Green Products – Do They Make A Difference To The Environment?

Does using green products actually make a difference? Sudina Manandhar from Earthandhuman explains why making the switch to using green products is vital for both the health of people and the planet and the pitfalls to watch out for in the process.

Going green involves incorporating a lifestyle that benefits not only the people who live on the planet but also the environment itself. With coastal flooding, global rising temperatures, and severe weather changes, people are becoming more conscious of their lifestyle decisions.

And for good reason. Humans have absorbed more resources in the last 50 years than at any other point in human history.

With the rise of cheap materials such as plastics and petrochemicals and increasing knowledge of the impacts of these materials on the environment, the interest in green products has never been greater.

With more and more people looking to green their lifestyle, there are increasing discussions on how this impacts our biosphere. Many of us care about making environmentally friendly choices and want to use products that are both self-sustaining and cause the least damage possible. But how do we make sure the green products we do buy actually make a difference?

What Is A Green Product?

Wooden toothbrushes next to eucalyptus stems with blue text box that reads does using green products actually make a difference to the environment?

First, we must understand what a green product actually is.

Green products are typically distinguished as being made with non-toxic ingredients in an environmentally friendly manner, and which can be disposed of responsibly at the end of their life.

Many green products are also certified by reputable organisations. These include Energy Star for electrical items, the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) for wood-based items, the Global Organic Textile Standard (GOTS) for textiles, as well as many other accredited labelling schemes.

Some of the characteristics of a green product are that they are:

  • Cultivated without the use of harmful chemicals and under sanitary conditions.
  • Recyclable, reusable, and biodegradable.
  • Packaged in an eco-friendly manner.
  • Utilising the fewest resources.
  • Has a low carbon footprint.
  • Has a low or no plastic footprint.

Why Buy Greener Products?

When items are produced in a non-environmentally friendly manner, there are a host of consequences. From toxic exposures to air pollution, water contamination, global warming, natural resource depletion, improper disposal, and ecosystem damage. These are all potential hazards to both human health and the environment.

These impacts can occur at any point in the product’s life cycle. This includes the extraction of raw materials, and during the production and labelling processes. It can also include the impacts of transportation to retail units and the selling of these items. It even extends to product use and the product’s end of life.

Buying greener products – especially those made from renewable resources – can help mitigate some of these impacts, as well as benefit both the environment and local communities.

The Green Consumption Effect

Whilst there are environmental benefits to buying eco-friendly products, researchers have interestingly found that buying green products can enhance a shopper’s wellbeing. It was found that buying a green product makes customers feel good – giving them a warm glow – and makes them feel like responsible and upstanding citizens.

This is a phenomenon known as the green consumption effect.

However, the same study found that the green consumption effect vanishes when the environmentally friendly component of the item has a low or negligible environmental benefit.

Be Aware Of Greenwashing

The trouble is that many unscrupulous brands try to take advantage of this green consumption effect. As such, numerous companies seek to distinguish themselves in a highly competitive marketplace by over-exaggerating their eco-friendly credentials to encourage customers to buy their products.

Greenwashing is the phrase used to characterise the process when a company exaggerates how environmentally-friendly its product actually is. 

Falsified sustainability assertions, such as in the ethical jewellery sector, are the number one reason customers say they would avoid purchasing a product. That is, greenwashing is more offensive than having a terrible online presence or terrible reviews.

But how do you know if the so-called green products you are using are genuine or phoney? Here are a few things to do to avoid being greenwashed by a brand:

Is The Green Product Able To Back Up Its Claims

If a product alleges to be compostable, biodegradable, or sustainable, then the brand should provide more details on how or why. Preferably the brand should provide external certifications to back up these claims.

Read The Small Print

Food packaging is a prime example of how some environmentally friendly statements, such as ‘biodegradable’ and ‘compostable,’ may not be as beneficial as they appear.

