Explainer: What is greenwashing, and how can we avoid it?
Announcing the Government’s climate action plan last month, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said the strategy would “nudge people and businesses to change behaviour” in a bid to tackle climate change.
Contentious items like single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks, cotton buds and non-recyclable plastic would be banned, according to the strategy.
Compostable coffee cups, compostable cutlery and crockery, and paper straws could be about to go mainstream in Ireland.
But last month, Mywaste.ie, the country’s official website guide to waste management and recycling, posed the question on its Instagram account: “is greenwashing our greatest threat to nature?”.
Greenwashing is a form of ‘whitewashing’ on environmental issues that has been causing concern for environmentalists since the 1980s. And here in Ireland, environmentalists are approaching the notion of compostable packaging with caution.
Mindy O'Brien, the coordinator at VOICE of Irish Concern for the Environment, says: “Compostables really come to mind at the beginning [of a drive to be eco-friendly], and that’s my worry. If a community says ‘we’re going to go plastic-free and go compostable instead’, that’s not the solution either.”
She adds: “Companies might think: “Aren’t we great we have compostable cups and plates and forks, but that’s just replacing one disposable item for another. If you are providing compostable packaging you need to provide the correct disposal.”
Pauline McDonough, a spokesperson for MyWaste.ie, agrees: “A café might feel they’re doing the right thing giving a recyclable or compostable cup. But if you can only put that compostable coffee cup into a litter bin on the street [and not a compost bin], it’s not going to do any good, it’s most likely going to go to an incinerator.”
“They’re giving you a solution which is not really a solution,” she said.
When it comes to tackling our waste problem, the key strategy should be around waste prevention, Mindy says. In the hierarchy of waste management, recycling is only the third-best option, coming after prevention and reuse.
"We want to be a throwaway-free society. Recycling has a place in the waste hierarchy, but if you ever look at the triangle (the waste hierarchy triangle), the first thing you want is prevention, and recycling is just above waste disposal, which is at the bottom of the hierarchy.”
“We need to have a paradigm shift – at the moment it’s extraction, consumption, disposal; that’s the linear cycle we’re in. Rather we should be in a circular economy of reusing what we can.”
Greenwashing entails everything from buying yet another cloth tote bag that you don't need, or another long-life grocery bag, or taking a paper straw with your drink when you could go without it.
“The bags for life, the thicker plastic ones, people pay for them and then often only use them once. And people are getting too many of the cloth bags. You think about the water and the resources to make the bags, we should reduce the number of bags we need – the freebies at any conference you’re at... maybe refuse those a few more times. Look at something and ask: ‘do I need it?’ ‘No.’ Refuse more.”
“McDonald’s offering paper straws,” she adds. “Do we really need the straws in the first place?”
"It’s about taking a look at your own habits: ‘do I need all of these?’ ‘can I reuse them?’ ‘can you repurpose an old sheet and make your own cloth bag?’” says Mindy.
Repak’s recent “team green” campaign, which is being led out by household figures like Anna Geary, Roz Purcell, Paul McGrath and Olympians Paul and Garry O’Donovan, has also drawn criticism from environmentalists like newly elected Green Party MEP Grace O’Sullivan.
The campaign is encouraging people to recycle correctly, but “the big ad on the bus with the green theme” is “misleading”, the MEP says.
“We are going to have to get away from the use of plastic the way it currently is being used, to get away from single-use plastics – the knives and forks for the party – that mass quantity of plastic that you buy.”
“The messaging has to be reduction. It has to be that we have to move away from the mass use of plastic on every product you buy. That classic, you go into any retail outlets particularly the big multiples and everything is wrapped in plastic, everything is four apples sitting in a polystyrene container and wrapped in plastic. Every time people look at plastic, I want them to equate it with greenhouse gas emissions. To make the plastic, we’ve burnt oil which is fueling the climate change.”
While a spokesperson for Repak denies that the initiative is “green washing”, it says “we do agree that there needs to be a reduction in the level of packaging placed on the market, however this needs to happen in tandem with encouraging best practice recycling behaviour.”
Andrew McGrath from AB Studio, who makes zero waste bodycare at Mount Usher Gardens in Ashford, Co Wicklow, also has a bone to pick with some bamboo toothbrushes that are on the market.
“It’s really very difficult, if not impossible, to find a toothbrush that’s completely biodegradable. Some have made the claim that they are. The handle is biodegradable, but it’s the bristles that are the problem. They need to be a certain strength and some companies claim that they’re made of a certain material. Nylon six isn’t biodegradable or compostable in nature. Nylon four is compostable under the right conditions. It won’t break down in nature; it needs to be at a certain temperature to break down.”
“It’s important for customers really to look at the label and to do their own investigation into these things in their own rigorous way, and I know it’s hard, but it does have an impact.”
Words frequently used in marketing like “natural” shouldn’t be taken at face value by the consumer, Andrew adds.
“‘Organic’ does have an agreed definition, but the term ‘natural’ doesn’t have a legal definition so it’s a trick to call something ‘natural’ when it might not be. The point of it is basically you can call anything ‘natural’ and it greenwashes the product and gives the impression that it’s ‘natural’ when it might not be.”
Sustainable and conscious clothing ranges by high street brands are not as great as they seem either, according to zero waste blogger Timi Nicholson.
“It’s great that they have that but I would question the whole idea behind it... They are creating this conscious range for the store and while you’re there you’re buying something that’s not in the conscious range.”
“Also, those ladies in Bangladesh working in extreme conditions, making clothes from organic cotton, does that make it all OK? No, the company itself represents fast fashion so it doesn’t make it OK.”