Greenwashing: Exposing the Truth Behind "Eco-Friendly" Brands and the Challenges of PLA Recycling

Alfred Tang

Hatched by Alfred Tang

Feb 13, 2024

4 min read


Greenwashing: Exposing the Truth Behind "Eco-Friendly" Brands and the Challenges of PLA Recycling

In today's world, where environmental concerns are at the forefront of global discussions, it's no surprise that many brands are eager to portray themselves as eco-friendly. They use clever marketing tactics and appealing visuals to convince consumers that they are making a positive impact on the planet. However, behind the scenes, there is a secret that some of these so-called "eco-friendly" brands don't want you to know: greenwashing.

Greenwashing occurs when a company, organization, government, or individual misleads people on their environmental practices or the environmental benefits of a product or service. We've all seen those commercials with cheesy music, stock footage of happy families, and soothing voices claiming to care about our health and the environment. But if these commercials are sponsored by companies like Shell or Chevron, known for their unsustainable practices, we should take their claims with a grain of salt.

One particular area where greenwashing is prevalent is in the use of certain types of plastics, such as PLA (polylactic acid). PLA is often marketed as a "biodegradable" plastic, leading consumers to believe that it is a more sustainable alternative. However, the reality is far more complex.

In Taiwan, for example, PLA has been placed in the seventh category of plastics for recycling, which has only added to the confusion surrounding its disposal. Without a comprehensive understanding of recycling and proper composting mechanisms, PLA often ends up in landfills, just like traditional plastics. Even when PLA is correctly recycled, there is a lack of infrastructure and legislation to support its reuse or conversion into compost. This means that the potential for a closed-loop system, where money and materials flow in a sustainable cycle, is currently unachievable.

What makes PLA different from other plastics is its biodegradability and the fact that it is derived from renewable resources, such as corn or potatoes. However, the process of fully biodegrading PLA requires specific conditions. For example, according to the EN 13432 standard, PLA should undergo controlled composting for three months, during which it should break down into small particles smaller than two millimeters. Additionally, 90% of the organic matter in the plastic should be converted into carbon dioxide within six months. Finally, the compost should undergo biotoxicity testing to ensure that plants can grow in it successfully.

Creating these optimal conditions for PLA composting is not an easy task. Temperature control equipment is required to stabilize the compost's temperature at around 60℃. Regular watering and automatic aeration are also necessary to maintain the survival conditions for microorganisms within the compost. Unfortunately, in Taiwan, the recycling rate for PLA is currently only around 5-6%, highlighting the challenges in establishing a well-functioning system for this supposedly "eco-friendly" plastic.

So, what can we do as consumers to navigate through the sea of greenwashing and make more informed choices? Here are three actionable pieces of advice:

  • 1. Look beyond the marketing: Don't be swayed solely by flashy commercials or claims of eco-friendliness. Take the time to research a brand's environmental practices, certifications, and partnerships with reputable organizations. Look for transparency and a track record of sustainability.
  • 2. Focus on the entire lifecycle: Consider not only the initial environmental impact of a product but also its end-of-life disposal. Ask questions about the recyclability or compostability of materials and support brands that provide clear instructions and infrastructure for proper disposal.
  • 3. Support circular economy initiatives: Look for brands that are actively working towards a circular economy model. These brands prioritize reducing waste, reusing materials, and recycling in a closed-loop system. By supporting these initiatives, you contribute to a more sustainable future.

In conclusion, greenwashing is a deceptive practice that can mislead consumers into believing that certain brands are more eco-friendly than they actually are. PLA, touted as a biodegradable plastic, faces challenges in terms of proper recycling and composting infrastructure. As consumers, it is crucial to see through the greenwashing tactics, educate ourselves on the true environmental impact of products, and support companies that genuinely prioritize sustainability. Only by doing so can we drive real change and create a greener future for generations to come.

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