A problem even with accurate labeling is that it can be difficult to know exactly how green your purchases are. As a case in point, here is a good example of how even the most seemingly "black and white" green choices can sometimes take on the color and clarity of mud.
If you had to buy plastic bags to line your kitchen trash can, which of the following do you think would be the better choice? One hundred percent unrecycled content plastic bags, or bags made with 1/3 recycled material?
Apparently recycled plastic when used in plastic bags, does not result in bags of the same strength as the plastic bags made without any recycled content. Because of this, the recycled bags need to be made heavier, with a lot more unrecycled plastic, to have the strength consumers have come to expect. What happens is that the bags with the 1/3 recycled content end up sending more material to the landfill than the non-recycled bags. This is true even when you consider that 1/3 of the recycled bag content is being used twice before it goes to the landfill.
Here are the numbers: The weight of 100,000 plastic bags made from unrecycled plastic is about 1 ton. The weight of 100,000 plastic bags made with 1/3 recycled plastic is a little over 2 tons and actually contain more unrecycled plastic per bag, by weight, than the unrecycled bags. Why this is so, I don’t know, but this is apparently what is currently on the market. So what happens is the following. The bags made with no recycled plastic contribute 2,000 lbs of unrecycled waste to the landfill. The bags with 1/3 recycled content contribute 2,600 lbs of unrecycled material to the landfill.
If you think this explanation is confusing, then how are consumers going to keep track when at the grocery store? They can’t and might choose the bags with the screaming "Made From 1/3 Recycled Plastic" label, thinking they are making a green choice. Maybe they are making a green choice, maybe they are not. In any case if they want to choose the "recycled" bags, can they get around the fact that they also cost 1/3 more than the non-recycled bags? But that is a discussion for another day.
Note that my intent is not to make light of attempts by plastic bag companies to market a greener product. I just think the product really needs to be what it claims, not just technically or semantically accurate. We need better, greener trash bags that don’t cost a lot more than conventional bags. We need to reduce waste going to landfills. We need to fund research to bring products like this to market at a price that makes the products a viable choice for cash strapped consumers.