Thursday, March 17, 2011

Deconstructing a Greenwash

Amid the tragedy unfolding in Japan this week, a press release from PepsiCo caused some buzz.
Full text at:
Sounds wonderful. Plant-based packaging! Great, right? That's about as "green" as it gets?

No. Not even close. Let's deconstruct this.

Claim #1: This "enable[s] the company to manufacture a beverage container with a significantly reduced carbon footprint."

Reality: According to the plastics lobby itself, the natural gases used to make plastic are a byproduct of petroleum drilling/refining. By not capturing these gases as plastic, instead they'll either be flared off or burned as another fossil fuel. Sourcing plastic from plant matter does not appear to lower the amount of fossil fuels currently being drawn from the earth or reduce the carbon footprint of production.

Claim #2: "PepsiCo's 'green' bottle is 100 percent recyclable and far surpasses existing industry technologies."

Reality: The plastic made by this new process is #1 polyethylene terephthalate, the same exact #1 plastic that currently goes into these bottles. As explained in the "Triangle Is a Lie" trilogy, #1 plastic recycling is a downward spiral. Walk down your neighborhood grocery aisle. Look at all the #1 bottles of soda/water/juice. Find -one- that says "Made Using Recycled PET." Recycling a plastic bottle back into a food-worthy mirror of itself is extremely hard, because of contamination and the breakdown that happens to PET when it is crushed, remelted, and remolded. Recycling a "plant-based" PET bottle doesn't change this. For every single bottle of PET bought, 100% new virgin PET usually has to be created to replace it on the shelf. Plastic recycling is not a closed loop. It was never meant to be. It only offers a very cheap feedstock for recyclers (mostly in developing nations) who want to create lower-quality products from the free labor of citizens who recycle.

Claim #3: "By... using its own agricultural scraps as feedstock for new bottles, this advancement should deliver a... win for the environment."

Reality: PepsiCo wishes to take organic plant material and turn it into plastic. Switchgrass, pine bark, corn husks -- and eventually orange peels, potato peels, and oat hulls. All of these are compostable materials -- materials that can break down back into the building blocks needed to renourish depleted soils. But instead of maintaining a healthy and natural soil cycle, Pepsi wants to strip much of these building blocks away from nature and turn them into nondegradable plastic, which will persist in the environment for centuries or millennia. If it's ecologically unfriendly to use fossil fuels as plastic, it is folly to use nature's own perfect fertilizers as plastic.

Pepsi is correct about one thing, however. This is a momentous achievement. Because it now means that, even if some future society has been able to wean itself completely from fossil fuels, companies will still be able to keep churning out all the plastic our oceans can handle.

Business as usual.


  1. thanks for your great posts on recycling - i have referred the them here

  2. Thank you much for the link! I'm glad you're enjoying the posts. I just get frustrated when a public-relations machine says X is great, and fawning blogs & journalists disseminate that out into the world without the slightest critical thought.