In an age of internet-savvy consumers, companies have employed increasingly sophisticated greenwashing tactics to avoid taking meaningful environmental action, while reaping the reputational benefits of appearing eco-friendly. But it’s only a matter of time before consumer knowledge catches up with industry practices. Some materials will continue to pose a problem in the supply chain no matter what is done with them.
Plastics industry, I’m talking about you.
One of the most common ways that businesses practice greenwashing is by focusing on one “sustainable” aspect of the product while ignoring the rest of the product’s lifecycle. Recycled plastic is one of those things that we think will have a positive effect, but that doesn’t fully address the impact of all plastics in the supply chain.
The truth is that every time plastics are recycled, their quality degrades, thus limiting their capacity to be made into anything useful. According to one investigation into the limits of the plastics recycling industry, five of the seven main types of plastic hardly ever get recycled due to cost constraints and the complicated processes required to do so. And that’s not even factoring in the toxic stream of carcinogens and pollutants that makes plastics recycling even more undesirable.
We all know that plastics pollution is a huge issue that comes at a cost to our land, biodiversity and collective wellbeing. According to McKinsey data, the U.S. consumes a whopping 37 million tons of plastic every year, and of this 16 million tons are food service-related single plastics like takeout containers and cutlery. This equates to about 100 pounds per person per year of food-related plastics alone.
Plastics recycling, with its associated collateral damage in terms of carbon emissions, conventional energy use and toxic binding agents, is just another Band-Aid solution. Even higher-grade plastics like polyethylene terephthalate (PET), used for items like single-use water bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE), used in plastic bags and detergent bottles, reach a point of diminishing returns when it comes to recycling.
In parts of the fashion industry, where increasing amounts of plastic are being repurposed into clothing, plastics recycling is acknowledged to be an imperfect solution due to limitations around end-of-life recyclability, sustainability of production and the difficulties of keeping plastic microfibres out of the environment. “We really try to stay away from the term ‘sustainable garment,’ because that implies that we’ve reached the destination,” said Gap Inc. director of product sustainability and product circularity Alice Hartley. “We really haven’t — it’s a continuous journey.”
According to the World Wildlife Fund, a single plastic cup or water bottle takes approximately 450 years to break down. At the end of its life, a plastic product is likely to go straight to a landfill where it will outlast our lifespans and those of our children and grandchildren. It makes no difference how many times a plastic product is recycled. Sooner or later its end destination will be the same place where most plastics go.
The groundswell of eco-conscious consumers has increased in the wake of the devastating impact of pollution. A 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are willing to fork out extra cash for products that are environmentally sustainable. All over the world, sustainability concerns are driving consumer purchasing decisions. By far the most popular way consumers are supporting the environment is by cutting down on single-use plastics.
Greenwashing tactics like using terms that are vague and unprovable make it harder for consumers to make an informed choice in their purchasing decisions, and will ultimately hurt the businesses that employ them. Common offenses include the use of labels such as “green,” “sustainable,” “eco-friendly” and “biodegradable” without any transparency around how the biodegradable process actually works.
Empty rhetoric, slogans, misleading imagery, general unproven or unprovable claims, blatant deployment of the color green and the use of a narrow set of criteria to label a product as eco-friendly round out the list of manipulative practices aimed at winning over consumer hearts and dollars.
So far, only eight U.S. states have banned single-use plastic bags, a disappointing result for the world’s second biggest plastic waste generator, but that could soon change as campaigners continue to pressure legislators into taking more action. Beyond the regulatory framework, there’s an opportunity for businesses to lead the plastic-free revolution and find real solutions, instead of paying lip service to the message of sustainability. Our environment is too precious for us to do otherwise.
Anaita Sarkar is co-founder of Hero Packaging.
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