Article 3 for Gazette for Dawlish Against Plastic by Vanessa Ryley and Dave Hutton 13.12.2019

Beware the GREENWASH!

Our experience of finding genuine, sustainable alternatives to single use plastics has been confusing. Here are some of the problems we have encountered. Council re-cycling varies so much according to where you live and there are no simple answers. A word has been coined to describe ‘so called’ sustainable alternatives – ‘Greenwashing’. This term was first coined as long ago as 1986. Some reports suggest that as many as 66% of people are willing to pay more for sustainable products, but that has just fuelled a growth in so called ‘green’ advertising.

‘Biodegradable’ – many products are described as such but what does it actually mean? How long will the product take to biodegrade and what conditions are necessary? Recent tests by Plymouth University showed that even so called ‘biodegradable’ bags could still hold a full load of shopping after 3 years in soil or the sea. Finally, if the biodegradable item contains harmful chemicals, where will they end up? Biodegradable products are unlikely to be recyclable.

‘Compostable’ – the same applies. Many outlets offering takeaway items are trying to do their bit by paying more for ‘compostable’, vegetable-based cups, spoons, ice cream containers, straws etc. Their intentions are good, but these items are compostable only in industrial composting facilities which don’t exist locally. They require a separate collection process and transportation to a dedicated plant. If they are deposited in recycling bins, they contaminate the recycling stream so they will end up in the Energy from Waste facility. Dawlish Against Plastic has produced a guide for businesses about this particular type of product.

Some food waste bags which fit into Teignbridge’s food caddies, are marketed as ‘100% compostable’. However, many of these are not home compostable, so again require expensive processing in an industrial composter.

As for ‘Eco-friendly’, ‘Earth-friendly’, ‘Planet-friendly’, these terms are largely meaningless.

Locally, we see a supermarket and butcher wrapping meat counter products in what look like brown paper bags, but they have a plastic lining, so are mixed materials and non-recyclable – they need to go in the black bin. In practice, it would probably be more environmentally friendly for them to stick to single use, stretchy plastic, which is cheaper and at least can be recycled through a supermarket but cannot be put into the kerbside collections. Alternatively, they could actively encourage people to bring their own containers.

The more you explore how items are packaged the more difficult the choices become so the advice is: where possible choose items that have no packaging and take your own reusable containers which are now generally accepted in shops. Save cafes money by going along with your own reusable cup etc. and reuse everything as many times as possible.

Checking the small print on new purchases can inform us that there is a bit of ‘greenwashing’ taking place so take your reading specs with you when you shop!

Next month’s article will focus on more sustainable alternatives and progress made locally.