Week 11: Yes, Recycling is Broken

By Leyla Acaroglu 

This pains me to write, but we all have to come to terms with the harsh reality that recycling validates waste and is a placebo to the complex waste crisis we have designed ourselves into. The things you are separating and putting in your recycling bins are probably not being recycled — and there’s a good chance that they are ending up somewhere you never imagined. 

The current recycling crisis, where much of the diligently separated waste is not getting recycled, started in January 2018, when China announced that they would stop taking the world’s recycling through enacting their “National Sword” policy, which after more than 25 years of accepting two-thirds of the world’s plastic waste, suddenly banned the import of most plastics and other recyclable materials.  This move not only stunned the world, but it also suddenly ripped the band-aid off that was holding together recycling as a viable solution to the single-use product proliferation around the world.  

A year(ish) has passed since the new Chinese legislation came into effect, and their plastic imports have dropped by 99%, forcing the bulk of the global recyclables to be landfilled, incinerated, stockpiled on docks, cast out into the environment, or sent to other countries in the region. The latter is an equally unpopular move where many countries are now openly rejecting foreign trash.  Experts now estimate that as much as 111 million metric tons of plastic waste will be displaced by 2030. 

Recycling is a lovely idea when it works; in fact it's a fundamental part of the circular economy, after, of course, sharing services, remanufacturing and repair. But like any system that displaces the responsibility somewhere out of sight, the externalities come back around to bite us all in the ass eventually. Ocean plastic waste is just one of the massive unintended consequences of relying on a quick fix, which then, in turn, reinforces the problem you are trying to solve. Systems thinking 101: the easy way out often leads back in, and there are often no quick fixes to complex problems. Recycling as a solution has reinforced the problem, and now we are dealing with a ‘frankenproblem’. 

There has been an unfair reliance on consumers to be the responsible parties in dealing with the rise of disposable items. This is after producers and retailers have decided, without consultation, to wrap everything in plastic or replace reusables with disposables, normalizing the use of single use items by claiming them to be more hygienic and convenient than their reusable counterparts. 

There are many coinciding aspects with how this further exacerbates the issue. For example, take the issue of contamination (one of the motivators for China to stop accepting the world’s trash): many everyday items that can’t be recycled are mixed in with recyclables. Or soiled materials, like a coffee cups or food packaging, get in with clean items and then make a mess of the rest. Then there is “wishcycling,” when people who are so conditioned to “do the right thing” that they toss whatever they wish could be recycled into the recycling bin, hoping that the trash fairy will ensure that it gets recaptured and magically turned into something useful again (another spoiler: they don’t).  Furthermore, there is no universal recycling system, nor are there practices to teach an ever increasingly globalized world how to manage the complexity of this diverse practice. Nearly every state and country has different rules about how to recycle. In some places it's rinse and separate, in others it's pop it all together (no need to rinse), and in others there are very detailed separation techniques for all the different types of plastics (identified by the small number at the base of the plastic item). So we have well-intentioned citizens getting lumped with the responsibility of deciphering what they should and should not do, whilst producers make add more complex materials to the system. Of course there are just the lazy people too, who throw whatever wherever, further increasing the contamination rates, and this just makes the cost of recycling higher and results in more recyclables ending up being dumped in landfill. 

Good intentioned and well-trained recyclers the world over are up in arms over the news reports that their hard work to get things into the right waste streams is amounting to nothing. And countries around the world are sending contaminated loads of recycling back to their parent countries — often wealthy, consuming nations like England, Canada, Australia, United States, Germany, and the rest of Europe. What we have actually created is a system of dumping a waste legacy on developing economies, as few rich countries have localized recycling facilities to coup with the amount of trash generated. 

