Green is the new AIDS

Before we go any further, I don’t mean to make light of something as serious as AIDS. This was a term I heard a very bright young entrepreneur use at a conference and it rang true. There’s so much hype around ‘green’ that it is hard to separate fact from fiction. I know for sure that too much hype around anything puts people off and it could even kill the very thing in question. If you want an example, think of the dot-com bubble. What I want to focus on today is something that irks me tremendously – ‘Greenwash’. What is it? Well, it’s simple really. Think whitewash and all its connotations and you’d immediately understand that ‘Greenwash’ is the equivalent practice of giving a green sheen to something that really isn’t.

Why does it get my goat? Well for one because it is misleading and confuses people. It makes it so much more harder to make choices that are good for you,  the society and the environment. For many corporates, it could be a good way to begin setting things right but it becomes a problem when the focus stops there and there’s more fluff than stuff. I agree with the ad from Greenpeace which reads  “Clean up your ACT, not your image”.

There are several examples of how large, multi-national companies have indulged in greenwash. For now,let’s take a simple example of something that we probably use in daily life, in order to demonstrate how pervasive it has become. Examine the picture below:What kind of rubbish fact is that?! There are people who’d actually believe this is a better product because of this statement. If you’d only would peel off the layers, you’d realize a very gory story out here.

Foam/Polystyrene/ Extruded Polystyrene (EPS) (popularly but incorrectly called styrofoam – read about why it is incorrect here) is a kind of plastic material that is one of the most common packaging materials even for food and beverages. In places like London (read places in the ‘developed’ world), it is ubiquitous. (Think take-away meals, coffees/teas, yogurt cups or even parties at home/work). In places like India (read ‘developing’ world) the trend of using disposable cups and plates is slowly but surely catching on. This is a stealthy but deadly problem. Why?

  1. A Problematic Source – Well for starters, because it is manufactured from petroleum (you don’t need me to tell you more about this non-renewable resource)
  2. Difficult to Dispose of – The foam coffee cup you used today could be sitting in a landfill even 500 years from now because the chemicals and materials used to make it take an incredible amount of time to break down in the natural environment. Unlike what the statement in the picture implies, it is estimated that by volume, it occupies as much as thirty percent of landfills worldwide. This situation adds on to the problem of disposing foam. Recycling this material is not easy either because there are only a few recycling stations. In fact, this website says that many local recycling stations do not accept foam products since they are difficult to store due to their bulk. Ironically, the properties that make polystyrene so useful such as its light weight, low cost and durability are the very things that make it hard to be recycled. Given the light weight and consequently relatively large volume of  EPS per unit of weight, the cost of transporting these products to a recycling plant  makes it often economically infeasible to send polystyrene for recycling.  Also, contaminated foam cannot be recycled. So foam used in food packaging would require cleaning before it can be recycled. Obviously, this adds to the cost of recycling and make this product even more impractical to recycle. Read more here.
  3. Impact on Human Health – Benzene, a known human carcinogen, is used in its production. Substances present in food products like lemon rind can corrode this material. Read this informative, yet humorous article in the New Scientist. No one seems to warn people of such dangers while they are dished out by the dozens.
  4. Impact on the Environment – Polystyrene does bio-degrade as you can see from the example above but takes almost forever. While even trace quantities can affect human health, environmental health is super easy to ignore until the problem explodes in our faces. Polystyrene foam and million kinds of other plastic objects are abundantly found in something euphemistically called “The Great Pacific Garbage Patch” when there is NOTHING  great about this except to highlight human shortsightedness and apathy! There are varying estimates of how large this island is. Some say it is thrice the size of Spain and Portugal combined, some that it is twice the size of Mexico, some that it is bigger than continental US! To quibble over such details is to ignore the real problem – The world’s largest landfill is actually in the ocean – an entire  island of human trash made largely from disposable stuff made of plastic and polystyrene foam. This stuff is wreaking havoc with marine ecosystems. Human beings overestimate nature’s ability to fight back  believing  that evolution will take care of it all. The only sad fact is that we conveniently forget that evolution took hundreds of millions of years and human induced change -barely a few decades. To understand just how devastating this is to the environment and eventually to us, take a look at the videos below:

Given how gory this story is, you can see how dangerous and shortsighted “greenwash” can be for the human race. This is but ONE example. There are millions of other examples of greenwash that are out there in our world.  When presented with false information, it’s small wonder then that we have so many people who have become skeptical of the word ‘green’!

Since the focus of this blog is to move from inspiration to “inspiraction” (i.e. inspired action) here’s what can you can do about it:

How to detect greenwash:

Sourcewatch offers a few rules of thumb to detect greenwash:

  1. Follow the money trail
  2. Follow the membership trail
  3. Follow the paper trail
  4. Look for skeletons in the company’s closet
  5. Test for access to information
  6. Test for international consistency
  7. Check how they handle their critics
  8. Test for consistency over time

Read more about all these here.

