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Why everyone is confused about what ‘eco-friendly’ actually means

It should be a straightforward question. We’re bombarded daily with news and messages about the environment, often in great detail. We know about deforestation in the Amazon, a dwindling ice pack in the Arctic, and a big patch of plastic garbage floating somewhere in the Pacific. We know that recycling is better than landfill, and reusable is best of all. Given all the information at our fingertips, choosing sustainable packaging options ought to be a snap, no matter what we buy. Right?

But it’s not—not by a long shot. Smart Design conducted research last year into consumer perceptions around the environmental impact of different packaging materials. And one of the clearest findings was that nobody’s clear about anything. There’s widespread confusion about which materials are best for the earth and plenty of common beliefs that are nearly the opposite of reality.

Take aluminum cans, for example. Are they more eco-friendly than plastic bottles? Sixty-four percent of our respondents thought so, and 24% thought they were about the same. But virgin aluminum takes huge amounts of electricity to produce—far more than any plastic—and all that energy has to come from somewhere. But pictures of fish and seabirds engulfed by floating plastic make a strong impression.

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