Consumer waste and recycling is a broken system that can’t be solved by just better recycling alone. Don't get me wrong — recycling, remanufacturing, and repair all have their place in the transition to a circular and regenerative economy, but the reliance on a cure-all magic system that takes your old clamshell salad box and turns it into something just as valuable and useful is very far away from the reality of the current status quo. The undeniable issue is that we have created a disposable culture, and no amount of recycling will fix it. We need to remedy this illness at the root cause: producer-enforced disposability and the rapid increase of a throwaway culture being normal

The systems failure: enforced disposability & a normalized throwaway culture

Single-use throwaway stuff permeates our day-to-day lives; it's hard to avoid a coffee cup here, a plastic bag there, some wooden chopsticks at lunch, or that boxed take-out Thai food for dinner. While it’s most prevalent in the food industry — bottles, cups, lids, straws, grocery bags, produce bags, cutlery, produce wrap, and even those single-serve little sauce sachets — recently, design for disposability has moved into the medical, transport, and government sectors just as much. Over the last 60 years since the invention of cheap plastics, and even more so in the last 15 years, since the rise in the cult of busy, we have literally designed ourselves into a disposable society. 

I have written about this before in this article on Systems Failures: Planned Obsolescence and Enforced Disposability:  “Many of the goods and services we all rely on are created with the specific intent to lose value over time so that the consumer is stuck in an enforced consumption cycle, which increases value for the producer, but not for the customer nor the planet. And the cost of dealing with all of this reduced value stuff is placed back on the customer and local governments in the form of funding local waste management services.”

That’s right, the decision by a producer or even your local cafe to swap to disposables is then costing you money in either general waste (ie landfill fees) or recycling — both of which are costly aspects for local government to manage, so much so that many are ditching recycling all together! The cost of running these cumbersome recycling systems is also one of the reasons so much plastic waste is escaping into nature via the rivers and oceans of Southeast Asia, as the rapid transition to disposable plastics has not been met by an increase in municipal waste management services. 

Recently I illustrated the extent of how we don’t see the costs of invisible things in a TEDx talk in Lisbon. 


Around the world, daily options for obtaining basic needs such as food and water have dramatically changed over the last two decades, from a reusable user experiences to a crappy plastic or paper single-use disposable option. For many, it feels cheap because it is, and it feeds into the speedy convenience-fueled lifestyles that currently dominates societies. But the long-term costs are much greater than the immediate cost cutting and time-saving perceived benefits. I know there are many hygiene benefits and that the bendy plastic straw help many people in hospitals or who are disabled, I get that a disposable diaper is so much easier than washing them, but the extent of disposable single-use products is fundamentally unsustainable. And the really insidious issue here is that we are all paying for this! We pay for the cost of a disposable lifestyle embedded in the cost of these services and products, pay for it again through local taxes, and then we pay for it collectively in the loss of natural environments like beaches and waterways. We pay for it when 90% of table salt ends up filled with microplastics, and we will continue to pay for it as long as we continue to believe that there are no consequences to our disposable addictions. 

As  awareness about environmental issues associated with waste has risen, so too has the quick fix of “make it recyclable” as a solution to disposability. This has validated the production of single-use product streams. It has given way to the myth of ‘good’ (paper) and ‘bad’ (plastic) materials, which is so problematic as all materials have impacts, but it also has distracted us from the real issue all whilst more and more products and services have shifted to disposable from reusable. 

What frustrates me to no end is that so many agents in the system just deflect responsibility to other parts. The plastic manufacturers say that the brand owners don’t want to change, and the brand owners blame the customers who then blame their governments who then blame the retails or the companies, and the cycle of blame continues. The reality is that plastic is a fantastic material for durable products, like reusable packaging systems that can be easily sterilized and reused. For example, I was on a flight recently where the food was provided in a thick plastic reusable bento box that had a salad and a snack in it, no plastic packaging, simple box wrap (although they did have disposable utensils…) but it was designed to be washed and reused over and over again. Of course washing has its own impacts too, but there is always a break-even point that can be factored into the systems design. The design solutions are actually really simple and the infrastructure interventions often financially viable, but the will to make change by societies’ institutions is significantly lacking. Where are all the pioneers who will help flip the script on our disposable world?

