The good news about plastic pollution is that public awareness has become widespread of the gravity and harm of pollution by this now-ubiquitous manmade material. As a result, most people want to see the crisis solved. And we know we can solve it by turning off the petrochemical and plastic taps on the one hand, and building up systems that eliminate waste on the other.
The bad news is that the culprits of the plastic pollution crisis are now working hard to delay and distract us from progress by peddling false solutions. Those false solutions effectively allow corporations dealing in petrochemicals and plastics to continue perpetuating and profiting from their pollution.
The name for the petrochemical and plastic industries’ favorite business tactic is “greenwashing,” the practice of fabricating or exaggerating the eco-friendly (“green”) qualifications of a brand, product or service. False, greenwashed solutions commonly offer quick fixes while causing further problems, instead of making necessary systems change eliminating waste.
One common greenwashed false solution is single-use products made from “bioplastics.” While the word may confer a green image, in reality, bioplastics are anything but. These materials can be made fully or partially from highly processed plant-based ingredients, such as sugar cane, corn or potato starch.
Some bioplastics may contain as little as 25 percent plant-based ingredients and up to 75 percent fossil fuel ingredients. While bioplastics may emit fewer total greenhouse gas emissions than conventional plastics, crops grown for bioplastics have many known social and human and ecological health costs.
Instead of biodegrading, as their name and plant-based chemistry might imply, bioplastics — PLA, PHA, PBAT and others — more commonly act just like conventional plastics, breaking up into small particles that travel around ecosystems and into our bodies. What’s more, bioplastics are typically made with many of the same additives as plastics, and research shows that these chemicals are harmful.
Like conventional plastics, bioplastics and their petrochemical ingredients are produced in facilities that drive pollution and injustice, and are likely to end up in landfills and incinerators that do the same. Industrial facilities of all kinds — including those churning out bioplastics and conventional plastics alike — are most likely to be placed in underserved low-income, rural, Black, Indigenous and people-of-color communities, as are most forms of waste infrastructure. These sites emit dangerous pollutants, reduce overall quality of life and pose a heightened risk of industrial accidents like fires and explosions. Bioplastic is already a $7 billion industry; without intervention, its size is only expected to grow to $12 billion by 2028.
Another greenwashed false solution is biodegradable, compostable plastics, which require infrastructure and specific conditions to actually be compostable, and are likely to still contain conventional fossil-fuel based plastics and/or toxic additives.
Other such false solutions include “chemical recycling” or “advanced recycling;” incineration (with or without energy recovery); oxo-degradable plastics; plastic credits; and plastic-to-fuel technologies. Conventional “mechanical” plastics recycling is also greenwashing — the process is not circular, as corporations have claimed, but rather wasteful and toxic. It causes pollution and injustice, and that is if the recycling occurs at all, which often it does not.
Despite being marketed as solutions, these strategies are neither efficient, effective nor safe. In establishing lucrative end-markets for our “plastic waste,” plastics production is only further incentivized. False solutions are characterized by perpetuating the wasteful notion of single-use — which we know is fueling the crisis at hand, and is keeping the petrochemical and plastic industries wealthy at all of our expense.
Corporations push false solutions with aggressive marketing materials such as PSAs, press releases, branded content (that can look a lot like news to the untrained eye), advertisements and more. Such marketing materials also commonly dupe the media, which has perpetuated greenwashing. Industry trade groups lobby policymakers to kill or water down legislation aimed at addressing plastic pollution, seriously complicating the pathway to real solutions and corporate accountability.
Individuals and policymakers can learn how to detect greenwashing by reviewing common plastic greenwashing terms and strategies. Journalists and others in the media industry must also learn how to spot and avoid greenwashing to bring truth and real solutions into their reporting and content. This opens up space for us all to engage in the behaviors and mindsets necessary to eliminate our use of plastic, facilitating the wider policy and systems change we need to turn off the tap on petrochemical and plastic production.
Real solutions to plastic pollution exist and include adopting and embracing practices and systems that allow us to refill, regenerate, repair, share and reuse nontoxic, plastic-free materials and items. In short, we must live far less wastefully than we do today. To succeed, solutions must be just, equitable, and accessible to all people, everywhere, and meet local needs. A global plastics treaty, if it can be written in a way that takes greenwashed false solutions off the table, has much potential to help us address this crisis rapidly and effectively.
Historically, markets and governments have not adequately protected the public from harmful and deceptive greenwashing; the practice remains a deep-seated problem, particularly in the U.S.
Short of an effective systemic approach to implementing and enforcing restrictions on corporate greenwashing, individuals must learn to spot the difference between real and false solutions and choose the real solutions we know will free us of our wasteful plastic lifestyles.
Erica Cirino is a science writer, artist, author of Thicker Than Water: The Quest for Solutions to the Plastic Crisis, and communications manager of the nonprofit Plastic Pollution Coalition.
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