Since its first announcement, the paper-based bottle has become one of the most controversial innovations within the packaging value chain. Depending on who you are talking to, this is either a blatant example of greenwashing, a real alternative to conventional formats, or an intermediary.
So which of these positions is the right one? According to Jonathan Wragg, owner of Environment CAP.
Ever since Blue Planet 2 hit our TVs in September 2017, consumer environmental concerns have skyrocketed. And rightly so! The show was not the only reason over the past five years for environmental concerns about packaging to rise, but it reached and captivated audiences like never before. Soon, the masses looked at what they were buying with new eyes, while imagining these very graphic images of marine life drowning in the trash.
It didn’t take long for the packaging world to scramble to invent, reinvent or dust off the old sustainable packaging alternatives to plastic. Let’s not forget that a lot of what is coming to market is nothing new, there just wasn’t a lucrative market until now. Steve Jobs once said, “Our job is to read things that aren’t on the page yet.”
And, as Henry Ford said, “If I had asked the customers what they wanted, they would have told me a faster horse.”
Both are the same message, and both apply to new packaging (or what appears to be new). The problem with creating something new in packaging is that most of the products produced are single-use, so unlike the products of Mr. Jobs and Mr. Ford, we have to consider the afterlife. product and where it is sold.
The question posed to me for this article, “Are paper bottles greenwashing?”, does not lead to a clear cut “yes” or “no” answer. I really wish that was the case (even if it would be a very short article)!
If you are in the cardboard or paper industry, of course it is not about greenwashing. If you are from the plastics or even aluminum industry, then of course they are. So what is the real question?
To me, any industry is going to promote itself and hit others, it’s just business. But greenwashing isn’t a business, it’s just a scam. By greenwashing, you deceive customers, the public, or even yourself that one product is better than another by using certain statistics and numbers that are in your favor.
Also, when we have this discussion, is it all about paper and cardboard, or are we also considering the many organic alternatives that exist as well? I get confused by all the materials that look like paper, so I understand why the public is too.
So what is the real question?
In fact, I believe it should be Three questions. Forget marketing, forget data, and forget what you think the audience wants to see. Just ask for the following when you ditch the plastic:
Q1. Does the alternative product work as well or better than the plastic version?
Q2. Is the alternative product equally or better recyclable than the plastic version via domestic recycling?
Q3. Is the alternative product better than the plastic version if it is not recycled?
Why just these three questions?
Because anything else moves the goal posts in favor of who is asking the question. This is also my main issue with the vast array of new products confusing an already confused market. They just seem to focus on one side of the waste equation. Everyone I talk to who is not involved in waste or packaging is confused by what they are being told. I’m also of the opinion that people only ask question three above and don’t ask the equally important question two.
Having a product that “degrades” as if by magic is all well and good, but do not if it contaminates the recycling system. Having a product made from 99% responsibly sourced materials is all well and good, but do not if this packaging has a hidden layer that will contaminate the recycling system. Having a bottle made from a special leak-proof paste is all well and good, but if you have to add a polypropylene cap, is it better than a standard pop bottle?
So, do we stay as we are?
No, it’s crazy. The world needs concrete changes and must drastically reduce its waste production while increasing its recycling. But more money needs to be invested in waste infrastructure before considering adding different plastic-like materials into the mix.
I don’t just blame the packaging companies for the waste we have now, nor do I blame them for rushing new products. I suggest they ask themselves these three key questions above. If not, how can people like my mom (who just wants to recycle properly not “wishcycle”) do the right thing?
Am I just passing the blame?
Not at all. Plastic is a very big contributor to ocean and environmental waste, and no matter where you live, you will encounter plastic waste just a few steps from your front door. But it’s not just plastic. Waste is the problem, but if we all get it right, waste is also the solution. Reduce, reuse, recycle. This increases circularity while also focusing on reducing the amount of waste sent to areas other than recycling. If a new product doesn’t fit all three, what’s the point?
Switching from a plastic bottle to a paper bottle may reduce plastic waste, but it will not reduce waste. You simply replace one material with another. People who litter will continue to litter, but these people are less and less likely to do so thanks to education and better ease of waste disposal. Those who recycle shouldn’t be punished and confused by those who don’t.
I still see the same amount of McDonald’s straws on the floor, they are now just cardboard straws instead of the plastic ones and they are still attached to the plastic lid of the drinks. But now if I collect and dispose of this waste, I have to separate the pasty part from the plastic part, otherwise it will just contaminate the waste stream.
Are organic paper, cardboard and bottles greenwashing?
No, they only greenwash if they are mismarketed. The product was probably created with the best intentions, paper and cardboard degrade faster than plastic, if the item is thrown away and not properly disposed of. The greenwashing of any product begins when claims are embellished and data is manipulated. Paper bottles will have a market, but they must be transparent about the materials they contain. They also need to be very clear if their product can be recycled.
The same goes for plastic bottles when referring to “recycled content” and “ocean-bound plastic”. Clarity is the only way to stop greenwashing.