In the meantime, the burden of change comes down to you and me and our communities to refuse unless it's reusable — to reject the system that has been thrust upon us by ditching disposables and demanding better products and services. Of course, this is difficult for many people, but each and every action you can take does send price signals through the economy. I recently heard of a large supermarket retailer trialing package-free dispensers because they saw a shift in the market, which is dictated by economic actions of people everyday. Simply put — we need a reusable revolution to get us out of the recycling mess.

The story of Recycling is the Story of Intentional Misdirection

Magicians use misdirection to direct their audience to see what they want them to see so that they can trick you into believing what they have done is really magic. This is very similar to the tactic used to get our society to a place where recycling symbolizes the height of environmentalism. Our living grandparents will laugh at the idea of waste; they will tell us that they most likely never even had a trash bin. What was life like before disposable plastic? It was a lot more washing up, by the ‘save and reuse’ practices that, just a few generations ago, were the norm quickly got designed out of the modern world with the advent of cheap disposable materials.  

The big shift towards normalized disposability was initiated in 1970, when the first Earth Day was celebrated in the US, with this famous Keep America Beautiful ad: it features an Italian-American actor poised as a Native American who sheds a single tear as an oblivious passerby chucks a bag of trash out of his car window, into the street. Playing on people’s emotions, the ad then drills a message that we still have internalized today: “People start pollution. People can stop it.” It took two sentences to shift the blame and guilt on disposable items away from the producers of the new disposable economy and onto the citizens they had thrust it upon. 

This ad and many others to come were funded by Keep America Beautiful (KAB), a front for a lobby group made up of representatives from the major beverage companies. The very strategic goal was to turn the attention away from the rising concern for the environment in a post-Vietnam era, as soda and milk bottles were swapped out from reusable ones (which cost the companies money in collecting and washing) to the disposable alternatives. The slight of hand trick was to make out as though the problem was not the calculated shift to normalizing disposability, but the acts of the individuals, who prior to this, were not used to non-biodegradable materials filling their daily lives. 

It’s valuable to interject here a comparison of a recycling system that holds manufacturers accountable, rather than consumers. Such a system can be found in Germany, who is considered to have one of the best recycling systems in the world, in which it recycles nearly 70% of its waste. Many trace this success back to a package ordinance that was passed in 1991, in which it “required manufacturers to take responsibility for the recycling of their product packaging after a consumer was finished using it. This included transportation packaging, secondary packaging (i.e., the box around soda cans) and the primary packaging (i.e., the soda can).” Then, in 1996, the Closed Substance Cycle and Waste Management Act was established, and it “applies to anyone that produces, markets or consumes goods and dictates that they are responsible for the materials’ reuse, recycling or environmentally sound disposal. This act particularly targeted producers and encouraged them to focus on one of three waste management strategies: waste avoidance, waste recovery and environmentally compatible disposal.” 

The contrast in policy and in recycling success rates here further solidifies that manufacturers should be held accountable for packaging and that the solution is sustainable, circular design

Redesigning systems: what happens now?

Now that China is no longer accepting the world’s recycling waste, we need to have more efficient localized recycling systems in places that help to close the loop and bring about the transition to the circular economy. The challenge is how can you help make that happen?  Additionally, closed loop service provision systems like the recently launched Loop, will help dramatically eliminate single use packaging at least. 

We are always finding ways to help people make positive change at the UnSchool and overcoming the inertia that often seeps in when problems of this magnitude are presented. So, here are some really good first steps you can start with. Individual lifestyle swaps: get some small wins under your belt to motivate you and influence others around you, by refusing single-use, taking your own, asking for reusables, or refusing to buy something. This has positive ripple effects, as the more people who see a new practice, the more normal it becomes in society at large. It might seem futile, but bigger systemic impacts come through the regular consumption choices we make everyday. Look also at what you can do it your professional life by letting your workplace know you want to help them swap from disposables to reusables.  Enough people doing this in the world at large will redesign the normalization habits of hyper-disposability so that it goes out with the trash. 

