The Greenwash Brigade

Heidi’s favorite greenwashes of 2009

Heidi Siegelbaum Dec 21, 2009

Have a dollop of clean coal with your bottled water and compostable cups!

2009 was a big year for greenwashing, as green-related advertising just kept on coming. I would like to assume that much of it was well intended and part of the rising trajectory of sustainability programs. Other expressions are simply laughable, testing our ability to be skeptical and use those analytical skills you’s think would’ve been nicely honed by the Year of Greed.

Bottled water: Arrowhead Water’s Born Better campaign gets my first vote. 30% less plastic used in its bottles: yet another example of an incremental improvement in a product that, quite plainly, should be jettisoned into oblivion:

  • $100 billion spent on bottled water in the US each year
  • Its 1,900 times the price of tap water
  • 17 million barrels of oil used to make the plastic bottles (that could have fueled 100,000 cars for a year)
  • 86% thrown out as BFF of your local landfill
  • Confirmed by the General Accounting Office (opens PDF) to be subject to less stringent requirements than municipal drinking water

Clean coal: Yes, we will sadly be dating coal for quite some time until we fully fund investments in clean, longer term energy sources, but the clean coal campaign is the ultimate oxymoron. Check out the industry-funded report which gladly explains why Americans are so zesty about clean coal technologies that don’t exist yet operationally. American Council for Clean Coal Electricity is also the front group behind the Bonner & Associates scandal where fake letters were sent to Congress to defeat then-pending climate legislation. Bad product, bad companies. For an alternative to Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness” of clean coal, see the Coen Brother’s film and get the last laugh, or cough.

Corn-based containers that wouldn’t know a compost facility if it smacked them in the…: Too many well-intentioned environmental meetings or breezy outings to a Whole Foods store this year were marked by the use of a product that is decently preferable to the benzene-laced, marine life food called Styrofoam. NatureWorks ® products are in fact compostable. Compost is good. (Just ask Martha.)

However, they are compostable only in a fairly specific set of conditions–at a sustained temperature of 140 degrees Fahrenheit using digestive microbes in carefully controlled commercial compost facilities– in the mere 131 facilities scattered across the U.S. They do not biodegrade in compost in backyard composting, do not biodegrade quickly in landfill conditions and are probably tossed as garbage in most instances.

The manufacturer and distributors are honest— they make no bones about the fact that it will take 100-1,000 years to decompose in landfill conditions. It is the meeting organizers, food co-ops, the environmental agencies and natural resource groups that need to become savvy regarding the limitations of PLA-based cups (engineered corn, subsidized corn, high carbon intensity corn, compost conditions are not landfill conditions), and embrace the ceramic mug which has 2,000 uses and still wins (opens PDF) in a classic life cycle assessment.

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