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Is The New 'Plastics and Sustainability' Report Greenwash?

Words by 3p Contributor
Data & Technology
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By 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”.

3p Contributor

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