5 Misconceptions About Plastics You’ve Been Greenwashed to Believe
As consumers, we possess a considerable amount of power in shaping the world around us. We may switch to certain products under the presumption we’re going green and lessening our environmental impact. But in reality, those choices are actually causing more harm than good. Because yes - we do have that power.
The term “Greenwashing” is what explains our circumstance. It’s the cause of all our environmentally-related misconceptions and has lead to toxic choices for our earth.
What are we so backwards about then, when it comes to being environmentally responsible? Here are the top 5 misconceptions about plastics you’ve been greenwashed to believe:
Misconception #1: Whatever we put in the recycling bin is recycled.
Misconception #2: Replacing polythene bags with thicker plastic/paper/cotton bags is better.
Misconception #3: PLA (polylactic acid) bags “bio-degrade.”
Misconception #4: All paper bags are recycled, 100% recyclable, and are therefore good for the environment.
Misconception #5: We understand the differences between terminologies.
Let us look in closer detail at those 5 misconceptions. We’ll then address the problem and the potential solutions.
Misconception #1: Whatever We Put in the Recycling Bin is Recycled.
It’s a disturbing reality, but only 9% of what we throw into our bin ends up getting recycled. Contamination is the reason, and there are several ways we’re all responsible.
One form of contamination results from people tossing in waste that’s not recyclable. Those notorious disposable cups from Starbucks are a great example. People are under the impression they’re recyclable when they’re not. They might contain a percentage of recycled content, but that doesn’t mean they can be recycled.
Only 9% of what we throw into our bin ends up getting recycled.
Another form of contamination is the remaining food or liquid substances in recyclable materials that people don’t bother to clean.
Lastly, there are recycling guidelines we’re unaware of. For instance, did you know that in order for a plastic bottle to be acceptable as recycled material, you have to remove the plastic ring from the neck of the bottle, along with the cap? This was news to me as well.
Either of those situations can lead to the contamination of an entirely good batch of other plastics. In most cases, that’s just what happens.
So where does all the contaminated plastic end up? In landfills, of course - but not our own.
It turns out that Canada, among other developed nations, is terrible at recycling plastic. Being too good to separate our own waste, plus taking advantage of low labour costs in “underdeveloped” countries, like the Philippines or Malaysia, we’re shipping it off to them to do our dirty work. These countries are a fraction of the size of Canada. How is this justified?
The real irony is, when we vacation to those destinations, we’re appalled by the garbage they’re drowning in. But guess who it belongs to? Keep it in mind the next time you throw something into your recycling bin.
Misconception #2: Replacing Polythene Bags with Thicker Plastic, Paper, or Cotton Bags is Better.
What’s better for the environment than those nefarious polythene bags, then? We’ve been greenwashed to believe it’s those reusable shopping bags made of either thicker plastic, paper bags, or cotton bags.
Unless such bags are reused by consumers many, many more times than they actually are, they end up having a greater negative impact on the environment. They require a ton of energy to manufacture, which further contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. Plus the freshwater consumption to produce them is unreasonably high. Have a look at the chart below.
The even more heartbreaking reality is that these reusable shopping bags do not fulfill the life-cycle intended for them. Many end up in landfills because people are too lazy to clean or repair them.
If you want to make better choices for the earth, you’re better off going with natural plant fibre alternatives, such as jute. It’s far more sustainable to cultivate and biodegrades in a reasonable time frame.
Misconception #3: PLA (Polylactic Acid) Bags “Biodegrade.”
One type of bioplastic you’ll hear about is called PLA or Polylactic Acid, which is used to produce plastic bags. With the global movement to ‘ban the bag,’ PLA manufacturers are fiercely promoting these “biodegradable” alternatives to polythene bags.
The main issue has never been about whether something biodegrades or not. It’s about how long it will take for that process to occur.
What most people don’t know, however, is that the main issue has never been about whether something biodegrades or not. It’s about how long it will take for that process to occur. Because everything eventually breaks down - even traditional plastic. But it can take over a thousand years for that to happen. In contrast, leaves take about a month or so to decompose.
We have been greenwashed to believe that PLAs will decompose rather quickly in a natural setting; the way those leaves do in a landfill. But this couldn’t be further from the truth. The conditions necessary for PLA biodegradation simply don’t exist in Canada as well as many other parts of the world. So, under what conditions will PLA plastics biodegrade?