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If you want to get started on designing for a circular future, you can download our FREE Post Disposable Activation Kit, a set of free tools that we designed to help you activate your leadership and make lifestyle shifts for a post disposable future, read my book on circular systems design, listen to this great podcast from the 99% Invisible, or come to an in-person program at the UnSchool to activate your agency and learn the skills of creative changemaking.

Week 6: The rise of sustainable living

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By Leyla Acaroglu

Earlier this year, I was invited to attend the Fourth UN Environment Assembly in Nairobi, Kenya. Politicians, innovators, and activists gathered to discuss the future of global sustainable production and consumption, looking at what the next stages are for creating systems of sustainability and circularity and how to unlock the consumption paradox.  

Despite the meeting not obtaining the desired resolutions to help bring about the significant global restructuring needed for a healthy and sustainable planet, the uplifting thing was that finally, after many years, the discussions centered on the roles of design and consumption for how to achieve global social and environmental sustainability. I, like everyone else, have my moments of disillusion, where the hope gets drained out of you by the fatigue of complaints, problems, and inaction. So allow me to focus on the flip side to that: the changes I see rising from the slightly nerdy world of sustainable production and consumption.

Not too long ago, terms like “zero waste” were boring policy directives thrown around by government departments with long-term strategies like “zero waste by 2020”. But in the last few years, ‘going zero waste’ and sustainable living in general have taken on an entirely cooler persona as a lifestyle trend of young, hip Instagrammers and savvy YouTubers are all helping to make this a movement and trend that now anyone can get involved in.

Yes, there are like any movements critiques of the gender politics and the validity of the claims of those who are promoting this lifestyle trend. Years ago, there was a claim that there was a growing trend called LOHAS: Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability, and that people would actually start to make economic decisions based on the issues that matter to them. So for me, the Zero Wasters are the living incarnation of this marketing prophecy. And even more so, it demonstrates that the actions of a small group of people can have big impacts on the economy.

A ZERO WASTE LIFESTYLE

A zero waste lifestyler is someone who actively reduces their waste consumption by designing their life to combat acquiring things that are wasteful or will end up as trash, especially avoiding all disposable and non-recyclable products and packaging. Someone embracing a zero waste life usually plans meals in advance to avoid convenience packaging, and ensures they always have a reusable water bottle, coffee cup, straw, and bags on hand to actively refuse disposable items. This names just a few and varied everyday actions these lifestylers take to avoid contributing to the global waste pandemic.

These types of actions aren’t really new; they were well-practiced as normal before the lifestyle of hyper-convenience encouraged runaway disposability, beginning in the 1960s. So, the challenge hasn’t been finding alternatives as much as it has been rebelling against the current status quo.

Many of the heroes of the zero waste lifestyle movement share incredible stories of only making one small jar of actual ‘trash’ a year, often shared on social media through active lifestyle design and adopting simple everyday changes. Composting organic waste from their homes, proactively purchasing reusable products, or even making essentials like toothpaste at home are all part of their day-to-day practices.

While there are aspirational leaders in the movement who are very much tied to the brand of zero waste, the key takeaway is that a person who actively seeks to reduce consumption impacts through conscious micro-actions across several different areas of their lives is a positive thing that should be encouraged. Not just because it helps bring about a new normal around reusability in society, but because it helps change the economy. When many micro-actions are being replicated, it has impacts on the goods and services that end up being made available to all of us.

This can all be seen in the rise of products and services to meet the needs of the zero waste community. Putting aside the questionable environmental credentials from a life cycle perspective of many of the products, and just looking at the shifts in the economy, we can see change — positive change toward a new type of normal, whereby people are activating their agency to help solve the global waste crises.

There are now dedicated zero waste stores in many major cities around the globe (not just in obvious hipster strongholds like New York!). Modern plant-based restaurants, and even entire shopping centers that have sprung up to accommodate this growing trend of plastic-free, package-free, and zero waste consumers who are interested in sustainable consumption options.

