Why it’s time to do away with greenwashing in the plastics industry

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In an age of internet savvy consumers, companies have employed increasingly sophisticated greenwashing tactics to avoid taking any meaningful environmental action while reaping the reputational benefits of appearing to be eco-friendly. But it’s only a matter of time before consumer knowledge catches up with industry practices. There are some materials that no matter what you do with them, at some point they will still pose a problem in the supply chain.

Plastics industry, I’m talking about you.

One of the most common ways businesses practice greenwashing is by focusing on one “sustainable” aspect of the product while ignoring the rest of the product’s life cycle. Recycled plastics is one of those things that we think will make a positive impact — after all it’s recycled! — but doesn’t fully address the problematic impact of any and all plastics in the supply chain.

The truth is, every time plastics are recycled, the quality of the plastics degrade, 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 plastic contains which makes plastic recycling even more undesirable.

We all know that plastic pollution is a huge issue that comes at a cost to our land, biodiversity, and our collective wellbeing. Government data shows that in 2018-19, Australia consumed a whopping 3.5 million tonnes of plastic compared to 3.4 million tonnes from the year before.

Plastics recycling, with its associated collateral 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) which is used for things like single-use water bottles, and high-density polyethylene (HDPE) used to make 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, it was acknowledged that plastics recycling was 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, We really haven’t, it’s a continuous journey,” said Gap Inc director of product sustainability and product circularity Alice Hartley.

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 landfill where it will outlast our lifespans and the lifespans 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 have increased in the wake of the devastating impact of pollution. A 2015 Nielsen poll showed that 66% of global consumers are even willing to fork out extra cash for products that are environmentally sustainable. All over the world sustainability concerns are driving consumer purchasing decisions, and these consumers are doing their bit by getting educated about the issues at hand. 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 offences 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 colour green and using 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.

State governments around Australia are already taking steps to ban single-use plastics. From June 1 2022, NSW will ban single-use items that include lightweight plastic bags, straws, cutlery, microbeads and cotton buds to help stem the tide of plastic pollution. Beyond the regulatory framework, there’s an opportunity for businesses to lead the plastic-free revolution to help find real solutions instead of paying lip service to the message of sustainability. Our environment is too precious for us to do otherwise.

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