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Renewable? Sustainable? Dissecting Green Buzzwords


Remember when Humpty Dumpty lectured Alice, “When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less”? With talk of climate change constantly in the news, marketing departments are increasingly getting in on that game. One in every six consumer products touts sustainability claims. So should you trust what is on the label? 

Some terms like “organic,” for farming practices, have been around long enough to have their own third-party certification programs. While not perfect, it’s at least a layer of scrutiny that is missing from newer buzzword claims.

One of those newer terms is “renewable.” The word invokes thoughts of clean energy and boundless resources. 

Reality check: “Renewable” only means a product has been sourced from something that cannot be depleted. Paper is often labeled renewable since trees and forests regrow and are replanted. But that doesn’t make products made from renewable resources automatically better than other products. 

Water cartons, for example, have been touted as a “renewable” alternative to plastic bottles. Alaska Airlines recently announced it would be getting rid of plastic water bottles and replacing them with boxed water. But there’s a catch.

The paper in cartons is renewable, but the cartons are not merely paper. After all, paper’s not waterproof. As any kid knows after taking a juice box apart, there are glued layers of plastic and aluminum needed to waterproof the product. 

Crucially, that means while the paper part of the carton is “renewable”, the cartons themselves are difficult to recycle. Cartons cannot be recycled in areas where 40% of the country lives. Carton production releases roughly the same amount of greenhouse gases as the production of a recycled plastic bottle. A carton is better off being incinerated, according to a study by the Danish Environmental Protection Agency. 

Does the “renewable” label mean the product is better for the environment? Not necessarily. 

The term “plant-based” isn’t just for food these days. Take cotton totes, for example. These totes have been touted as a plant-based alternative to single-use plastic bags. 

But a cotton tote takes a lot more material and energy to produce than a lightweight plastic bag. A report from the New York Times revealed that the plant-based cotton bags would need to be used thousands of times to break even with the environmental impacts of plastic. 

Plant-based meat is also marketed as an environmentally friendly alternative to real meat. But that isn’t true for many products. Plant-based “chicken” releases the same amount of emissions as real chicken production. (And “plant-based” doesn’t necessarily mean healthier, either — just look at the chemical ingredients in highly processed fake meat alternatives.)

“Biodegradable” is another evasive environmental term. The term merely means that a product will break down in nature over time. Biodegradable products are touted as alternatives to plastic that will decompose if littered. 

But it doesn’t mean the biodegrading will be fast. One study found that “biodegradable” bags that were left buried in the ground or adrift at sea for three years were still sturdy enough to carry several heavy books. Ultimately, it’s more practical to worry about whether something is littered than whether it’s “biodegradable.” 

According to a study from the University of Sao Paulo, misleading claims of biodegradability have become more frequent in product marketing. China, the world’s largest polluter, has taken note of this trend. China’s production of biodegradable products has grown sevenfold in recent years, according to a report by the BBC. 

Terms like renewable, plant-based, and biodegradable can mean a product is good for the environment, but it doesn’t guarantee that it is. Similarly, it is not always true that an alternative to a product deemed “bad” by environmentalists is always going to be better for the planet. Many of these alternatives carry unintended consequences that cause as much harm to the planet, if not more. 

The phrase “caveat emptor,” or buyer beware, has been around since the early 1600s. It’s still sage advice in 2021.

Will Coggin is the managing director of the Center for Accountability in Science.

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