On why we’ve had enough of greenwash and plastic
The Fifth Estate | 12 July 2018
News from the front desk: No 395 – Plastic is no longer fantastic – because it’s now creating a serious ecological burden that no one can ignore.
The major supermarkets have jumped ahead of state and municipal plastic bag bans by scrapping one-use flimsy bags in favour of sturdier re-usable plastic options.
It’s not been without its hiccups, as ill-paid checkout staff cop the ire of customers that resent being asked to fork out 15 cents for a bag at Woollies.
Those same customers, however, might be entirely okay with paying 100 times or more the cost per litre for bottled water instead of drinking tap water in a reusable bottle.
In the fight against one-use plastic products, bottled water is a slow-moving catastrophe.
The recent ISCA impacts report showed that the ratings for more sustainable infrastructure have saved around 67 Olympic swimming pools worth of water since 2012, withthe average Olympic pool containing2.5 million litres of water.
In 2015, Australia’s bottled water consumption was around 726 m litres – 290 Olympic swimming pools worth.
That represents a massive amount of water sucked from aquifers and then put into single-use bottles that themselves require litres of water to produce, along with millions of barrels of petroleum products for the plastic bottles and their eventual transport to gullible consumers.
In addition, the extraction of the water often causes major environmental damage and poses social justice issues.For example, when the water taken by private companies results in a loss of water for communities that were reliant on the aquifer.
In 2009, environmentalist, activist and then cafe-owner Huw Kingston led a movement of community members and businesses in the Southern Highlands town of Bundanoon that resulted in a ban on bottled water throughout the town.
Bubblers were installed to supply filtered water, and businesses took up the challenge of retailing refillable water bottles and providing water to fill them for customers.
The ban was driven not just by the waste issue, but also because Coca Cola was planning on mining water from the nearby Morton National Park, as Donna Jenkins from Ye Olde Bicycle Shop & Cafe (formerly owned by Kingston)told The Fifth Estate.
The town did not want that environmental destruction on its doorstep, and it didn’t want the fleets of trucks carrying the water travelling through the town’s streets and past its school, she says.
Jenkins says the cafe still gets customers that are surprised they can’t buy bottled water, but they can buy a refillable bottle for $4 and get it filled up.
The town’s businesses are now also trying to discourage disposable coffee cups, she says.
She says the town is having a meeting this weekend to discuss a complete ban on one-use plastics.
Meanwhile, the bottled water ban has definitely resulted in less waste. Jenkins says that when she’s travelling around the town, she no longer sees one-use plastic bottles from water appearing as litter.
The Bundanoon ban made international media, and was part of a wider environmental backlash against bottled water that put the bottled water industry in fight-back mode.
In its 2012 market outlook, the Australasian Bottled Water Institute says that “rising public concern over the contribution of PET plastic bottles to landfill and the unnecessary carbon emissions generated by the production and transportation of bottled water have weighed on sales in recent years.”
It said these concerns are expected to increase, posing “an increasing threat to the industry.”
So like many an industry under fire for its impacts, it turned to marketing for a solution.
The market outlook goes on to say that “producers have moved to counter the criticism by developing lighter, recyclable packaging and branding themselves as carbon neutral and environmentally friendly.”
The keyword here is “branding”.
In advertising speak, branding is not about the details of the content, it is about the image, the persona, the perception.
So we can now buy “carbon neutral” promotional bottled water dead cheap on-line. The product has the branding of carbon neutral, but there are no details of the provenance or metrics around the claim.
Some of the individual bottled water companies at their websites talk about how they offset their impact through purchasing carbon credits for renewable energy – but where, and what type, and who certifies it is not always apparent.
This lack of transparency and certainty around what exactly constitutes a claim of carbon neutrality is why there is some serious enthusiasm for the new ISO 14067 carbon footprint of products standard.
As Dr Caroline Noller from The Footprint Company explained to The Fifth Estate, environmental labelling has a lot in common with food labelling.
“It is very useful if you know how to read it.”
In other words, if the consumer has an idea of what the label is telling them and what the meaning of that information is in real terms, it can help guide decision-making.
But there’s a lot of greenwash out there, just as there’s plenty of health-wash in food. Self-labelling of food products results in claims like “low fat” on products that are actually quite high in fats and extremely high in sugar because the benchmark against which the “low fat” claim is made is not readily apparent.
Carbon neutralclaims are similar. There are plenty of cheap and nasty credits available out there, and deciding the actual carbon footprint that needs to be offset has been up until now often open to the assessor’s interpretation.
The big plus of having a standard is there is now a level playing field that gives both assessors and those being assessed clear guidelines for what is in the product in terms of embodied carbon.
Ultimately, the shift needs to be about deciding to not just do “less bad” but actually do more good, as David Singleton saysin the ISCA Impacts Report.
In terms of our plastic waste, that means not continually putting the pressure on consumers to recycle more, but putting the onus on the producers to make less.
Anti litter campaign funded by companies that create the problem then fight tooth and nail to stop the container deposit schemes
As Katherine Martinko writes in a recent piece at Treehugger, “if we are serious about tackling plastic pollution, then corporations’ actions are where we should start. They are the real litterbugs in this situation. The focus should be on the source of the plastic, not its near-impossible disposal.”
She references a recent article in Scientific American by Matt Wilkins that points out that the same companies that fund the Keep America Beautiful anti-litter campaign also funded the organisation’s active campaign against laws to mandate refillable beverage containers and bottle deposits.
Its public service ads are “little more than corporate greenwashing”, she says.
In a TEDx Athens talk last month, during his talk titled “Message in a bottle”, Kingston asserts that “recycling is the refuge of the non-committed”.
He argues that the real goal is to refuse the one-use product. Bundanoon on a small scale is an example of how business can drive change by simply refusing to sell environmentally questionable products.
The reality is that we humans have the nous and the tech to create better solutions. Marine ecologist Adriana Verges expresses this eloquently in an article she wrote at Everyday Futures.
She was reflecting on the plastic waste she encountered when diving near Sydney, in particular those disposable plastic fish-shaped bottles of soy sauce that come with sushi.
“The small feat of design ingenuity represented by these tiny fish saucers somehow brings hope to my inner self. It points towards how, in the anthropocene, not only are we leaving an everlasting mark on planet Earth, but we are also coming of age technologically, and developing the tools that allow us to fix environmental problems at a meaningful scale.
“I can’t help but think that ours is the generation to start turning things around, and develop the very solutions that will stop the self-destructive trajectory that has so far led us to the anthropocene.
“To me, it’s clear that is the only way forward.”