As a result of many different interventions, companies have also started to embrace the global trend toward sustainability. We are seeing leaders emerge in the circular economy in some sectors, such as apparel, consumer goods, and furniture. The Loop circular delivery service was just launched this year, and the biggest IPO in two decades was Beyond Meat. Ikea recently announced that they would be 100% circular by 2030, and Lego is working on a plastic-free brick. These examples show a growing demand and substantial shift towards the normalization of products and services that go beyond recycling and start to move us into position where further positive disruptions can occur.

I know, there is still a shit ton of work to do to solve the complex social and environmental problems that occur as a result of the global supply chain marketed to quickly meet every immediate desire of the human needs. Walk down the aisles in any supermarket around the world, and it's obvious that the vast majority of product providers are yet to catch on to this massive cultural shift underway, where consumers are conscious of their impacts and want to avoid investing in wasteful plastic-laden unsustainable products and services. But, the shifts we are seeing are encouraging and should be highlighted.

THE REAL ISSUE IS DISPOSABILITY: THE ROOT OF ALL WASTE

Waste is the dark side of consumption, and despite two solid decades of zero waste policies, and many different approaches from cleaner production to eco-design and sustainable consumption, and now the circular economy, we are still seeing a global increase in waste generation. And not just in plastics clogging the oceans, but in high-tech trash, textile, and food waste.

The issues with waste is that no matter how much recycling or waste management is put in place, more waste is generated than can be dealt with. Many emerging economies have limited or minimal waste management systems, and many big Western countries have absconded their responsibility to manage their own waste efficiently, just exporting it to an emerging economy. Like the case of the Canadian trash that the Philippians refused to take on, or as evidenced by the collapse of the recycling industry after China refused to take the world’s plastic trash any longer.

There continues to be a significant trend in converting reusable products to disposable ones, combined with the painful reality of planned obsolescence in high-value goods, so many aspects of our daily lives are now marked by single or low-value use products. Thus, going zero waste is one defiant act that anyone can do to take a stand against this. The reality is that what we spend our money on impacts the economy. Just like investing in renewable energy increases the value of that industry, the same is said for every product or service. We get more of what we invest in.

And let’s not forget that all of this comes down to design. The World Bank estimates that at the current rate of increase, we will see 70% increase in waste generation by 2050. This is all by design. Waste, whether it be in trash or recycling, is a design flaw, so even with the rise of waste rejection, we have a significant trend to contend with. Products are designed to break, and systems are designed to increase disposability as they cut costs and respond to customer concerns of health and safety. A significant part of the entire waste/pollution/unsustainability problem is that we have designed a system that incentivizes waste, and that is why we need to design for a post disposable future.

Design is also an incredibly powerful part of the solution. We can design for a future that meets our needs in sustainable and regenerative ways, and it's no wonder that the waste backlash is coming at a time when people are more able to design their own lives and share these behavioral and cultural shifts online to audiences of others willing to buck the status quo. This new generation of active consumers, be it zero wasters or minimalists, they are exerting their personal interests on the economy. This is helping to challenge the dominant culture of hyper-consumption and instead showing ways of living a more intentional and purposeful life.

MAKE CHANGES EVEN THOUGH IT TAKES TIME AND EVEN IF YOU FAIL

I have spent years researching ways of effecting change, and the one thing I know to be true is that change is constant, but it also takes time. Many people are not willing to even try something new because they think that it won’t serve them well, but when they do actually enact a habit disruption and discover that there was not a negative outcome, they often then adopt the new change and share it with others. Change is socially contagious, in both directions on the positive/negative scale.

Change is often hard to see whilst you are in the middle of it, and it is even harder when it’s a resistance to the status quo. The global changes toward a sustainable, regenerative, and circular economy require multiple different actors shifting their behaviors and patterns in diverse ways. In the case of zero waste living, it's all about agency and having ownership of your own impact. More so, it is contagious, as the power of social influence kicks in and people see the positive outcomes that making these types of changes can have.