Assuming they make their way to the appropriate industrial facility, they need to be heated to 140°F (60°C+) for 30+ days and exposed to special digestive microbes in order to biodegrade. This is known as a ‘closed composting environment,’ and currently, there are only about 200 facilities in the USA that can do it.
Furthermore, the onus is wrongfully placed on the consumer to proficiently sort and separate PLA plastics so they can be sent to the correct industrial facility. Most of the time, people get it wrong. As a result, in almost every case, PLA plastics end up accumulating in landfills or in our oceans.
In order for PLA to be a viable, “eco-friendly” solution, proper sorting and industrial composting systems must be put in place, and consumers must be better educated on disposal practices. The bottom line is, unless such efforts are made, you might as well consider PLA plastics no different than traditional plastic.
Misconception #4: All Brown Paper Bags Are Recycled, 100% Recyclable, and Are Therefore Good for the Environment.
People commonly have this misunderstanding that paper is better than plastic. It’s easy to hide under the guise of being eco-friendly when you “look” eco-friendly, right? The fact is, plastic bags outperform paper bags on several environmental parameters: manufacturing, reuse, and solid waste volume and generation.
Do you remember when the LCBO went “green” and changed all their plastic bags to brown paper ones? It was sometime in 2008 that they excitedly announced this major eco-friendly change they were making. Shortly after they launched those paper bags, however, they realized they weren’t capable of sustaining the weight of heavier bottles. The LCBO had to modify the materials, adding a synthetic component and reducing the percentage of recycled content in order to reinforce the bags.
That synthetic component rendered the bags non-recyclable. And using less percentage of recycled content meant that they were using more virgin paper and slashing into more of our natural and not easily renewable resources: trees. Not only can we not afford to lose more, but trees also require an abundant supply of water to cultivate - something that’s steadily becoming scarce as the earth’s climate continues to rise.
It’s easy to hide under the guise of being eco-friendly when you “look” eco-friendly.
The above example with LCBO and paper bags illuminates two crucial factors. One - that it’s easy to create something which appears to be recycled, recyclable and therefore environmentally friendly. And two - people usually don’t consider the process of how something is made and what it takes to make it, even though those are critical elements that determine whether something is environmentally friendly or not.
Misconception #5: We Understand the Differences Between Terminologies.
It’s crucial for consumers to be aware of the differences in bioplastic terminologies so they can make educated purchasing decisions and properly dispose of bioplastics. Ignorance can lead to serious consequences. Many of us might believe we understand those differences. The reality is, these complex terms are a source of much confusion for many.
Organic vs Sustainable
Many of us might believe we understand those differences. The reality is, these complex terms are a source of much confusion for many.
These are plastics that are biodegradable, have bio-based content, or both. They’re made from plant-based materials rather than fossil fuels. If they’re labelled as compostable, meaning they’re certified, they must be disposed of in a commercial composting facility. Keep in mind that not all bio-based plastics are compostable.
Compostable plastics are a subgroup of biodegradable plastics. They’re characterized by the standard conditions and timeframe under which they will biodegrade. Compostable plastics have to meet the certification requirements of the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI), such as the ASTM D-6400 specifications: “Plastic that undergoes degradation by biological processes during composting to yield CO2, water, inorganic compounds, and biomass at a rate consistent with other known compostable materials and that leaves no visible, distinguishable, or toxic residue.” All compostable plastics are biodegradable, but not all biodegradable plastics are considered compostable.
Unlike compostable products, there are no industry standards for what is considered “biodegradable.” To eradicate the potential for misleading consumers with “green” claims, California banned the use of the term “biodegradable” for any plastic sold in the state. Biodegradable plastics can be either bio- or petroleum-based.
“Organic” Vs. “Sustainable”
Just because something is organic it doesn’t mean it’s sustainable, meaning it’s good for the environment. Beyond the guidelines of the U.S. National Organic Program, there are no firm rules ensuring that organic farmers are following eco-minded practices. A plant might very well be non-GMO, cultivated in organic soil, and free of harmful pesticides. But it might also require a vast supply of water to grow. Imported organic produce that is transported across a great distance means higher emissions.