Plastic wraps may be labelled as compostable. However, do read the packaging or contact the manufacturer if advice is missing. The wrapper may be home compostable, which is good. In other cases, it may require to be composted commercially. In this case, it’s considered greenwashing, as few people have access to commercial composting facilities.

Look For Accreditation Or Buyer’s Guides

Several third-party environmental credentials aim to ensure specific benchmarks are met by brands. This includes accreditations such as Fairtrade, B Corp, and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

While accreditations are not a panacea, they indicate whether businesses are making an effort to help the environment. Buyers’ guides, such as those for ethical shoppers, can also assist by doing some of the analysis for you.

False Claims Should Be Reported

If there are no details on the tag or website about how a product is green, consult the brand directly. False or deceptive environmental claims are against Advertising Standard Agency guidelines. Businesses that make misleading claims may face fines.

The Future Of Green Consumerism Looks Promising

It is tough to persuade consumers to pay more for goods. However, brands can encourage consumers toward making more environmentally friendly choices by making things convenient and incentivising green behaviours.

UK supermarket chains already charge for plastic shopping bags to encourage the reuse of bags. Many supermarkets also offer single-use plastic recycling terminals. These often include recycling incentives, such as money off your grocery shopping.

In some instances, simply providing a price reduction for reusing old bags, containers, or cartons can make a difference. As can providing a discount for cafe customers using their own cups.

As green living is not accessible to everyone, brands must consider how they can bridge the information gap and assist consumers with a behavioural change, regardless of their circumstances.

It’s also important to remember that green consumerism is more than just buying environmentally friendly products. It can also include recycling, preserving, and taking public transport instead of driving a private car, where possible.

Don’t Be Fooled

We are all accountable, not only for our individual well-being but also for the health of everyone and the planet. As the sustainability movement gains traction, many people are looking for simple ways to green their lifestyles.

However, this leaves us at risk of greenwashing by unscrupulous companies, driven by profit rather than genuine environmental concern. Distinguishing between genuinely green products and greenwashing can help ensure the products we buy do genuine good to both people and the planet.


Are Biodegradable Plastics Good For The Environment?

are biodegradable plastics good for the environment

Want to know if biodegradable plastics are good for the environment?  Let me talk you through the facts.

As consumers, the way products are marketed to us influence our purchasing decisions.  However, it’s often difficult to know if a product is actually green or if it’s just greenwash.  To help you navigate labels, packaging, and adverts I’m aiming to separate environmental fact from greenwash.

I’ll start with the main one that gets touted around: biodegradability.

Are Biodegradable Plastics Good for the Environment?

Plastic bags, food wrappers, nappies, and some other plastics are often labelled as biodegradable.  Manufacturers don’t explicitly say that these products are better for the environment.  However, this choice of wording implies that these are better choices for the environment.

Let’s take 5 minutes here to examine whether biodegradable plastics are good for the environment or whether it’s corporate greenwash.

greenwash 101

Conventional Plastic Vs. Biodegradable Plastics

Firstly, let’s look at the difference between conventional plastics and biodegradable plastics.

Conventional Plastic

Conventional plastics are made from petroleum-based products derived from oil.  They will either take hundreds of years to break down. Or, in the worst case, never decompose.

Biodegradable Plastics

Biodegradable plastics are made from conventional petroleum-based plastics, but also contain chemical additives.  These additives cause the plastic to break down more rapidly when exposed to air and light.  However, it could take anywhere between 2-5 years to break down, if not longer.

The other type of biodegradable plastic is known as bioplastic.  Bioplastics tend to be made from plant biomass, such as corn starch, sugar cane, or wheat.  They should either completely and rapidly break down naturally or be compostable.

However, and it’s a big, however, whether a product is biodegradable or not ultimately depends on where it ends up.

Let’s think about that last sentence for a minute, and think about where our waste goes.