When enough people validate the new actions, it’s a free pathway to the new outcome! To be sure, there are many challenges ahead of us when it comes to sustainability, and major corporations are still far behind in the trend of adopting the significance of the changes needed to adapt to a circular economy. But the progress is real and transformative. The question is not if, but when will we see the tipping point of change where we, as a collective species, start to design goods and services to be a positive influence on the planet?

It's never too late to start swapping unsustainable daily decisions to more considered ones, and in fact, there are five simple actions we can all can start anytime.

Five everyday actions to start RIGHT now

  1. Swap out some meat for plant-based proteins

  2. Ditch everyday disposables such as cups, plates, bags, and take-out containers

  3. Invest in the things you want to see in the world by buying repairable and long-lasting stuff (and make sure to repair it when it needs to be fixed!)

  4. Opt for low-carbon mobility options like biking, mass transit, or ride-sharing

  5. Move money from high-impact industries to renewables through swapping energy providers, banks, and investment portfolios

Week 3: Can We Eat our Way to a More Sustainable Planet?

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By The UnSchool Team

We can all agree that there are fundamental failures in the global food system, with over a third of all food produced being wasted and millions of people being affected by food deserts. What systems changes could be introduced to create solutions in different ways?

From extreme hunger to under-nourishment, to food waste and how we grow, process, transport, and consume food, being of significance to every human (as we all need to eat!), there are many opportunities for improvement throughout the many sub-systems of the global food system. In this UnSchool Journal article, we’ll take a detailed look at the EAT-Lancet's recent report that explored whether we could feed a healthy diet for a future population of 10 billion people, while remaining within planetary boundaries. We’ll also take a high-level look into the burning question about how you can swap up your food choices to contribute more equitable, sustainable food systems change around the world.

What is the EAT-Lancet Commission — and why does this report matter?

The EAT-Lancet report is the first time, we have had scientific targets for both healthy human diets and sustainable food production, based on a rigorous, comprehensive review of the most recent scientific literature. The team behind this report is the EAT-Lancet Commission, which is a part of EAT, “a non-profit startup dedicated to transforming our global food system through sound science, impatient disruption, and novel partnerships.”

The EAT-Lancet Commission is a team of 37 multi-disciplinary scientists from 16 countries who set out to tackle the systems issues of hunger, obesity, and environmental degradation by discovering how people should eat to solve all of these issues — keeping in mind that we are projected to rise to 9.8 billion humans on Earth by 2050. The result of their efforts shares an important micro-action that we can adopt as individuals to work toward a better collective whole via systems change: the “planetary health diet.”

 
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How does the “planetary health diet” work?

Visualize a plate that is halfway filled with fruits and vegetables. Now, on the other half, imagine whole grains, plant proteins like lentils and beans, and unsaturated plant oils. Note that while being plant-based, it’s also a flexible plan, and it does allow for modest amounts of meat and dairy (as well as a little added sugar) — although being vegan and vegetarian are both options for healthy individuals and a healthy planet.

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The most important focus for planetary health lies in the reduction of red meat consumption, due to the major environmental impacts associated with livestock farming. As reported by WEF: “According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, emissions from global livestock account for 14.5% of anthropogenic (from human activity) greenhouse gases, while the World Bank chart above shows that, in 2014, 70% of freshwater withdrawal was used for agriculture - projected to rise by a further 15% by 2050.” Of course, minimizing red meat consumption is also optimal for human health, given that eating high amounts of red meat is associated with higher risk for type 2 diabetes, coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.

While loads of research was conducted in order to arrive at these new guidelines, the gist of the planetary health diet as a means to create food systems change remains pretty simplistic: increase consumption of nutritious plant-based foods (fruits, veg, nuts, legumes, and whole grains), and decrease consumption of red meat, sugar, and refined grains.

