Warning „Greenwashing“!

How companies deceive consumers with the wrong alternatives and why disposable products made of paper, palm leaves, apple residues & co are more harmful to the environment than beneficial.

An interview by Arman Emami (CEO Emamidesign) with Philipp Sommer, Deputy Head of the Environmental Services Division at Deutsche Umwelthilfe

Emami: Environmental friendliness and plastic products have recently become increasingly the focus of media attention. Due to the popularity of the topic, more and more companies seem to jump on this bandwagon and suddenly discover their love for the environment. This often has a somewhat bland aftertaste. For example, McDonald’s started a 10-day live experiment in Berlin and equipped a branch with alternative materials and packaging. Among other things, experiments were carried out with straws made of paper and apple press residues and wooden spoons. What do you think of this movement?

Sommer: McDonald’s commitment is first and foremost a reaction to legislation. This means that McDonald’s is not involved voluntarily or because they want to help our planet. But because straws and other disposable plastic products will soon be banned because of the European Disposable Plastics Directive. The company is now trying to present compelling restructuring to the public as proactive, environmentally friendly behaviour. The sudden actionism is far too short-sighted: the simple change from one disposable article to another does not usually make things any better. For example, by simply replacing a plastic article with a paper article. Here we usually only have a shift in environmental problems, but they are not solved. Often a paper article needs more material. The paper production has a higher water consumption, a higher energy consumption, because lower CO2 emissions relativize themselves fast. In the end, there may be less waste in the oceans, but no more rainforest in Brazil. And then nothing is gained. Or let’s take these plates made of palm leaves, although they can still be classified a little differently, but we also have numerous problems here. That means, if you need a plate, you should reach for the reusable plate. This is still the best choice. And McDonald’s could easily switch to reusable food: especially in the in-house business. If they would give their guests porcelain crockery and cutlery as normal, as every normal restaurant does, they would avoid huge amounts of waste. And really do something good for the environment! But as long as they continue to behave in such an environmentally harmful way in their worldwide core business and produce such quantities of garbage, it doesn’t matter at all whether they test around a little in a few stores and exchange one disposable material for another. In the end, it remains the catastrophic behaviour of a multinational.

Emami: Could it be that the garbage problem with alternative one-way solutions becomes even bigger? Paper gives the impression of environmental friendliness, many consumers are not even aware of the mere postponement of the waste problem. Isn’t there a danger that disposable paper products will tempt consumers to use them even more often?

Sommer: It is conceivable. Paper has the great advantage that it is less problematic to dispose of incorrectly than many other products that end up in the environment. But paper is not environmentally friendly precisely because it also leaves its mark on the environment during production. So it can actually lead to a product – simply because it is made of paper – being perceived as particularly environmentally friendly, but in fact not at all. That goes in the direction of Greenwashing. With dramatic consequences: Such unnecessary products continue to be consumed without hesitation and resources are wasted on a large scale.

Emami: REWE prints slogans like “Hello Environment” on the paper bags. I have the feeling that many people reach for paper bags all the more thoughtlessly just because they have a clean slogan on them. Greenwashing often seems to work well. How could one better communicate that alternative disposable paper articles don’t have to be any better than reusable plastic articles? That it’s more important to do without disposables altogether?

Sommer: Basically, supermarket carrier bags and disposable paper bags are not more environmentally friendly than plastic bags. The life cycle assessment data even show that the paper bags are worse. However, one should bear in mind that these life cycle assessments do not take into account issues such as environmental waste. Here paper can score points. In the final analysis, however, it must be stated that both types of disposable bags are not in order for our environment. Only reusable carrier bags, backpacks or bicycle baskets that are used again and again are good.

Emami: Many people are currently sensitised to the topic of bioplastics. I will come back to the current topic of straws. With the upcoming EU-wide ban, many companies are now trying to make a profit out of necessity and are coming onto the market with many strange products, for example bioplastics straws. What do you think?

