The message in the small print

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French carmaker Renault is currently running an advertising campaign in the United Kingdom pledging to have a range of zero-emission cars on the market by the end of 2012. The advertising shows some eye-catching designs but what interests me is the small print: “Zero emissions during use.”

 

I am not mentioning this because I think there is something dubious about Renault’s advertising; it is using “zero emission” in the same way that any other car maker would. But it set me thinking. How often do we face terminology that seems clear but is not?

 

Electric cars are clearly zero-emission “during use.” But electricity must be generated and this can create considerable emissions. Back in May, the World Wildlife Foundation in Germany published a study showing that the country’s plans to have 1 million electric vehicles on its roads by 2020 would have, at best, a minimal impact on carbon-dioxide emissions.

 

The study found that under the very best conditions — using only renewable energy — all those electric vehicles would reduce transport carbon-dioxide emissions by just 1 percent. Run the vehicle on electricity generated in one of the oldest of Germany’s coal-fired power stations and carbon-dioxide emissions could exceed those of today’s gasoline-burning cars.

 

So what does this have to do with plastics? Well, an increasing number of plastics producers and users today are boasting that their products are made from renewable sources or contain renewable material. The question is: What exactly does this mean? And what should it mean?

 

At present, Europe has no standard to regulate claims of renewable content, although plans are under way to develop one based on U.S. standard ASTM D6866, which determines the amount of renewable carbon in the polymer. The problem, however, is that the renewable or bio-based content of the material is only one measure of its sustainability — its sourcing.

 

Focusing on material content alone overlooks the energy used in production. Is a polymer made from renewable resources using non-renewable energy necessarily better than one made from non-renewable resources using renewable energy? And what of recycling? Focusing on the source cannot differentiate between virgin and recycled material.

 

These are difficult issues to resolve. We need clear standards to ensure that manufacturers’ environmental claims can be validated. But those standards must inform rather than misinform — we cannot expect every consumer to read the small print.

 

Smith is editor of European Plastics News.