This doesn’t seem too radical to us, as we have already adopted a vegetable centric food philosophy at all UnSchool events! Our recent collaboration with the UNEP shows the five areas of everyday action you can take to reduce your footprint and contribute to a more sustainable life.

10 everyday actions you can take to reduce your food footprint

 
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  1. Diversify your diet to include more plant-based products, and cook more at home

  2. Increase your intake of plant-based foods and explore the joys of non animal protein rich options like beans, chickpeas, lentils and peas (they are delicious!)

  3. Embrace a flexitarian, reducetarian, vegetarian, or vegan diet

  4. Shop for local seasonal food that is produced sustainably, such as your local farmers’ market or package-free store

  5. Buy sustainably produced foods. They may cost a bit more, but if you invest in quality over quantity, you are offering a better impact to your health and the planet

  6. Buy only what you can finish, save, or cook in bulk to freeze, in order to avoid food waste and avoid adding methane into the atmosphere

  7. Avoid excessive packaging by buying fresh and taking your own reusable packaging and bags to stores. Re-use any packaging as long as possible if you are not able to avoid it in certain cases

  8. Ask for healthy and and sustainable food options from your the people you buy food and other products from

  9. Grow some food yourself by starting or joining an urban garden, community garden, school garden, or kitchen garden

  10. Support organizations, policies, and programs that promote sustainable food systems - speak up about them, ask questions, and get involved

To read the full report Food in the Anthropocene: the EAT–Lancet Commission on healthy diets from sustainable food systems (Walter Willett et al.), visit here. To discover how to reframe sustainability and think critically about everyday impacts, check out this course at UnSchool Online.

Week 2: What is Greenwashing, and How to Spot It

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By Leyla Acaroglu

In our hyper-consumption based societies, it’s always smart to raise a skeptical eyebrow when you hear organizations make claims of how they’re “doing their part” in the quest to “save the Earth”, (although at the UnSchool we truly believe that no one can “save” the Earth, but we can all change it!). But when companies invest more time and money on marketing their products or brand as “green” rather than actually doing the hard work to ensure that it is sustainable — this is called greenwashing.

Cambridge Dictionary says  greenwashing is designed “to make people believe that your company is doing more to protect the environment than it really is.”

As an analogy, greenwashing is to corporations as tree hugging is to individuals who say they care about the environment, it's a symbolic reference that has little actual outcomes.  And more so just confuses the issue attempting to be resolved.

Whilst some greenwashing is unintentional and results from a lack of knowledge about what sustainability truly is, it is often intentionally carried out through a wide range of marketing and PR efforts. But the common denominator among all greenwashing is that it is not only misleading, but it’s also really not helping to further sustainable design or circular economy initiatives. Thus, environmental problems stay the same or more likely, get even worse, as greenwashing often sucks up airtime and misdirects well-intentioned consumers down the wrong path.

One such classic greenwashing case is that of the car giant Volkswagen, who has admitted to cheating emissions tests by fitting various vehicles with a “defeat” device — a proprietary software that could detect when it was undergoing an emissions testing, altering the performance to reduce the emissions level, all while touting the low-emissions features of its vehicles through marketing campaigns. In truth, however, these engines were emitting up to 40x the allowed limit for nitrogen oxide pollutants.

There are countless other case studies across all industries that show how NOT to do sustainability by discovering more examples of greenwashing — like the meat mega-giant Tyson, who got busted for false claims about antibiotic-free chickens. Or the fossil fuel giant BP (who changed their name to Beyond Petroleum and put solar panels on their gas stations) and then  got called out for their green misdirection,  and of course Coke, who has been accused of greenwashing through ‘natural’ sugar claims that it started marketing as a way to attract more health-conscious consumers.

Years ago the design agency Futerra made a really cool resource called the Sins of Greenwashing, which classifies the many ways that companies participate in greenwashing, from outright lying through to making claims with no scientific proof. This is one of the reasons that life cycle thinking is such an important tool to know how to access and use when making sustainable design choices, because many people who get caught greenwashing are often not intentionally doing it, but more so are ill-informed of the impacts of different materials. They thus end up accidentally making unsubstantiated claims about environmental preferences, or worse still making assumptions about what is green or not based on environmental folklore or simple google searching!  

