Eco Folklore, Greenwashing and Misunderstandings

two seedlings growing on a rock

Since I’ve been publishing this website I’ve learned a lot about the difference between the theory of sustainable living and the reality. In our increasingly interconnected world nothing is straightforward and the distance between us and the nexus of events makes it so difficult to distinguish truth from spin. It’s a greenwasher’s dream!  This might be why I keep seeing the same misconceptions repeated over and over again in the media, both social and mainstream, and it’s amazing just how resilient these mis-truths are and how hard it’s proving to replace them with the truth. As the saying goes ‘A lie will be half-way around the world before the truth had put it’s socks on’

Here are a few of my ‘favourite’ mis-truths and misconceptions. Please feel free to dispel them at every opportunity!

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Sweden’s is Not a Leader in Waste Reduction

A video heralding the fact that Sweden is running out of waste keeps doing the rounds on social media. Watching the video you’d be forgiven to thinking this is down to successful efforts to minimise waste. This unfortunately is not the case. In reality Sweden incinerates most of it’s waste, including recyclable waste, which provides generates heat and electricity for homes and businesses in Sweden. Many professionals in the waste industry accept that incinerating recyclables to generate electricity is not a sustainable waste management system. but whatever your opinion of incineration to generate heat and electricity the misconception that Sweden is running out of waste because of waste minimisation is still untrue!

Clothes Aren’t Recycled into New Clothes

Currently only single fibre clothes i.e. 100% cotton, 100% wool can be recycled into new fabric of good enough quality for reuse in clothing. Currently blended fibre fabric, which makes up the majority of fabric used in clothing, can only be mechanically down-cycled into insulation or underlay/padding. Scientists and engineers are experimenting with systems to ‘unweave’ different fibres from one another so that they can be recycled but the technology isn’t there yet. Next time you’re in a clothes store check the label on a few garments. Just how many of them are made from just one fibre? Very, very, very few!

Also only 5 to 10% of collected clothing is recycled into fibres that ultimately make new clothes. 60% goes for resale, and the rest is “downcycled” into lower-value products like cleaning cloths, insulation for houses and cars and other products. (Source: How Good is H&M Clothes Recycling Program). In the report I link to there it is unclear how much of that 60% that goes to resale ultimate gets reworn. Having volunteered in a charity shop I know first hand just how much perfectly good clothing goes unsold, which makes me wonder how they verify the 60% quoted above. I would suggest that although 60% might go onto for resale only a fraction of that goes on to be bought and reworn.

Bamboo Fabric Is Not Environmentally Friendly

I see a lot of fashion brands touting bamboo fabric as eco-friendly and some of it may be but definitely not all. Most bamboo is processed using chemicals know to be harmful to health and often farmers in China are clearing native forests to grow bamboo. You’re not even safe with ‘organic’ bamboo, with concerns raised over the authenticity of ‘organic bamboo’. A lot of bamboo fabric users claim that it is bamboo fabric, i.e. rayon is biodegradable but, despite numerous request, I’ve yet to see research to back this up. I have seen research on the biodegradability of fibres from tree based rayon but I wouldn’t be confident applying this to all types of rayon, especially considering that research into microplastics in our oceans has shown that Rayon contributed to 56.9% of the total fibres recorded by the research team. We’re now starting to see companies being prosecuted for claiming that bamboo is an environmentally friendly fabric.

Recyclable Items Aren’t Infinitely Recyclable

Glass and metal are infinitely recyclable, whereas plastic, fabric and paper generally are not. Most plastic can only be recycled 3-5 times, and paper 6-7 times. When it’s no longer recyclable paper is composted and plastic is sent to landfill or for incineration. Technology is helping to increase the recyclability of plastic but we’ve still a way to go yet.

Recyclable Items Aren’t Always Recycled

A perfect example of this eco-myth is aluminium foil, which although recyclable is often sent for incineration because aluminium recyclers don’t want to buy it. If it’s sent to incineration it may be collected from the bottom ash and sent for recycling then, but only if someone is willing to pay for it. It’s the same with quite a few materials. Things only get recycled if there is a market for them.

Recycling Doesn’t Always Result in New Versions

Although glass jars can be recycled into new glass jars it may not be. Sometimes it’s recycled into an abrasive for sandblasting and in some countries it’s used to make new roads. Again it all depends on the market, but also on recycling infrastructure. Recycling companies need a consistent supply of high-quality recyclable material. If the recycling infrastructure can’t deliver that the material will most likely end up being incinerated or downcycled into something of lesser value.

