Without Legal Definitions we’re Greenwashing is Inescapable

Without legally enforceable definitions of terms like “recyclable”, “eco-friendly”, and “biodegradable” we will see a never ending stream of greenwashing advertising selling us the exact same product they have always sold us, with the veneer that this is more environmentally friendly.

Environmentalism has risen to a prominent place in the public imagination, to the relief of those who have been campaigning on these issues for a long time. But is there danger in things going from unknown to accepted so quickly that background knowledge might not have time to catch up?

As certain environmental issues become accepted in the mainstream there is a meme-like repetition of certain slogans, “save the bees”, “single-use plastics”, “sustainability”, without necessarily any deep understanding of these ideas behinds them. On a personal level, as someone who as worked on science communication and public outreach around bees and bumblebee conservation, I know that people might say “save the bees” and have little idea what that entails. They imagine honey, the product of commercial honeybees that are under little threat, or buying wildflower seed mixes from supermarkets, that end up spreading invasive species.

Companies know this well enough to exploit it. The loose legal definitions of most terms surrounding increased environmental sustainability allows them to sell the same product under new eco-friendly branding, upping the price on people with good intentions and face no consequences for doing so.

This is not only obviously morally reprehensible, but also measurably damaging as not everyone is going to have the same level of pre-existing knowledge into sustainability or time to research every given product they come across in their daily lives. If the average person is looking at a shelf of products and one claims on its packaging that it is more environmentally friendly are likely going to believe this, assuming that this must be in some way controlled as labelling declaring something “Made in Ireland”,  vegetarian or gluten free are. This will frequently leave people paying a premium for the exact same product in a difference package.

A recent, and hilarious, example of this phenomenon was with Ireland’s national rail service Iarnród Éireann (Irish Rail). Iarnród Éireann had released a policy stating that it would not be serving tea or coffee on its trains into customers reusable cups, on unspecified health and safety grounds. After the story was broken in the Irish Times by Rebecca Daly, in the ensuing Twitter-based controversy Iarnród Éireann defending its existing take-away cups claiming that they were “recyclable”.

Recyclable? People were confused. Did they mean compostable? No. Recyclable.

But disposable cups cannot be recycled in Ireland, it was pointed out. No, Iarnród Eireann admitted, but it is possible to recycle these materials and we are ready when that technology comes to Ireland.

So the cups are not recyclable?

No. They are made from recyclable materials.

Round and round and round all day long. Light a candle for the social media admin who just didn’t know when to walk away.

Were they wrong? In all practical and useful terms, yes of course. If something cannot be recycled after its use then it is not recyclable. In legal terms, however, so long as it is physical possible to recycle something then they are entitled to call it recyclable.

Which is exactly the problem.

Nearly two years ago now, I was going on a plastic cleanse and to my and my family’s horror discovered that teabags are not actually compostable. They are “biodegradable” by the legal definition, but that only refers to 90%. Up to 10% of the product might not break down at all and if it does it could just be into the deeply harmful micro-plastics.

All perfectly legal.

Unless meaningful action is taken to define these terms and enforce those definitions we will rehash these ridiculous arguments with exhausting frequency.

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