Is it possible for plastic to be “green,” and if so, just what does that term mean?
Well, there are whole industries out there working on this, and there are certainly plastics being marketed as green.
(Image: Just how green is this stuff? That depends on what "green" means. Credit: EPA.)
But as a definitive term for plastic products, “green” is pretty useless.
In the words of Lewis Carroll, (through his character Humpty Dumpty), the term “means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less.”
In its broadest definition, green is meant to refer to plastic that is in some way easier on the environment than other kinds of plastic.
Several broad categories of “green” come to mind.
One is plastics that are recyclable—reformulable into new products. Some plastic products are made of mixes of products that cannot later be broken down and put into molds to form new consumer items. But realistically, in most communities, many kinds of even the technically recyclable plastics are not accepted for recycling—so simply having the recycling symbol is meaningless.
The Daily Green has a nice rundown on plastic recycling symbols and what they mean here.
A second green category would be plastic products actually made from recycled plastic.
Still another “green category” is those plastics not made from petroleum products at all, like corn-based plastics. Some folks call these bioplastics, and argue that their net addition of carbon dioxide to the environment is dramatically lower than that of oil-based plastic. Largely, that's because the plants from which the product is derived suck up carbon dioxide while they grow, while petroleum products simply take stored carbon out of the ground and dump some of them into the atmosphere.
Fourth, there are “biodegradable” plastics. We put quotes around the word, because some require quite specialized conditions before they biodegrade. This blog discussed that issue earlier. http://raisingislands.blogspot.com/2008/09/compostable-plastic-challenge-to.html
Some companies are trying to hit as many of these “green” buttons as possible. An example is the Biogreen Bottle, which claims to be “biodegradable, recyclable, reusable and made from recyclable material.” You can drill down through the various claims at the website, http://www.biogreenbottles.com/.
Our worry, given the results of our corn-based “biodegradable” plastic experiment, is that it's hard to test the Biogreen claims, which say they require one to five years of deep landfill microbial action for full conversion of the plastic into humus and methane.
All in all, with plastics, a consumer needs to be alert, wary and pretty well educated to make sense of all the claims.
And when you're reaching into a plastic shopping bag, cutting open a box sealed with plastic tape, ripping through a plastic clamshell container to get at your plastic product inside, you might need to wonder just what in heck you're doing.
©2009 Jan TenBruggencate