Not-So-Biodegradable

Anyone with concern for the environment has probably heard all about greenwash and how evil companies can be by manipulating consumers into thinking their products are better for the environment when they really aren’t. But what we might not realize is just how prevalent greenwash is.

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TerraChoice, an environmental marketing group, conducted a study in 2009 in big-box stores across the US, Canada, the UK, and Australia. In the US alone, they found over 2,000 products that made some 5,000 green claims, 98 percent of which were untrue in one way or another; they either have hidden trade-offs, no proof, are vague to the point of lying, their claims are irrelevant, they advertise the lesser of their two evils, or they have false labels, and a small percent are straight up lies.

One example of this? The word “biodegradable”.   It’s everywhere! …in our grocery stores, our shoe stores, in our schools… It sounds great and, statistically, consumers are more likely to buy a product that has it on its packaging. But what does it really mean? That the product can “be decomposed by bacteria or other living organism”. That means there needs to be oxygen for the bacteria or other living organism to live off of. The vast majority of the products we buy are disposed of in landfills, which are anaerobic environments (have no oxygen and therefore cannot have living organisms in them). This means that the products we buy because they are biodegradable, in fact never get the chance to bio-degrade.

So what is the government doing to stop this rampant false advertising? The answer is “not much”. The Federal Trade Commission developed Guides for the Use of Environmental Marketing Claims, or Green Guides, in 1992 which set specific guidelines for what qualifies a product as being “compostable”, “degradable”, “free-of”, “recycled”, and so on. But the issue with these Green Guides is that from 1992 when they were first published to 2010 when President George W. Bush left office, only 52 complaints had been filed in regards to the Green Guides. If the Guides don’t get enforced then there is no way of ensuring that our products deliver on what they promise to do.

A solution will not be easy to achieve. Businesses will have to see why being honest about their environmental claims and living up to the reputations they are creating for themselves is not only beneficial to them, but mandatory in order to make it in the market. This begins with consumer awareness.

In the meantime, there are small changes that you can make to help the environment. It is important to understand that essentially nothing decomposes in a landfill, even it is labeled “biodegradable” or “compostable”. Stick to using reusable products, like those in our shop, that do not have to be thrown away to avoid contributing to landfill waste. Do your own composting at your home, or take compostable and biodegradable materials to your community compost center to ensure that your compostable and biodegradable products actually are broken down. Lastly, research “green” products before purchasing them and submit complaints against companies that you believe have false or misleading claims.

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