is biodegradable is compostable since, as we mentioned in this guide, anything can biodegrade if given enough time. "Compostable" does have a strict definition in the packaging industry. Products certified by BPI or TUV Austria, or products that have met testing standards such as ASTM D6400 or EN 13432, can be composted reliably.

Most U.S. municipalities provide recycling programs to their residents where, much like you take out the trash and have it collected by the city or a private company, your recycling is collected as well at your curb. While different municipalities may have different rules about what you can recycle in your curbside bin, most allow consumers to recycle glass, aluminum, paper/cardboard, and certain rigid plastics. Some other products and materials, such as flexible plastics or batteries, can technically be recycled, but consumers have to take those items to special collection sites (often called "store drop-off"). Since curbside recycling can happen at home, it is by far the most convenient way for consumers to recycle. ANEP strives to promote only curbside recyclable packaging products to make it as easy as possible for businesses and citizens to recycle.

When an item is downcycled, the resulting new product is of lower quality, and often lower value, than the original item. This often occurs because the recycling process weakens the strength or other performance qualities of the item. Downcycling often results in a "dead end" for a material where it cannot be recycled again. For example, apparel recycling often results in the downcycling of textiles into materials like insulation. This material will see a second life as insulation, but is unlikely to see a third or fourth life after that. Downcycling is not an ideal outcome: we would like for items to maintain their quality and value for as long as possible, and to be continuously able to be further recycled.

EPR is a policy approach that places responsibility for the end-of-life (EOL) of a product on the producer of that product. Currently, it is usually consumers (and their tax dollars) that manage and pay for the EOL of products through landfills and recycling. Instead, EPR would place those costs on the companies that create the waste. EPR exists in some countries and states for a variety of products such as mattress and paint, and packaging EPR laws are becoming more common as well. EPR laws can help incentive companies to use less packaging and to switch to more sustainable materials.

Greenwashing is the act of giving a false impression or giving misleading information about how a company's products are more environmentally sustainable through unsubstantiated claims. Greenwashing can come in many forms, such as using poorly defined terms such as "natural" or failing to tell the whole story (e.g., claiming something is made from recycled material when in actuality, only a small amount of it is made from recycled material).

Industrial composting facilities optimize the heat and moisture conditions, as well as use grinders and chippers, to facilitate the biodegradation of compostable materials into compost. This is in contrast to residential or home composting, where a household can keep a composting bin in their backyard. Home composting doesn't allow for the same optimization of conditions to facilitate biodegradation of as many materials as industrial composting does. Products that are certified as compostable must include instructions about whether the item is both home and industrially compostable, or if it is just industrially compostable.

When unitized products in pallet form lean severely or tip over completely. Load failure results in a loss of product and the environmental impact of transporting a load which becomes unsaleable.

Ocean-Bound Plastic (OBP) is abandoned plastic waste at risk of ending up in the ocean because it is not being handled through formal waste management programs. Plastic is more likely to be considered ocean-bound if it is in a community near a shoreline with poor waste management infrastructure to ensure it is landfilled, incinerated, or recycled properly.

Plastics are the most common form of marine debris. Consumer items such as beverage bottles, cigarettes, straws, food wrappers, and bottle caps wind up in the ocean for a variety of reasons, from careless littering to improper waste management. Ocean plastics negatively affect ocean ecosystems. Because plastic doesn't easily biodegrade, it stays in our oceans for centuries, hurting wildlife and releasing toxic chemicals. While the most visible ocean plastic floats on the surface, a lot of plastic does break into smaller pieces and exists as microplastics below the surface. Wildlife consume these small pieces of plastic, causing bioaccumulation up the food chain.

If materials are denoted as "post-consumer recycled," the item was used by the consumer first before being collected for recycling. The acronym PCR is also sometimes used to mean "post-consumer resin," meaning post-consumer recycled plastic resin.

Plastic bags typically used in manufacturing to protect products through the supply chain. Main functions of these bags is to provide separation between product, present a surface for labeling and barcoding, and prevent environmental introduction of dust and other debris.

Post-consumer waste is waste collected after use by end consumers. This is in contrast to pre-consumer waste, which includes waste products created, for example, during the manufacturing process.

ASTM International administers the Resin Identification Coding (RIC) System, a set of symbols that appear on plastics products identifying the type of plastic resin the product is made from. The codes feature the numbers 1 through 7 in the "chasing arrows" recycling symbol. The RIC system was originally developed by the Plastics Industry Association, which has been accused of greenwashing: contrary to consumer perception, the RICs do not necessarily indicate that the product is recyclable. They simply state which kind of plastic the product is. Typically, consumers can recycle plastics with the numbers 1, 2, and 5 in their curbside bins. #4 plastics can often be returned to stores for recycling. Plastics 3, 6, and 7 are very difficult to recycle.