Disposing Of Plastics

In order for biodegradation to occur three basic resources are required.  These being heat, light, and oxygen.  If a biodegradable plastic or bioplastic ends up in a landfill site it will never decompose.  In landfill sites waste is essentially mummified, in a complete absence of light and oxygen.  Food that has ended up in landfill will not biodegrade, so there is no hope for biodegradable plastics or even bioplastics.

You would think then that the answer is therefore to ensure that you always compost or recycle your biodegradable plastics.  Unfortunately, it’s not that simple.

Biodegradable Plastic Disposal

Most biodegradable plastics are classed as code 7. This places them in the ‘Other’ category of plastics.  Code 7 plastics are generally not accepted for recycling by local councils.  The reason being behind this is that biodegradable plastics are harder to recycle due to the addition of chemical additives in them.

What About Composting?

If you want to get around the landfill and recycling issues, and pop your biodegradable bags in your compost heap then you’ll also come a cropper.  Polyethylene, which is what biodegradable bags are commonly made from, often contains a manganese additive.  This additive stops breaking down when placed in compost bins/heaps.  Scientists think this most likely occurs due to the influence of ammonia or other gases generated by microorganisms in the compost.

Even if you were to get lucky on the composting front, and your plastics did break down then you will likely encounter another problem.  Because biodegradable plastics are made from petrochemicals they aren’t always suitable for composting.  This is because they can leave behind chemical residues in your lovely compost.  The key lesson learned here is that biodegradable is not the same as compostable.

And there’s more.  Some biodegradable plastics actually fragment rather than biodegrade.  This is due to the addition of oxidising agents (found in so-called oxo-degradable plastics).  By fragmenting, rather than degrading, they break into small pieces which can pollute soils, increase the risk of ingestion for animals and end up in our oceans and waterways.   These kinds of plastics are impossible to recover for recycling and aren’t suitable for composting.

Bioplastic Disposal

At this point, you might be thinking that surely bioplastics are a better environmental option?  The thing is, if bioplastics are sent for recycling, these types of plastic cannot be recycled with standard plastics.  This is because the additives in bioplastics can make the recycled product less durable.

Therefore the easy answer would be to ensure that you always compost bioplastics.  However, if you don’t have the ability to compost your waste (perhaps you don’t have a garden) then you are out of luck.

Don’t be so smug if you do have the ability to compost though. Some bioplastics will only compost in commercial composters, like some plastic-free tea bags.  Commercial composters reach the kind of temperatures and humidity levels you would be unable to achieve in a standard garden composter.  Therefore your bioplastics may never truly break down at home.

Other Bioplastic Points to Consider

If that isn’t enough of a headache for you, with bioplastics you also have the added headache of how the plant material that was used to create the bioplastic was grown.  Concerns include the use of GM crops and the use of valuable farmland that could be used to grow food crops.  

Other potential impacts of the growth of bioplastics crops include, but aren’t limited to deforestation, monocultures, use of freshwater supplies, soil erosion, fertiliser use (which often comes from petrochemical sources), pesticide use, food supplies, food prices, and food security.  Makes for quite heavy reading, doesn’t it?

What’s The Answer?

I’m afraid to say that there is no easy answer to the plastics conundrum. That is apart from avoiding single-use plastics where you can. And also recognising that if a product is labelled as biodegradable then it’s often not the great environmental choice that it seems.

Biodegradable plastics are rarely recyclable.  And biodegradable does not mean the same thing as compostable.  Compostable goods are often a better choice than biodegradable ones, but only if you have access to the appropriate composting facilities.

Composting biodegradable disposable nappies, for example, is almost never a good choice because of the mix you would need of green material (e.g. grass clippings, leaves, etc) to nappy.  Consider how many nappies a baby goes through in a day, and the length of time it would take for a nappy to break down at home.  You would therefore need more than a few compost heaps and a ready supply of green material to be able to compost effectively.  A better choice in this example would be washable nappies.

If you enjoyed this post then you may enjoy my post on the plastics to avoid when you’re shopping.  It covers things like the type of plastic, but also, perhaps lesser-known, the colour of plastic.