Greenwashing AND single-use plastics

One of the most pervasive examples of greenwashing is in the world of single-use plastic. Did you know that half of the worlds disposable plastic has been produced in the last 15 years! And 91% of plastic produced globally is NOT recycled. You have probably already heard of the global plastic-in-the-ocean-disaster we are seeing, with stats that say there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050 and the horrific images of once pristine beaches being overwhelmed by plastic debris. It's no wonder the world is up in arms about this tragic by-product of our disposable lifestyles.

This alarming issue drove us to create our free Post-Disposable Activation Kit, and it’s why we talk so much about the dangerous idea that recycling will solve all the problems, when in fact the main issue is that we have normalized disposability to the point where everything is valueless. And not only is recycling a bit of environmental folklore, but so are many of the bioplastics being marketed as sustainable design solutions.

Bioplastics are plastics made from bio based polymers that are engineered to perform like normal petrochemical plastics. In nearly every case, they need a certain set of conditions to break down in (oxygen and sunlight that aren’t present in a landfill or the ocean, for example). Further to the end of life management issues, they also require a certain amount of petrochemicals in their production phase so often have a similar amount of ‘plastic products’ embedded within them.  Additionally, since plastic bags take a lot of energy and other resources to manufacture in the first place, a “friendlier” plastic is not helpful at all when using life-cycle thinking. The FTC began cracking down on the misleading claims of bioplastic manufacturers in 2013 and handed out more warnings to marketers in 2014.

This was the case in Australia years ago when a plastic bag company swapped to ‘biodegradable’ plastic, which technically didn't fully degrade, but instead just breaks down into smaller parts unless it's processed in a digester specifically designed to create the conditions for biodegradation. What is actually needed is a compostable bag, which is a different thing entirely. The bag made big eco claims, and the consumer affairs watchdog fined them and required them to stop selling the product as it was completely false. In fact, Australia has this entire guide on how to avoid greenwashing!

As consumers, we have the power to see through the greenwashing and calling bullshit where it's due, rather then falling into the safe belief that there are simple solutions to complex problems. We can continue to pressure corporations to create truly viable, post-disposable, sustainable and circular design solutions by changing our own habits and behaviours to support the more sustainable options. We believe that all of these problems are solvable with good design, a systems mindset, and services that reconfigure how we meet our human needs without damaging Earth in the process. If you want to participate in the global post-disposable redesign challenge, check out this set of design briefs that we created.

Bust more Eco-Myths

Greenwashing is all about misdirection, showing one thing that distracts you from what is really going on. The main issue we see is that greenwashing takes up valuable space in the fight against significant environmental issues like climate change, plastic ocean pollutions, air pollution and global species extinctions. The saddest thing is that many companies do it by accident, as they don't have the expertise to know what is truly environmentally beneficial, and what is not.

We are approaching a critical time in which more organizations and individuals are adopting sustainable design and zero waste living practices, and entire communities are banning disposable plastics, It’s important to be able to quickly identify instances of greenwashing, and replace them with truly sustainable practices both as a consumer and as an employee (which the UnSchool sustainability course covers in more detail).

This is a time of abundant opportunities.

We all can be change agents in considering and designing sustainable outcomes in the world around us that affect systemic wellbeing — socially, economically, and environmentally. When we frame sustainability as a practice that helps us create a future that we’re excited about living in, we generate optimism about solving complex problems (which is what’s required to truly tackle these issues!).

Pair that with creative thinking, knowledge of systems and life cycle thinking, and a foundation built on what sustainable design in practice really looks like, and we’ll have tangible outcomes that are positively disrupting the status quo and affecting change.

To level up your capacity to make more effective change-making decisions for a sustainable and regenerative planet, consider starting our UnMasters track to get certified by the UnSchool as a professional creative change-maker.