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 distinguish truth from spin. It’s a greenwashers 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 a Leader in Waste Reduction
A video heralding the fact that Sweden is running out of waste keeps doing the rounds on Facebook. Watching the video you’d be forgiven to thinking this is down to successful efforts to minimise waste. This unfortunately is not the case. It’s down to the incineration of 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 = Recyclable
Only single fibre clothes i.e. 100% cotton, 100% linen or 100% polyester can be recycled with current technology. 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!

Clothes Recycling = New Clothes
Only 5 to 10 percent of collected clothing is recycled into fibres that ultimately make new clothes. 60% is goes to re-wear, so secondhand and vintage 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 reference it’s unclear what percentage of the 60% that goes onto second hand clothing stores 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 to second hand clothing stores only a fraction of that goes on to be bought and reworn.

Bamboo Fabric = 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.

Recyclable = Infinitely Recyclable
Glass and metal are typically infinitely recyclable. Plastic, fabric and paper are not. Plastic can typically only be recycled 3-5 times, paper 6-7. When it’s no longer recyclable paper is composted and plastic is sent to landfill or for incineration.

Recyclable = Recycled
A perfect example of this is aluminium foil, which although recyclable costs to much to do so because of food contamination so it’s sent to landfill or for incineration instead. If it’s sent to incineration it may be collected from the bottom ash and sent for recycling then. The same goes for the tops of plastic bottles. There is no market for them so they don’t get recycled. I could go on, the list is endless.

Recycling = Making a New Version
Although glass can be made into new glass jars it may not be. Sometimes it’s recycled into an abrasive to use in sandblasting and in some countries it’s used to make new roads. Also plastic food packaging has to be made from virgin plastic so plastic food packaging will always to recycled (or more accurately downcycled) into something else, like fabric, stationary, garden furniture.

Compostable Plastic = Can be Composted at Home
Unless it specifically states that it is suitable for home composting, compostable plastic needs to be composted in industrial compost units in order to decompose.

Composted Plastic = Completely Disappears
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 = 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.

Bioplastic = Biodegradable 
Although made from a renewable source like plants or feathers , bioplastic are not compostable, biodegradable and will always end up in landfill or incineration after being downcycled 3-5 times . 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 = 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 = 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 = 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 Materials = Used
Post-consumer simply 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 = Planet Positive
I’m starting to see claims by companies 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 = Circular Economy
It’s fantastic to see so many 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 landfill / incineration or downcycling. If it is downcycled – which may or may not be possible given the amendments made to the item during the upcycling process – it can only be downcycled 3-5 times, which ends the process and therefore prevents it from being completely circular. A circular economy is one whereby any waste generated is fed back into the system and the resulting materials are used in perpetuity.


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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