Interesting things about the packaging industry, retailing dynamics, consumer trends and NOA’s insight.

Greenwashing, beer and why we should be wary of biodegradable claims

Nov 7, 2019 | Consumer, Market Research, Packaging, Packaging Research and Analysis, Plastic Packaging, Recycling

At NOA we deal in facts. We research, we analyse and we report to our clients what we have found.

So when we come across terms like ‘biodegradable’ we think: “Hmm, really? Can any plastic truly biodegrade?” And when we read about companies ‘greenwashing’ (more of this later), we are intrigued and we dig a little deeper.

In fact, our latest research into the plastic sector shows misinformation, misunderstanding and hoodwinking, which is affecting brand owners, retailers and the general public who are, understandably, left confused.

Why the confusion?

The waters are being muddied in an attempt to keep the demand tap for plastic turned on.

The SUP (single use plastic) EU Directive was adopted in March as an attempt to ban certain SUPs, such as expanded polystyrene – you can read more about it here.

However, certain organisations are pressing for SUP to stand for single use ‘packaging’ not ‘plastic’ and are lobbying hard for the change, some would say to dilute the intent of the original directive.

With this as the background, it is no surprise that consumers and brand owners are left confused. Into this maelstrom step businesses which are trying to turn a profit by latching on to the ‘green’ bandwagon.

So what is greenwashing?

Greenwashing refers to businesses that use the ‘green’ tag in their PR and marketing to help promote their products as environmentally-friendly when in fact they are far from it.

The term greenwashing was coined by New York environmentalist Jay Westervelt in a 1986 essay on the hotel industry’s practice of placing placards in each room promoting the reuse of towels ostensibly to ‘save the environment’. Westervelt noted that, in most cases, little or no effort was being made towards reducing energy waste. In his view, the actual objective of this ‘green campaign’ on the part of many hoteliers was simply to increase profit.

More than 30 years later, and with accelerating demand from consumers for environmentally-friendly products, businesses are increasingly making bold and misleading claims. To find out some examples, take a look at this article in The Guardian. Our personal favourite: the ‘green’ beer-cooler, an expensive gadget that you bury in the garden to keep your beer cool using natural ground temperature.

And here’s one a member of our team came across: compostable kitchen bin liners that contain no plasticizers, no polyethylene and are made from GMO-free potatoes. So far so good, until you read the small print which says they are “not suitable for backyard composting” and they are only compostable in industrial facilities which “do not exist in many communities”. Hmmm… might be better to stop using bags altogether and put the peelings straight onto the compost heap.

Can plastic be truly biodegradable?

The short answer, we have found, is ‘no’. Indeed, there is strong evidence to suggest that biodegradable plastics are no better for the environment than conventional plastics. Most require an industrial composting facility to break down, and most people do not have access to this.

Similarly, many fibre or vegetable-based products touted as compostable simply aren’t, because they still have plastic coatings. So users of recyclable coffee cups everywhere beware – they are almost certainly plastic-lined.

The result? We have plastic mixed with non-plastic, which is contaminating the recycling stream. At the same time, we as consumers feel encouraged to carry on with our throwaway habits – we think our purchase is biodegradable so where is the harm? Surely we need to be made aware of the truth about micro-plastic particulates? We are reading about how ‘nurdles’ (tiny pieces of plastic which are washed up onto our sea shores and coastlines) aren’t that planet-friendly at all. More about nurdles here.

What can brands do?

We’ve talked before about the technological hurdles that brands face in order to manage the switch from plastic to paper packaging. But we have also focused on the wins and reported on some great success stories, such as the cardboard discs that supermarket pizzas sit on, which are now in common usage.

In this fact-finding article, we’ve looked at those with vested interests who would far rather brands stuck to plastic. After all, for them it makes business sense.

And we’ve looked at greenwashing; a term coined in 1986 but now in common parlance and one which – despite the abundance of misinformation – the public are getting wise to.

Even the MPs are sitting up and taking notice. Recently, Parliament’s Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee heard evidence that the rapid introduction of ‘biodegradable’ plastic was actually increasing plastic pollution.

In his response, Neil Parish, chair of the Commons select committee, said: “In the backlash against plastic, other materials are being increasingly used as substitutes in food and drink packaging. We are concerned that such actions are being taken without proper consideration of wider environmental consequences, such as higher carbon emissions. Compostable plastics have been introduced without the right infrastructure or consumer understanding to manage compostable waste.”

The solution, in our view, is for brands to ditch the biodegradable products (because they do not do what they say on the tin!) and switch to truly sustainable packaging alternatives; and that has to include packaging which can be made out of crops such as potatoes or grass, and – of course – recycled paper for corrugated boxes and cartons.

We’d like to see more use made of the plastic we already have, to give it a second life, so it doesn’t end up in landfill and our oceans. We’ve seen all sorts of clever and creative ways of reusing plastic, from artwork, to benches, to hedgehog houses. The world is the designer’s (plastic-free) oyster!

We need to cut through the confusion, bring clarity for the consumer, the brand owners and retailers, and make the switch – albeit in some cases this will need to be gradual – from plastic to fibre-based products. The makers of Estrella beer now bundle together their six-packs in cardboard. If it can be done for beer, it can be done for anything!

At NOA, we are now working on our next multi-client report for corrugated and carton producers and users – ‘Paper Alternatives and Plastics Replacement Report’ (PAPRR) – evaluating the replacement of plastics on the packaging industry. Coming to you soon…

The team here at NOA specialise in packaging market research across a range of industries, with the aim of predicting packaging market trends. To get in touch email  or call 01367 899262.