Recycling plastic is the process of recovering plastic waste and giving it a new life, using it or reprocessing it into another useful item. Items are processed through recycling facilities. Collection services are usually made available by the municipality. Consumers are generally aware of the need to recycle, plus the infrastructure for recycling is more ubiquitous. Every time plastic is recycled, it deteriorates in quality, so this is not an infinite option. Reducing and reusing need to be advocated as options before recycling.
Oxodegradable plastics are often confused with biodegradable plastics, but they are a category on their own. Contrary to what people think, they are neither bioplastic nor biodegradable. Instead, they simulate biodegradation, by quickly breaking down into smaller and smaller pieces, called microplastics. Like conventional plastic, these stay in the environment for a long time before fully breaking down.
Do you want to have a deeper understanding of each of these terms? You can get more information about Biobased Plastics, Compostable Plastics, Biodegradable Plastics and Oxodegradable Plastics here.
As you can see, there is so much complexity around the terminology of bioplastics, biodegradability recycling and sustainability. Companies know and take advantage of this, greenwashing us to make choices we think are moving us in the right direction but are clearly causing more problems.
While plastics are at the heart of pollution in our environment, they alone are not harming the planet. Our ignorance and apathy are. Plastic, and all its alternatives, are by-products of these human behaviours.
People are surprised to learn that polythene plastic bags were specifically created as an alternative to paper bags at the time, and were designed to be multi-use. Yes, you read multi-use correctly. What happened, then? Polythene plastic bags became single-use because we threw them away after just one use, cutting short their intended life-cycle. It appears human behaviour is what’s lead us into our predicament.
So as a consumer, what can you do to ensure environmental responsibility on your part?
Well, first thing’s first: understand the tendency to be misinformed by large corporations and the media. Second, do your part to become informed, understand the consequences of certain choices and get to the bottom of what’s really happening behind the scenes with how plastic materials are being dealt with. Thirdly, push yourself to become more proactive about sustainability and living in an eco-friendly way.
Big corporations have the power to pull a lot of strings. They can influence media and politics and essentially control information to suit their interests. So be skeptical about what you hear on mainstream news and from vendors offering or selling “eco-friendly” alternatives.
Since you’re not going to find out about all the dirty details upfront, and certainly not from a company who’s profit depends on greenwashed consumers, you have to do your own digging. Google is a great place to start. As you go down the rabbit hole of information, two things will happen. You’ll have questions answered. And you’ll also find new questions to ask.
A big part of the solution is changing human behaviour. We’re creatures of habit, but also of convenience.
There are so many ways to get proactive as a consumer. But it does require a bit of sacrifice.
Upcycle - repurpose plastic packaging and bags by finding new and clever uses for them.
Reuse - Clean out and reuse plastic as much as you can - make single-use plastics multi-use, just as they were intended
Inquire - Question grocery store managers and owners on their ”eco-friendly” choices and if you have learned of better alternatives, share it with them.
Go back to the basics - don’t use a straw. Drink out of the cup! That’s what we did generations ago before plastic straws were invented
Buy a good-quality, reusable water bottle and take it everywhere with you instead of relying on commercial plastic water bottles.
Make Smart Decisions, Even If They’re Less Convenient
A big part of the solution is changing human behaviour. We’re creatures of habit, but also of convenience. We like what’s quick and easy. Washing plastic containers and bags for reuse is not an attractive solution for us. And maybe it’s a bit of a burden to carry reusable containers and jars wherever you go. But that’s exactly the kind of behaviour that will lead to epic changes on this planet.
Choose Natural Plant Fibres Instead
HeyJute™ Natural Plant Fibres. We can’t go wrong with plants. Just look at what happens to the leaves every fall. They eventually decompose in time and become a source of nutrition for other trees.
As a result of greenwashing by the media and corporations, we hold several misconceptions about plastics, which have dire consequences on our environment. They are as follows: Misconception #1: Whatever we put in the recycling bin is recycled.
Misconception #2: Replacing polythene bags with thicker plastic/ paper/cotton bags is better.
Misconception #3: PLA (polylactic acid) bags “bio-degrade.”
Misconception #4: All brown paper bags are recycled, 100% recyclable, and are therefore good for the environment.
Misconception #5: We understand the differences between terminologies. The problem: Our ignorance and apathy.
The solution: To become informed and proactive so we can make educated purchasing decisions and properly dispose of bioplastics.