Is The New ‘Plastics and Sustainability’ Report Greenwash?

water-bottlesBy Jacquelyn Ottman

I’ve been spending a lot more time these days on how best to change consumption culture through the prism of ‘zero waste.’ But when the first wave of articles about Trucost’s new study prepared for the American Chemistry Council (ACC), “Plastics and Sustainability: A Valuation of Environmental Benefits, Costs, and Opportunities for Continuous Improvement,” came across my screen (including an analysis by Leon Kaye here on TriplePundit), my interest was piqued. Could plastics be as ‘green’ as the study seemed to suggest?

I spent the weekend studying it and the “Valuing Plastics” study (2014) also by Trucost, as well as the related “The New Plastics Economy: Rethinking the Future of Plastics” (2016) by the World Economic Forum. I also exchanged two rounds of clarifying emails with the folks at Trucost. I came to the following conclusions:

By opting to focus on the question of plastics’ environmental costs versus alternative materials, the report curiously reignites what was debated ad infinitum in the ‘materials wars’ that many of us lived through during the 1990s. Since that time, many consumer brands opted to transition to plastics from the more recyclable metal (e.g., coffee cans), glass (mayonnaise, ketchup) and paperboard (milk cartons) based upon the environmental and financial costs, as well as other benefits of ‘light-weighting.’

So, this rehash of what seems fairly well known at this point (and even acknowledged within the Trucost/ACC study itself as the benefits of plastic soda bottles, car composites and food packaging) seems to distract from the more relevant and pressing issues these other reports recommend — namely, more public disclosure of specific risks of plastics by the companies involved and greater focus on end-of-life management aspects, e.g., recycling, reuse and preventing the escape of plastics into marine environments, especially in Asia.

Despite efforts by the Trucost folks to help me understand otherwise, this report appears to grossly oversimplify its argument by first lumping all plastics together and then assuming that all plastics will be replaced in wholesale fashion by alternative materials at what amounts to over four times the weight of plastics. They also assume that an equal amount of alternative materials as plastics will wind up as marine debris, despite suggestions earlier in the report that the unique nature of plastics — e.g., its application in single-use containers and its ability to be blown by the wind (plastic bags) — makes it particularly susceptible to becoming marine debris.

As a green marketer, I can’t help but note another concern with this report: Despite heed paid to ‘areas for improvement’ by Trucost, readers will misconstrue plastics in general to be ‘green.’ For the Federal Trade Commission, the government body that monitors truth in advertising claims, consumer takeaway — not intended communication — is what determines if a claim is misleading. Indeed, at least one press report has already declared as much in its headline, “Vindicated: Plastics are Green After All.”

A reminder: The latest iteration of the FTC’s “Green Guides” for environmental marketing now warns against the making of ‘general environmental’ claims.

I applaud Trucost for including the recommendations that it did in the ACC report with regard to improving the environmental costs of plastics. However, as someone immersed in all things ‘zero waste,’ I missed more of a discussion of specific opportunities for the industry to promote waste reduction (outside of light-weighting) and reuse, things that plastics are well suited for. Doing so would have helped Trucost more directly address the opportunities raised in the “New Plastics Economy” report, as well as underscore the credibility that comes with promoting the responsible consumption of one’s product.

Image: Steven Depolo (Flickr)

Jacquelyn Ottman is a pioneer in green marketing, author of “The New Rules of Green Marketing: Strategies, Tools and Inspiration for Sustainable Branding” and “How To Make Credible Green Marketing Claims: What The Updated FTC Green Guides Means for Marketers”.

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3 responses

  1. Thank you for your interest and insights on Trucost research. Trucost welcomes feedback about the report, encourages the environmental community to engage on this important topic and hopes that the natural capital valuation analysis provides quantitative, science-based data that can inform the conversation.

    To Trucost’s knowledge this was the first report to consider the question of whether a wholesale shift away from plastic in consumer goods would deliver an environmental benefit and whether that is an appropriate path forward to reduce the environmental costs of consumer products. The analysis finds that it would not, and in fact that the environmental costs would increase by almost 4 fold. The study also quantifies the high and growing environmental costs of plastic and puts that cost into context by comparing it to industry revenue, vividly demonstrating the business case for more urgent and widespread action by the plastic industry to use low carbon energy, more efficient transportation, improved packaging, and enhanced materials recovery. The study shows that incremental efforts adopted by the whole plastic industry – not just by current business leaders – will add up to significant savings. Ultimately the study shows that being more efficient in our use of resources, that is, using less materials to perform functions demanded by society, is critical to reducing environmental impacts of consumer products and improving the environmental sustainability of modern society.

    The plastic substitution analysis in the report is not a “gross oversimplification”, but rather is based on very detailed and comprehensive peer-reviewed analyses conducted by Denkstatt (2011) and Franklin Associates (2013). Substitution ratios are provided in the Appendix to the Trucost report, and full details can be found in the original papers.

    The research does not assume that the rates of marine debris are equal for all alternatives. The research uses region-specific “end of life” estimates for each alternative material. Details are provided in the appendix to the report, and Trucost welcomes specific feedback on how the data sources, assumptions, or modeling approaches can be improved.

    The natural capital valuation shows that 82% of the environmental impact costs to society from plastic in consumer goods are from the production and transport of plastic. For this reason, Trucost recommends that the industry increase its efforts to capitalize on what is a very significant opportunity to reduce environmental costs from within its own operations and supply chains. While recycling and energy recovery will contribute to reducing environmental costs, the research showed that in the case of consumer goods sector the greatest environmental return on investment (given today’s technologies and recovery rates) is likely to come from more efficient product and packaging design, and processing technologies that use less material per unit of function (greater material efficiency). Increasing the use of low carbon energy and improving the fuel efficiency of the logistics fleet are top ways to reduce the environmental costs of the sector in the short and medium term.

    The research does discuss and address the importance of waste reduction, recovery and reuse. Indeed, 3 of the 5 recommendations for a path to more sustainable plastic use specifically speak to the need for more efficient packaging, investing in municipal waste collection services in developing economies to avoid ocean waste, and the need for step change increases in recycling.

  2. Libby,

    Thanks for your comments. Peer reviewers aside, I’m still not convinced that lumping all plastics together and coming to a conclusion that they are greener is good science or responsible communication. Plastics are just too diverse to boil down that way. I’d be curious to have this report run by green marketing claims experts at FTC.

    I look forward to others’ comments on this very important topic — as well as more pointed discussion from the plastics industry itself regarding the specific recommendations made in the recent reports put out by WEF and Plastics Disclosure Project which this report purportedly responds to.

  3. Consumers have a right to be informed of the ingredients and impacts of the items they purchase and/or come in contact with. The building industry has started to improve its transparency around building materials with initiatives from the Health Product Network (HPN), Green Screen, and the Living Building Future Institute (Declare). We have mandatory labels on food. All manufacturers should be responsible for what they sell; that is an implicit agreement in the contract of seller/purchaser.

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