Reduce, reuse, recycle. The three Rs: those words were drummed into our heads in primary school, we listened to the television ads singing those words to us. And yet, today, we’re still part of a throwaway society.
Disposable items rule all – be it nappies, food containers or, the greatest con of all, bottled water. Businesses know that as consumers we want everything easy, simplified and often "to go", but they know we want to assuage our guilt too. We know we're behaving destructively and we want to feel better about it. That's why so many companies are caught "green washing", making misleading claims about the environmental benefits of a product or service.
This week global fast food chain McDonald's was the recipient of unwanted headlines when it revealed that the cardboard straws brought in to replace the vilified plastic ones are actually non-recyclable. That's hardly surprising – they’re half-way to making compost by the time you’ve finishing your drink. But customers still think they're doing better, even though this kind of replacement isn't really ecologically helpful.
McDonald's isn’t the only business that's sending out mixed messages on plastic straws. Last year, Starbucks announced that it would remove straws from cold drinks. This new system actually created more plastic waste by weight than the original cup and straw combination – but it was a good public relations spin for the company.
Neither of these classic examples of green washing, however, tops the restaurant I visited in California which refused customers tap water because they specifically asked for it, because they wanted to reduce water usage. Somehow, I don’t think reducing drinking water is going to be leading the fight against climate change.
When it comes to straws, it is all green washing. In the UK, we use a massive 4.7 billion annually, but straws make up just 0.025 per cent of total plastic waste in the ocean. Straws are an easy target for companies to put a spin on; they're a wasteful plastic product that consumers are hyper aware they use once and then throw away. Businesses know they’ll get traction in the media if they "do something" about straws – and they will be seen as green.
But what if these organisations looked at the actual problem, rather than their reputation, first and found more radical ways of reducing their carbon footprint. The fast food industry isn't going to introduce plates and cutlery any time soon, but companies such as McDonald's can make their takeaway packaging compostable. What would be really radical would be finding ways to compost that waste on site.
Most of us have a compost bin now and t’s an easy solution to prevent waste going straight to landfill.
Also radical for big corporates (though it really shouldn’t) would be committing to use local resources first, ensuring a lower carbon footprint overall. Use local produce in restaurants, for example, and write menus with seasonal foods. Radical would be removing bottled water from the shelves.
For consumers of these outlets, radical would be introducing another R: refuse. We could refuse to give our money to outlets which insist on disposable plastics, even for sit in users. Radical would be putting our foot down and refusing to eat South American beef. That same beef is causing the Amazon rainforest to be cut down at ever faster rates – an increase of 20 per cent in the last year. These are things that us as consumers can do with our wallets, but businesses that claim to care about carbon footprint and climate change can do these things too.
We must force companies to halt green washing and bring in changes that use fewer of the planet’s dwindling resources – and do it as soon as is possible.
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