Photo credit: dotjay/Creative Commons
Corporate ethics is one of the most critical components of the green tech revolution today. The foundation of sustainable product design is innovation in base materials, novel new green chemistries that replace dirty ones, better building materials that don't pollute or off-gas, and novel new plastics that are compatible with the environment. However, there is a concerning trend emerging of material innovation half-measures that create wonderful marketing claims for their producers, but no significant environmental benefit. Nowhere is this trend more evident than in the world of plastics. In an effort to improve upon the dismal environmental fate of most plastics that end up in our landfills, gutters, or oceans, an enormous amount of energy has been focused on creating biodegradable, plant based, or somehow greener plastics. Bioplastics like PLA are in broad use now, Coke & Pepsi both have developed their "plant bottles" and we hear of additives we can put in regular plastics to make them degradable.
These new technologies are exciting and necessary. However, new findings are emerging that shed light on the fact that eliminating the unwanted consequences of plastic use and fundamentally reinventing the plastics that pervade our daily lives is harder than it looks.
A new study published recently in Environmental Science & Technology shows that the class of plastics known as oxo-degradable plastics, may not be as green as they seem. Oxo-degradable plastics are regular polyethylene (PE, or "#2") or polypropylene (PP, or "#5") plastics that contain special additives that cause them to degrade when exposed to sunlight or heat. The promise is appealing—plastics just like the ones we use everyday, without any of the nasty side effects.
But this new study shows that instead of actually degrading the plastic, these additives simply break the plastic down into particles too small for us to see, making it potentially more dangerous by mobilizing into our soil and water small particles of plastic that can absorb pollutants and other chemicals.
The false sense of responsibility that technologies like this create is something I first wrote about in a 2009 post about bio-plastics. The lesson from this most recent study is the same: unless we examine critically each new material innovation, and apply our corporate ethic as a filter for whether we use it or not, then our green marketing claims are nothing more than just that, claims.
The reason these half-measures are so pernicious is because these technologies quell consumers' desires for greener solutions by making them believe the issue is solved ("my plastic bag is degradable, so I don't need to worry about it...")
The antidote to this type of greenwashing is combining sustainable material innovation with strong corporate ethic. At it' best, a corporate ethic is built on a sound scientific backbone; an understanding of the real-world implications of any investment, innovation, or advocacy a company puts its efforts behind. At its worst, the marketing department drives the company toward the seductive allure of enhanced product sales in the emerging green technology sector and turns a blind eye to the real environmental impacts a new technology can create.
A key element of Method's corporate ethic is to design not just for the theoretical end life of a product, but what happens to it in reality. This is why we don't use any white PET plastic (PET is water bottle plastic). White PET (seemingly de rigueur in the green cleaning category) is confused for HDPE in recycling centers and ultimately landfilled, despite being theoretically "100% recyclable." We know this because we've gone to recycling centers and seen it ourselves. The key is that we apply that as a design constraint on our packaging development, so we can assure that Method packaging is not just recyclable, but actually gets recycled.
In order to create the sustainable future we imagine, we will need more material innovation in all sectors of the economy. Let's not forget, however, that the most powerful driver of change is consumer desire, and to meet it with truly innovative solutions, we must resist a quick green fix that is effective in marketing, but not in reality.
For further information, see the links below:
TreeHugger: Compostable and "Biodegradable" Plastics Provide False Sense of Responsibility
Nature News: Puzzle persists for 'degradeable' plastics
ACS Publications: Degradable Polyethylene: Fantasy or Reality - Environmental Science & Technology
Huffington Post: Post Consumer Recycled Plastic (PCR) is the Answer