Is This Greenwashing?

by updated 2008/07/02

  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.

Will Sig
1 Bob

No way, that’s crazy talk, I was trying to follow along with you and still got confused,lol, so the green choice is to spend less money on non recycled products because there ends up being less in the landfills?

Bobs last blog post..The Moon’s Occultation of the Pleiades

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2 JD

This is exactly the kinds of things that I think have the potential to derail the greening of American consumers while feeding the local evening news “expose’” folks.

So much of what people hear and read and see in their day to day lives involves the MARKETING aspect of environmentalism. People are so wrapped up in bullet point fine details that that they lose the big picture.

I bought a new liquid propane grill this spring and one of the things I considered in my shopping was its long term ‘greenness’ as best I could. After my last grill, a relatively inexpensive CharBroil, fell apart in 3 years I knew I wanted to look deeper into my options.

I decided on Stainless Steel this time since I knew it would last me longer and potentially result in fewer JD Owned Grills ending up in the waste stream. Once I narrowed it down to Stainless, I narrowed it down further to an Infrared Grill because while it used as much propane as a normal grill, it cooked MUCH hotter and faster so the time I would need the burners on would be less.

If we relay on strictly labels like “Made From 1/3 Recycled Plastic” we surrender a portion of our decisions to the marketing people who create the labels. That little factoid may sound good but it tells us NOTHING about the manufacturing process or the shipping process involved in those bags reaching that shelf.

Often we cannot get access to that information, but its important to keep in mind that what we don’t know about a product can be as important or more important than what the manufacturer goes out of their way to tell us.

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3 Jennifer Robin

As if things weren’t already confusing enough! Someone really needs to step in and regulate this “green” marketing.

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4 Will

Yeah it is confusing, Bob. And you are right on the green choice for these trash can liners, but on another product, the recycled choice is very likely the best one. It can be difficult to figure out, however.

Good points all, JD. I had not thought about that angle on the grills. Every year I think we will need a new one, but every year I manage to keep out 15+ y.o. one going. Thanks for the Digg and Stumble also! :-)

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5 Will

You know, Jennifer Robin, that has been a peeve of mine for a long while. I think what needs to be looked at is integrity in marketing overall, not just for green products. Consumers really need to be able to quickly and easily know what we are buying.

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6 Steve

hi Will, excellent article. You do a good job of explaining why “recycled” isn’t always better, especially with plastic garbage bags. I’m curious what the equation is for recycled copier paper because it costs 50% to 100% as much I think, but I’m not convinced that making it uses less energy, and the tree grown for paper are a renewable resource that suck up CO2 while they are renewing. I don’t know, but maybe this is the subject of another post?
I think people want black and white easy answers, but life just isn’t that way. I think they also want easy answers, but if one really wants to be green, it means SACRIFICE. Keep your car another year instead of buying a new one, drink tap water instead of buying bottled water, make your coffee at home and drink it out back instead of driving over to Starbucks for a decaf latte with 1%… the list goes on. I shudder to think what would happen to our economy and the sales of trade show booths if people actually listened to me, but I’m not too worried that’ll happen. :)
Your article also points out why it’s important to pay attention in math class at school. Good job. ~ Steve

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7 Kristin

Wow, what a great (and somewhat confusing) discussion on green marketing. I completely agree that products need to be what they claim to be. Steve brought up a lot of excellent and easy ways we can cut down on wastes, yet it’s amazing at how many people refuse to do their part. Thanks for sharing!

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