Know Your Terms: Plastic Neutral, Carbon Neutral, and Plastic Free

These sustainability catchphrases all have slightly different meanings.

With climate change on many peoples' minds these days, becoming a savvy sustainable shopper is a common goal. As citizens and companies seek ways to be more eco-conscious, many new phrases and sustainable terms are emerging.

A term like zero waste is relatively self-explanatory (make your best effort to send zero waste to a landfill). But the terms plastic neutral, carbon neutral, and plastic free are less obvious. What's the difference between these three? We asked a sustainability expert to explain.

Plastic Neutral vs. Plastic Free

Plastic neutral refers to a company (or an individual) that recovers and recycles the same amount of plastic it uses. Unlike plastic free—when a company uses no plastic—a plastic neutral commitment acknowledges that a company uses plastic but also recycles that same amount of plastic.

"We expect that this is something you'll be hearing more about as awareness grows around this particular solution towards plastic reduction," says Danielle Jezienicki, the director of sustainability at Grove Collaborative, the only plastic-neutral online retailer in the world.

Plastic Free Companies

Plastic free generally refers to products that don't contain any petroleum-based plastics. However, it can also apply to companies as a whole. Recently, Grove Collaborative announced a new commitment to becoming 100 percent plastic free by 2025.

Realistically, Jezienicki says, going plastic free likely means that a company's products are about 95 percent free from plastic. That's because of supply chain issues and production limitations, but this is still an enormous reduction.

What Does Carbon Neutral Mean?

Unlike plastic neutral or plastic free, carbon neutral centers around carbon dioxide emissions, not physical plastic consumption. Carbon-neutral means a business has calculated the carbon dioxide emissions associated with the production, delivery, and use of its product or service.

Then, the company either found an alternative way to power it—think renewable energy—or purchased carbon offsets to remove that same amount of carbon emissions from the atmosphere. Carbon offsets can be everything from forest conservation to greenhouse gas reduction.

Sustainability as the Ultimate Goal

Carbon neutral, plastic neutral, and plastic free are different methods of reaching the same goal: reducing a business's environmental impact. While it's important to consider how companies you know and love are helping to curb climate change, shopping only for plastic neutral, carbon neutral, or plastic free companies will prove difficult.

"There is no perfect company," Jezienicki says. "I would encourage [people] to prioritize brands that openly acknowledge their contributions to protecting our planet."

A company may not be plastic free or carbon neutral, but if it's making strides to move away from harmful industry practices and working on sustainability programs that support the company and consumers, it's likely worth supporting as you try to live a sustainable lifestyle.

"Sustainability is complicated, and certifications are confusing," Jezienicki says. "However, learning your favorite brands' basic inputs and outputs will make you a more educated consumer." Armed with this knowledge, we can all become smarter shoppers for the planet we share.

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