Sommer: I do not believe in disposable bioplastics straws at all. The question is what material they are made of. Do they call themselves bioplastics because they are biobased? Then the environmental balance is usually no better than with normal plastics, because the consequences for the environment are simply shifted. Bioplastics, often referred to as PLA, are usually made from sugar cane or maize. These are very often genetically modified plants that are cultivated in a mass culture with massive use of pesticides and fertilisers. So here we have environmental impacts such as soil erosion, loss of biodiversity and high land use, which are now of greater significance: all for a possibly better CO2 balance. In the overall assessment of environmental impacts, such a bio-based material is generally no better. This could be the case in the future, however, if carbon can no longer be extracted from new plants but from waste products. Here, too, one should take a close look at whether it is a genuine waste product or could perhaps still be used as animal feed or for the production of products. Disposable organic straws are particularly problematic if they are declared biodegradable. They are considered compostable according to a certain standard, but this standard has serious shortcomings. It refers to laboratory conditions that cannot be met in real composting plants. The operators of German composting plants say by a large majority that bioplastics are impurities. In addition, this bioplastics straw cannot legally be disposed of in the biowaste bin. In the end, disposal deteriorates because composting does not work and because the material is simply degraded and destroyed in CO2 and water. Bioplastics do not form humus as is the case with normal kitchen waste, which is composted and where composting or fermentation also makes enormous sense. All the energy and resources that have been put into these bioplastic products are lost during composting. From an environmental point of view, composting such a bioplastic is even worse than incineration. And this is actually the worst thing you can do with packaging. It would be much better to recycle or reuse such a product. Another particular problem with the declaration of plastics as “biodegradable” is that many people misunderstand this and think that this refers to degradability in the environment. But this is not the case, because this only refers to degradability under very specific laboratory conditions. Ultimately, bioplastics could even lead to more of these plastic products ending up in the environment and possibly not degrading at all or only very poorly, which would lead to even more waste in the environment. In addition, this standard allows non-degradable plastics to be included. Even if the product is no longer visible, there is a great risk that microplastics will be released into the compost or the environment. So anything but organic …

Emami: Are these so-called bioelectric blades also affected by the EU ban from 01.01.2021? Or does this only apply to “normal” plastic straws for the time being?

Sommer: Bioplastics are also covered by this directive. That is exactly what we have demanded. Bioplastics products are just as banned as certain disposable products made of normal plastic. Anything else would make no sense.

Emami: I also see the problem with paper straws that they do not end up in the paper waste bin. Which is also the general problem with disposable products. People don’t treat this small piece of paper like an old book or another high-quality product made of paper that you use for a long time and whose recyclable materials you recycle in the end. Instead, this “little bit of paper” often simply ends up in the residual waste bin. This creates the problem that the paper straws cannot be recycled at all and the paper cannot be reused at all.

Sommer: Well, that’s right. However, such a disposable paper straw would not be very environmentally friendly even if it were actually recycled. Even then, there is still a certain amount of energy involved in recycling. This also results in material losses, often in the order of about 20 % in the case of paper recycling. Even with perfect recycling, all the resources and energy required to turn the material into a product are completely lost. Therefore, even a perfectly recycled disposable paper straw is not environmentally friendly.  Otherwise, a clear distinction should be made between reusable and recyclable. Reusable means the reuse of a product, recycling simply means that the material is reused. The problem with paper straws is that they do not usually end up in the waste paper bin, but in the packaging waste because they are classified as packaging. Or they end up in the residual waste because they are mostly used outside the home and the public waste containers are just residual waste containers. But even if they are disposed of in paper waste, there can still be problems. In order to be moisture-resistant, numerous paper straws are coated on the inside and sometimes also on the outside. This makes them difficult to dissolve during the recycling process. In addition, the waste paper mills dissolve the waste paper into a pulp in a relatively short time, often about 15 minutes. If it is not possible to dissolve all the fibres within this short time, for example because the product is laminated or because a plastic layer is still present or because it has been treated with oil to be more water-repellent, then it is quite possible that this paper will not be recycled in the plant at all in the end. Or only to a very small extent.

Emami: That sounds totally strange. I read that some companies are working on artificially changing the characteristics of paper. The aim is to make paper dissolve less and less in liquids so that this new material can be used for straws. This would be counterproductive when it comes to recycling.

Sommer: Absolutely!

Emami: For me, longevity is an important key to using plastics more sensibly. If a product made of plastic is well made, it can be used for a very long time and will end up in the garbage much later or perhaps not at all. This automatically reduces the amount of plastic in the waste. Then the exceptionally long service life of plastics, which is a disadvantage with disposable products, is suddenly a big advantage.

Sommer: Of course, that’s exactly what it is. The more environmentally friendly a product is, the less it is reflected in the statistics, both in production and in disposal.

Emami: So it could be summed up: Plastic is not bad, but the abuse of plastic?

Sommer: Indeed.