The Differences Between Carbon Neutral, Plastic-Free, and Plastic Neutral Every Eco-Conscious Shopper Should Know

Know your sustainable terms.

With climate change and sustainability on everyone's mind these days, there are a lot of new phrases and sustainable terms to know. It seems we've just learned terms like zero waste and green cleaning products when new phrases emerge. Now meet plastic neutral. It might just be the new sustainable buzzword for companies looking to help protect the environment.

"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 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.

In March, Grove Collaborative announced a new commitment to becoming 100 percent plastic-free by 2025, an initiative that takes plastic reduction a step further. Realistically, Jezienicki says, going plastic-free likely means that a company's products are about 95 percent free from plastic because of supply chain issues and production limitations, but that's still an enormous reduction.

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 production, delivery, and use of its product or service and 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.

Carbon neutral, plastic neutral, and plastic-free (which refers to products that don't contain any petroleum-based plastics) are all different methods of reaching the same goal: reducing a business' impact on the environment. While it's important to consider how companies you know and love are helping to curb climate change, shopping only plastic neutral or 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.

"Sustainability is complicated, and certifications are confusing," Jezienicki says. "However, learning the basic inputs and outputs of your favorite brands 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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