Technological watch

Tell the truth, now: Do companies really want to be green?

Back in 2011 at an SPE thermoforming conference, I was asked to sit on a panel with Bob Cotton of PepsiCo Frito-Lay; Ben Locke of SPI’s Bioplastics Council; Don Loepp, Editor of Plastics News; and Salvatore Monte, a polymer materials engineer and President of Kenrich Petrochemicals.

Prior to the panel discussion, we heard presentations from Dave McIntosh, who at that time was the Senior Process and Materials Engineer for Fabri-Kal (he left in 2014 and today is a consultant), and polymers science professor Ramani Narayan of Michigan State University. The topic was greenwashing and the damage it does not only to the industry but to consumers and the true science of plastics.

One of McIntosh’s presentation slides showed a Dilbert cartoon:

Dilbert to his pointy-haired boss: “We replaced our Styrofoam cups with paper cups, but it’s not so clear that it helps the planet.”

Boss: “We didn’t do it to help the planet. We did it to look like the sort of company that cares about that sort of thing.”

Dilbert: “Oh, in that case it’s working great.”

Boss: “As soon as you stop whining.”

Fabri-Kal is a company known for its “no greenwashing” pledge that appears on its homepage. The company has stood by this commitment ever since I’ve been acquainted with them and McIntosh’s presentation back in 2011. Obviously, the problems surrounding greenwashing have been prevalent since bioplastic materials came into the picture. These problems persist to an even greater degree with the increased promotion of degradability and compostability.

Compostability is perhaps one of the most misleading terms connected to plastics. Even Fabri-Kal includes a caveat with its compostable cups, noting that they are only compostable in a commercial composting facility, which may not be available in all areas of the country. Or, as I’ve found out through extensive research and phone calls to composting facilities across the United States, most will not take any type of so-called compostable plastic because the materials do not sufficiently break down fast enough to be economically viable and acceptable to consumers.

I’d venture to say that most plastics converters who make cups, food containers and other plastic packaging items run into the same problem that Clearly Clean bumps up against in dealing with customer demand for “green” plastic materials—they drank the Kool-Aid that says only biodegradable and compostable materials are truly green.

Even recyclable products have a problem, in that, while something may be recyclable, there’s no guarantee that it will be recycled. For that to happen, human beings have to put the recyclable product into the proper collection bin. Even then, if the item is dirty or contains other negative properties that make it unfit for recycling, it will end up in the landfill.

In off-the-record conversations on this topic with many company representatives over the past two decades, I’ve come to realize that most companies are concerned first and foremost about the image they project in terms of caring about the planet. To promote that image, they will put on a “green” face for consumers, even if they truly know that the science is being exploited to doubtful results.

Being green has its costs. Greenwashing has even higher costs, which is why the industry has tried for years to combat the issue with scientific facts. Is it really being honest to say that your plastic food containers are compostable when you know that collection of compostable plastics is non-existent and that finding a commercial composting facility that will take these bioplastics is nearly impossible? Perhaps so, if you narrow down the meaning of “honest” without the caveats.

It’s good to see a company like Fabri-Kal that is actually committed to “no greenwashing” promoting its products in a factual manner. Other companies should follow suit and educate their customers about the science of plastics to help them choose the most beneficial material for their products.

Image: AliFuat/Adobe Stock

Publication date: 22/08/2019

Plastics Today

This project has been co-funded with the support of the LIFE financial instrument of the European Union [LIFE17 ENV/ES/000438] Life programme

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Last update: 2019-05-09