Earlier this month at Antec 2011 in Boston I took part in a round-table discussion on sustainability, greenwashing and the role of the plastics trade media.
The session was chaired by David McIntosh, senior engineer of materials and development at Fabri-Kal Corp., a major thermoformer based in Kalamazoo, Mich.
McIntosh feels strongly about the topic of greenwashing, and he's become quite an expert. His company makes food-service products like drink cups out of a variety of materials — polylactic acid, PET, polystyrene, polypropylene and polyethylene.
So you might say McIntosh is agnostic when it comes to which plastic is the most sustainable. He knows it all depends on the application.
But not everyone in the plastics industry can look at materials from such a balanced perspective. Some companies — both suppliers and processors — depend on a single material for their livelihood. So it's only natural that they spend a lot of time making sure that material is portrayed in a favorable light.
Sometimes they cross the line and go too far. When they do, it can take two forms, materials bashing — highlighting the drawbacks of competing materials — or greenwashing.
McIntosh offered a good definition of greenwashing: “The inevitable result when salesmanship and marketeering attempt to capitalize on the broad consumer appeal of sustainability and environmental responsibility to influence purchasing or policy decisions.”
When a company uses greenwashing in its marketing, it ends up misleading consumers by making claims that aren't backed up by facts. The drawback of greenwashing is obvious: As McIntosh put it, greenwashing reduces the industry's credibility when communicating the legitimate benefits of plastic products.
Much of the discussion at our Antec round table focused on the place in the market for bio-based polymers, and especially those materials that claim to be biodegradable. That's an area that's long been a magnet for greenwashing.
It's becoming apparent that, at least to a segment of the public, biodegradability is seen as a plus. I've seen a growing number of plastics critics who say things like “every piece of plastic ever made still exists, and will be here for decades.” That's a powerful statement.
Still, degradability has appeal because a lot of plastics aren't being recycled or recovered for their energy value. Too often, it seems, they're disposed of in the least sustainable way possible — they end up as litter or marine debris.
But biodegradability is not the holy grail of sustainable packaging. For one thing, just about any product that ends up in a modern landfill will still be there decades into the future.
The bottom line is that all products, regardless of the material, have an impact on the environment. The extent of the impact depends on a variety of factors, and plastics are frequently the most sustainable choice.
Loepp is editor of Plastics News and author of “The Plastics Blog.”