Clear or printed polyethylene or polyolefin film intended to bundle products or protect the surface of a product. The material is applied around the package(s) and then heat is applied to expand only to cool and then further contract the material tightly around the product. Many variants serve many purposes but primarily bundling, tamper evidence, labeling, and in some cases, oxygen or moisture barrier is achieved.

A clear, typically multilayered film, designed with intent to contain pallet load quantities of product. Stretch film provides compression on load and also resistance to load shifting/failing.

Upcycling, or sometimes called creative reuse, is the process of transforming waste materials into new materials or products perceived to be of higher quality. Upcycling bypasses the traditional recycling process by making something new from the material just as it is, rather than destroying it to turn it into a different product altogether.

"Virgin" means that the material is coming natural resources for the first time - in other words, it's not recycled. For example, virgin paper would be paper that had come from trees, whereas recycled paper would be made from paper that had previously been used and then recycled. Often, materials noted as "recycled" contain a mixture of recycled and virgin content, so products may be labeled as having "50% recycled content," for instance. The virgin vs. recycled descriptor can apply to any material.

Have you ever put something in the recycling bin because you're not sure if it can be recycled, and you're hoping maybe someone will be able to sort it and recycle it? That's wishcycling. We want to do the right thing by recycling, so we put items we're not sure about in that blue bin.

So why is wishcycling a problem?

Having non-recyclable items in the waste stream is really challenging for material recovery facilities, or MRFs, which is where our single-stream recycling goes to be sorted.

First, non-recyclable materials like plastic bags and film can clog up the sortation machinery. It can even bring the whole MRF operation to a halt!

Second, some of those non-recyclable materials like oxygen canisters or broken furniture can be really dangerous to people working in MRFs.

Lastly, anything that isn't recyclable that a MRF has to remove has to be thrown away. This can negatively affect the profitability of the recycling process, and we want recycling to be profitable. When recycling is profitable, we all benefit. Profitable recycling operations provides economic benefits in terms of jobs, wages, and tax revenue. More resources can then be poured back into improving recycling systems, growing operations, and educating citizens on proper recycling practices.

How do we address wishcycling?

As consumers, it's pretty easy. If you aren't sure of an item's recyclability, throw it away. Even better, learn more about what your city does and does not recycle. As businesses, we need to use easier-to-recycle materials to package our products. That's something Atlantic is working on this America Recycles Day, and every day.


Smooth, glossy paper that is semi-opaque. Known in packaging for it's protective properties from surface abrasion and maintaining separation between products when packed in a master pack.

Strong paper made from a sulfate pulping process. Kraft paper is often used for paper grocery bags or paper sacks used for cement or consumer goods.


ASTM International, formerly known as American Society for Testing and Materials, is an international standards organization that develops and publishes voluntary consensus technical standards for a wide range of materials, products, systems, and services. For our purposes, some of the most salient ASTM standards include compostability and biodegradability standards such as D6400 and D6868. Organizations such as BPI use these methods to determine product compostability.

The Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) provides the leading certification in the U.S. for compostable and biodegradable products, with the main focus on industrial compostability. We rely on certifications from BPI and TUV Austria in the E.U. to assure us of the compostability of various packaging products. BPI uses the test results of ASTM D6400 or D6868 to assess compostability.

The Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) is a non-profit that manages the leading certification for sustainably managed forests, which helps us ensure our fiber-based products are sustainable. FSC has a few certifications. The two most important are: one for chain-of-custody that traces the path of products from forests through the supply chain; and one for responsible forest management confirming the specific area of forest is being managed in line with FSC Principles and Criteria. FSC certification is the preferred option compared to SFI (Sustainable Forestry Initiative) certification. SFI is run by the forestry industry groups, while FSC is run by an independent non-profit. While both certifications have value, FSC is generally considered to be the higher standard.

TUV Austria is a company that certifies compostable and biobased products mostly for the European market. TUV uses the test standard EN 13432 for compostability. One benefit of the TUV certification is that it differentiates between "home compostable" and "industrially compostable" products.


Lightweight, flexible and has a high ability to absorb shock and provide good cushioning.

Often confused for Styrofoam, this lightweight foam material has multiple uses but is often used in packaging for void filling, cushioning, and product support.

Dense and soft foam often cut into shapes and used as an insert to protect fragile products.

High Density Polyethylene: Strong, dense plastic used in a variety of items including milk jugs, plastic mailing envelopes, and plastic chairs. Often times widely recycled.

Dupont's trademarked brand of closed-cell extruded polystyrene foam (XPS) that is blue and used primarily as insulation.

Single-Use Plastic Packaging

Larger plastic cushions filled with air that are used in packaging for void fill and protection.

Plastic wrapping material lined with air cushions that prevents damage of fragile goods.