Greenwashing and Unintended Consequences

Thank you for coming with me on this journey over the past few weeks as I shared my thoughts, swaps, and substitutions to help cut back on plastic waste. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to say about this topic, so here’s more food for thought to mark Plastic Free July.

First, that so many people are now trying to reduce their wasteline because they recognise the problems caused by single-use plastics and pointless packaging is fantastic! However, it can be incredibly difficult to sort out the companies that are genuinely striving to change their business practices from those that are simply trying to cash in on people’s desire to do the right thing.

In environmental circles this is known as greenwashing: making claims that a product or company is more environmentally friendly than it really is. After all, I think everyone has a story about a plastic-free product ordered online that came swaddled in bubble wrap in a plastic mailer envelope! As part of the greenwashing that goes on, there are a few words to watch out for that may have a different meaning than you think.

Biodegradable

The term “biodegradable” has become conflated with “harmless” and “invisible”, at least based on the defense of balloon releases I regularly see. How long do you imagine it takes for a product labelled biodegradable to break down and in what conditions?

A balloon website I once read while researching LitterWatch2017 said their products degraded as quickly as oak leaves. This is greenwashing in action: comparing the item to something natural and being vague about the actual time involved. But would you want to eat a balloon? It doesn’t help any animal—whether on land or sea—if they munch on it first. And speaking of munching, many biodegradable items will only break down in the presence of certain microorganisms. So biodegradable products going to landfill (or falling into the ocean in the case of balloons) may not break down at all due to the anaerobic conditions present at many sites. This also causes problems with the production of methane, which is one of the greenhouse gases that contributes to climate change.

You might also be wondering “How long does it take oak leaves to break down?” Apparently they take the longest compared to other common leaves due to the presence of tannins—it can take two or more years. This is one of the best defenses against greenwashing: question claims and double check them.

Compostable

More and more products are bearing this label, and I think most people believe this means it can be tossed into a garden composter after use. And some items, like this potato starch magazine wrapper, can. However, it’s not as simple as it appears.

Bioplastics, for example, may say compostable, but they will only break down under certain conditions and temperatures, i.e. after up to 12 weeks in an industrial composter. If mixed in with normal plastic recycling, they can contaminate the whole load. And, like their biodegradable brethren, there are very few systems in the UK set up to actually take these items—an overwhelming majority will likely still end up at a landfill.

One of my favourite tea shops in Bath, Comins Tea, wrote a great blog about their switch to compostable packaging … and how it isn’t perfect. For a more in-depth look at the problems with these products, I recommend checking out the research they did when transitioning to a new material or reading this Guardian article about the difficulty in finding alternative solutions to plastic.

In the UK, anything bearing the Compostable label means it has met certain standards for breaking down in an industrial composter. Please check local recycling listings for how to dispose of these items properly.

Recyclable

At its heart, recyclable just means “able to be recycled” … and, in theory, everything can be recycled. However, there may not be the system in place for it, or it’s not economically feasible to recover the material.

Coffee cups are a prime example of a “recyclable” item that actually isn’t. I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry when I read a comment someone left on an article about how billions of coffee cups end up in landfill each year. The person was quite indignant: they always put their cup in the recycling bin therefore their cup was always recycled—why couldn’t other people do likewise?

Unfortunately, it just doesn’t work that way. The TV series Hugh’s War on Waste pointed out that there were only two recycling plants in the country that could cope with the complexity of recycling cups (cardboard outer layer plus inner plastic layer equals trouble), and as a result the number of cups actually recycled was a tiny percentage of the massive whole (less than 1%).

Since then, more has been done to increase coffee cup recycling, but it’s far from universal (as this recent photo from the Chippenham railway station attests). Due to the UK’s poor waste management infrastructure, it is a guessing game as to whether something can be widely recycled or if recycling for it is only available in certain areas. Make sure to check Recycle Now to see what can be recycled where you are, and check out Packaging Detective to decipher some common hieroglyphics.

Green Dot

One of those mysterious symbols is the Green Dot. This is found on a lot of packaging but it does NOT mean that a product can be recycled or is made from recycled material. Instead it simply means that the company has contributed towards the recovery and recycling of packaging in Europe. 

This confusion over different terms and what goes in which recycling bin is why I recommend transitioning to reusables rather than disposables whenever possible, no matter what eco buzz words are used to sell an item. The unintended consequences of new materials are, at present, such that they are likely to cause just as many problems as the original plastic packaging.

Plastics themselves are a perfect example of something that has had consequences far beyond what could have been imagined 70 years ago. At the time, it was seen as a miracle material: it kept food fresher for longer, made packaging lighter and more robust, and could be produced cheaply. The sheer scale of it—and the fact that it would end up sticking around for centuries—wasn’t really considered.

The planet is now paying the consequences for this lack of forethought. We need to start being willing to dig just a little deeper into the products we buy: ask questions; check claims; and consider what legacy we want to leave behind.

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