How to stop greenwash:

Greenpeace offers interesting solutions on how to stop greenwash. Read more here. If we can get ourselves to care enough, we can intuitively find several ways of doing something about it such as taking action as consumers, contacting policy makers, pressing for legal action, or even just educating ourselves and 10 other people in our family and friends’ circle and asking them to in-turn do the same . Each one of us is called to action. NOW.

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14 comments

  1. Samir · December 24, 2010

    Hey Kiran,
    Good article .
    The solution we have at my company Theron International (www.theroninternational.com) is get your own mug and you use it for coffee / tea / water/ soup etc .. as it is your mug you wash it and look after so there is hardly any breakage. We have no paper / plastic cups. For visitors we give them ceramic mugs which are washed after that and used again.
    Paper … we recycle the one sided printed letters we get for reports. And once they are used both sided we use them as a base for our Friday snacks
    Towels are cloth and are washed every day … we use thin cloth towels that dry fast.
    All bulbs are CFL . We have no AC’s and use as much as natural light as possible.
    Regards,
    Samir
    I hope these steps can be adopted by as many companies as possible.

    • rhetoric2reality · December 30, 2010

      Thanks Samir. Every small act counts.

  2. Deepak · December 27, 2010

    Hi Kiran,
    That’s a well researched write-up which was very informative and inspiring! Great going!
    Cheers,
    Deepak

    • rhetoric2reality · December 30, 2010

      Thanks Deepak. Do keep visiting and spread the word…:-)

  3. Ferooza Eswaran · December 27, 2010

    Kiran , a very well written and researched article…..WASTE NOT WANT NOT….so in addition to recycling….using less is important and imperative.

    • rhetoric2reality · December 30, 2010

      Thank you so much Fe. Yes, less is certainly more out here…

  4. Nina John · December 28, 2010

    Kiran,
    Well-researched article, with lots of thought-provoking ideas.
    Suggest you could have more about non-corporate usage -wedding halls and public places/events generate so much waste. Again, our general civic sense is so lacking, we are polluting our cities just by littering paper and plastic everywhere.
    Keep going green!

    • rhetoric2reality · December 30, 2010

      Suggestion well taken Nina. Will soon write about corporate usage. Need pics for wedding halls and that is tough from out here. It would be great if you send me any pics that you think are relevant for me to use here. Do keep visiting. I hope to post every week or at least once every two weeks…

  5. Sanjeev · December 29, 2010

    Hi Kiran,

    A very good piece of work – you have used a very good example of foam and its impact on peoples health and the environment. In line with your “inspiraction” (like the word) – in our company we have issued resuable ceramic coffee mugs and environmentally drinking water bottles made of bio-degradable material. We are planning to make a voluntary donation for anyone planning to use foam cups.

    Also we have just concluded a contest across the company where we rewarded $5000 for top prize to the employee and his family which has demonstrated a reduction in energy usage over 6 months and spread the word of sustainable living in his/her community.

    Back to the title – Green is indeed the new AIDS – it is here to stay and the biggest challenge facing humanity.

    Keep up the good work.

    Thanks

    Sanjeev

    • rhetoric2reality · December 30, 2010

      Thank you Sanjeev.It is indeed one of the biggest challenges that humankind faces. I’d love to do a detailed blog on the contest. It is certainly inspiring. Would that be possible?

  6. Kwadwo · December 30, 2010

    Hi Kiran,
    Nice blog. I think this problem can be solved by changing the mind set of consumers. Industrial recycling is just ‘big’ business for investors to do something to help mother Earth for little returns. As such environmentalist like ourselves should synthesis the general public in ‘Re-Using’ their plastic shopping bags, buy products with less packaging and so forth and so-on.
    Lets keep the ‘wash the green-wash’ program going eh.

    • rhetoric2reality · December 30, 2010

      Indeed! That’s a job for a lifetime 🙂

  7. Ankit Ojha · January 5, 2011

    Hi Kiran,
    A well written and informative article.Creating awareness about this issue is the only way we can tackle it.If there is a huge demand for a certain product,we can’t expect the manufacturer’s to change their production techniques if it is not economically feasible for them. The change has to be brought about at a micro level.I must, as an individual make efforts to shun plastic and encourage those around me to do the same.The efforts made and the ‘Green’ practices adopted in the companies where Mr.Samir and Mr. Sanjeev work are really laudable.
    Keep up the good work.Keep posting!!!

    • rhetoric2reality · January 6, 2011

      Thank you Ankit. Also taking the liberty of thanking you on behalf of Samir and Sanjeev, since I know them personally. You’re right in saying change has to happen at the micro-level, the grass-root level if you will. Thanks again for commenting. Do keep visiting and also do spread the word…

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