13. Beware the greenwash

Greenwash meaning

I’m pretty sure that at some point we have all been taught that respecting the environment was important. We need trees and green plants to absorb our smeggy carbon dioxide and make the oxygen we breathe. Fresh water is pretty useful to life. Most of us know that the environment is important and that trashing it is bad.

Recently, there has been more awareness about single-use plastics and how they are screwing up our world. An estimated 150 million tonnes of plastic are currently in the oceans. Fish eat the broken-down micro-plastic, and a recent study showed that it is estimated that those of us in Europe who eat fish are likely to be eating approximately 11,000 bits of micro-plastic a year. Gross. Not convinced it can be terribly healthy. A bit like tucking into a lego-sandwich.


And despite the fact that every single person before or after me at the supermarket checkout appears to have a trolley load packed with single-use plastic and appears to give zero monkeys about it, many UK companies have signed up to the WRAP.org.uk’s UK Plastics Pact that aims to make 100% of packaging re-usable, recyclable or compostable by 2025. Sounds good.

While the optimist in me hopes that actual change is afoot, the cynic in me is suspicious of all the greenwashing that has emerged. These big clever companies are full of clever brain-washing experts who can make us believe that they are doing the right thing for our beloved environment, while all the while they are just twisting the truth to make us buy more. Guilt-free.

Take Pampers, for example. I noticed in the shops the other day their new clever packaging that looks all eco-friendly. Green leafy plant shapes. “Contains plant based materials”, “cotton enhanced” (even though cotton production is, in fact, environmentally bad. I googled it. More details later.) We can see why for a sleep-deprived, emotional mother of a baby who potentially got the runs, the environmental impact of disposable nappies is probably waaaay down the pecking order of priorities. But in case looking after the planet is on their radar, perhaps for the future of little baby Bunting, they can reassured picking up their pack of Pampers that they are sort of eco-friendly some how. Because they use plant-based materials. The truth is, each of these nappies will take hundreds of years to break down, and the average child will get through approximately 5500 nappies if they are fully potty trained by 2.5 years old (based on approx 6 every 24 hours).


Brown paper packaging can appear more eco-friendly that the shiny plastic until you realise that the brown paper is, in fact, housing a lining or an inner packet of shiny plastic like some of the products by healthy snack company Graze.

Most of us have heard about the horrendous deforestation cause by expanding palm-oil plantations, and we all love baby orang-utans. But who knew that the much of the deforested palm-oil is used to supply the supposedly eco-friendly ‘biofuels’ for vehicles, heat and power?

Deforestation in Central Kalimantan

More of us are replacing the plastic bags with cotton ones, but most (non-organic) cotton is produced using huge amounts of water, and highly toxic and environmentally damaging pesticides. The environmental impact of producing cotton is so great that in fact, you would need to re-use your cotton tote bag 393 times to make its use carbon neutral to its production, whereas a plastic bag only needs to be re-used 3 times. (The cotton will disappear and biodegrade and the plastic won’t, but you see what I’m getting at here – RE-USE is clearly the key.) The list goes on. Going Zero Waste has a comprehensive guide of tips on recognising the greenwashing.

Then there’s the confusion between biodegradable, compostable and degradable plastic. In summary, avoid ‘degradable’ as that’s really just plastic breaking down into the micro-particles that kill the small fish and end up back on our own dinner plates. The other two must be approached with caution as the right conditions and micro-organisms need to be present to break the material down, and in the words of plasticisrubbish.com

“The sustainable rate of biodegradation is only what an ecosystem can deal with. Too much and the microorganisms get overwhelmed and collapse sobbing, unable to cope.”

Good point.

At the end of the day, if something is disposable and single-use, no matter what it is made of, it probably has an environmental impact bigger than just simply re-using what we’ve already got. It will have required energy, resources and land for production, and will require energy, transportation and resources for recycling. Replacing plastic throw away straws, bags, coffee cups, packaging with eco-friendly bioplastics made from things like corn starch (land needed to grow the corn, energy needed to make the bags, fuel needed to transport them etc) or even paper (no one wants to see loads of trees being cut down) is a step in the right direction from a waste point of view, but perhaps not as clean and green as we might like to think.


What we buy that gets thrown away. Do you really need it? If you don’t buy it will you still really need it next week?


What we’ve already got. Keep your water bottle, reusable coffee cup and random spare bags in your bag, with your wallet and phone.


What can’t be re-used. And remember that recycling doesn’t necessarily end up where you think it does. Approximately 800,000 tonnes of plastic waste a year is exported from the UK to East Asia.

The UK exports low grade and excess plastic ‘recycling’ to East Asia. We can’t just sit back and blame them for scenes like this. It might even be our rubbish.

Most of all, beware of the naughty but clever green-washers who actually make you buy even more stuff you don’t really need.

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