Compostable Plastic May Not be Home Composted

Unless packaging specifically states that a material it is suitable for home composting, don’t assume it is. A lot of compostable materials needs to be composted in industrial compost units in order to decompose.

Composted Plastic Does Not Completely Disappear

When something is compostable, it must biodegrade within a certain amount of time, under certain conditions, (source Treading My Own Path). This time frame is currently set at 90% after 6 months, which means that 10% can still be visible after 6 months. That 10% might not seem much but if countries were to switch to it wholesale it’d soon mount up.

Biodegradable Plastic is not the same as Compostable Plastic

When something is called biodegradable, it typically means it can be broken down by the metabolism by micro-organisms. There is no stipulation for avoiding toxic residue, or a requirement that the plastic breaks down into constituent parts, nor a maximum time frame, just that it is no longer visible (source: Treading My Own Path Blog). Currently there is no global standard for biogradeable plastic so there is no way of knowing for sure how it’s going to degrade in the environment unless the manufacturer has had the material independently tested. For more info on this read my article ‘Why I don’t like biodegradable/compostable plastic

Bioplastic Doesn’t Mean Biodegradable 

Although made from a renewable source like plants or feathers, bioplastic is not generally compostable or biodegradable. It can be but it has to be specifically made to be so. Similarly it can be made to be recyclable like oil-based plastic but don’t assume it is. Also the term bio-based plastic sounds positive until you learn that to be called a bioplastic, a material only needs 20 percent of renewable material; the other 80 percent could be fossil fuel-based plastic resins and synthetic additives.

Plant Based Materials Are Not Always Biodegradable

In the same way that people assume that plant-based plastic (bioplastic) is biodegradable they also assume that pineapple leather or cork-based products are too. This isn’t always the case. It all depends on how the original plant material has been treated. In the same way that timber coated with plastic varnish is no longer biodegradable, plant-based fibre impregnated or coated with plastic may not be either. The only way to know for certain is to see the results of tests for biodegradability.

Bioplastic Isn’t Automatically Sustainable

In theory creating plastic from plants sounds a lot more sustainable than making it from oil but some bioplastics are made from crops like sugarcane and, given the global obsession with plastic, using this source would require us to dedicate huge swaths of farmland/ forest to this crop. Have we learned nothing from the palm oil debacle?  Depending on the source material making Bioplastics may be as unsustainable as fossil fuel plastics.

Vegan Materials Aren’t Always Environmentally Friendly

In the same way that biodegradable products may not be ethically or fairly produced, i.e. leather or silk, you can not assume that products labelled as vegan are planet positive either. For example, plastic can be classed as vegan and often is, particularly by fashion brands wanting to cash in while cutting costs. Anecdotally I’ve heard of companies boosting sales of standard cotton t-shirts by simply relabelling it as vegan. I’ve also seen quite a few plant-based materials like Bananatex being sold as biodegradable but when I asked to see the results of the tests that proved this I was told that none had been carried out.

Recycled Content Isn’t Always From Waste

Post-consumer means after being used by a customer, i.e. waste material. Anecdotally, I’ve been told that in order to jump on the eco-gravy-train some companies are making recycled plastic goods from new, unused plastic bottles straight from the factory! So if something says it’s made from recycled plastic bottles look for the term post-consumer.

Reusable Plastic Isn’t Necessarily Planet Positive

We now see companies pledging to make all of their packaging recyclable or reusable by a particular date. My response; too little, too late. The recycling ship has sailed and we need to move beyond it, and as for making packaging reusable that’s a total greenwash. If if buy a plastic jar of something today I can already reuse it for whatever I want when it’s empty. Now if the company is aiming to make their packaging refillable, I’m all ears!

Recycled Plastic Goods Aren’t Circular

It’s fantastic to see companies trying to use the excess plastic waste we have in innovative ways and I applaud them for it, but it is not an example of a circular economy. This is because after it’s second life as a bag or shoes the plastic waste will most likely go to incineration. A product is only circular if the materials in it can be used infinitely, either in the same product or in another.

E

PS – This time in previous years I wrote about sustainable summer crafts for kids and our trip to Cornwall

Published by Elaine Butler

I am a circular design consultant helping manfacturers prepare for the circular economy

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