Eco friendly products debate
Have you thought about why greenwashing works? If it doesn’t work, no one will bother doing it. Producers can attract eco-conscious consumers, make a competitive advantage, and create a positive public image. Do you, as a consumer, find benefits in eco-friendly products? Changing to eco-friendly and sustainable products should give you cost saving in the long-term, better experience, and health benefits. The reality though many people stay with conventional non-environmentally friendly products with some claims about sustainability. Obviously, our experiences tell us that eco-friendly products are not good enough.
Using bamboo products, paper straws, and shampoo in refill pouches, they all sound good. But do they have real benefits for the environment, or do they do the job it is supposed to do? Greenwashing works because settling at a “sound good” solution is easy, while reviewing and improving all aspects of the product from start to finish takes a lot of effort for both producers and consumers.
What are eco-friendly products?
What can we call an eco-friendly product? Collins Dictionary says, “Eco-friendly products or services are less harmful to the environment than similar products or services.” Wikipedia says “Sustainable products are those that provide environmental, social, and economic benefits while protecting public health and environment over their whole life cycle, from the extraction of raw materials until the final disposal.”
There is no black-and-white answer about what sustainable materials and products are. We cannot conclude that a bamboo toothbrush is more sustainable and eco-friendlier than a plastic toothbrush without reviewing everything about the products. A plastic toothbrush may be made of Nylon 12, which is recyclable (not downcycled) up to 4 times. With all parts made of the same material, it dramatically increases the chance of it getting recycled. Bamboo toothbrushes could be less sustainable because the multiple materials make it harder to recycle. Bamboo is compostable, but nylon used for bristles is not. Consumers need to pull the nylon bristles out from the handle before adding a bamboo handle to a compost pile. Also, the demand for bamboo could cause deforestation, which we need to keep an eye on in the future.
There is no such good or bad material. Plastic is a good material and is one of the most useful materials. We need systems to use for long-term rather than single-use purposes. Bamboo itself is a very sustainable material. But when additional chemicals are used to produce products such as fabric and building materials, it may not be so eco-friendly. You need these chemicals because bamboo gets moldy, and the original texture of the fiber is tough. Any material can be sustainable and eco-friendly when it is used for the right purposes with supporting systems.
Common problems with eco-friendly products
When shopping for everyday household items, you may wonder “What are sustainable alternatives?” Have you made a permanent switch to eco-friendly products? If not, don’t worry because you are not alone. The real conversation about eco-friendly products is like these…
- Cardboard straws are useless. They melt in drinks after a few minutes. They prevent people from moving to no-straw or reusable straw solutions.
- Reusable water bottles need proper cleaning, washing with hot soapy water daily, and sanitizing every week. Otherwise, they can harbor germs 14 times more than a dog’s drinking bowl.
- Silicone pouches, an alternative to Ziploc bags, are mostly made from fossil fuels and leach synthetic chemicals at low levels. Especially if the food has high-fat contents, siloxanes (the chemical structure of silicones) get into the food. Siloxanes are endocrine and fertility disruptors.
- Solid bars for dishwashing are not practical. It takes time to get the detergent on a sponge, the bar becomes mushy on a soap dish, and the “eco-friendly” brush that comes with the bar just doesn’t reach the surface to clean well.
- Laundry detergent sheets don’t clean well. Their performance is lower than the worst-performing liquid/pods detergents. If I need to wash my laundry twice or use more sheets, it’s not sustainable or eco-friendly.
- I’ve stopped buying “environmentally friendly” toilet paper, paper towels, and tissues. They don’t do the job they were intended to do, and I have to use double the amount to get the job done. It is pointless.
- I’ve bought an electric kitchen composter because I thought I could reduce food waste because I don’t have space to compost in my apartment. The machine works, but I don’t have many plants to feed. So, I don’t know what to do with the “compost”. I just throw it in the trash because I’m not really sure what to do with it.”
Challenges of eco-friendly products
It is good to be eco-friendly, but affordable prices, ease of use, and quality are necessary for us to make a permanent switch. Achieving them all is not easy.
Affordable price – Let’s compare a bottled shampoo (900ml) and a shampoo bar (110g). Shampoo bars are waterless and concentrated. 110g of the solid bar is equivalent to 900 ml of the liquid version. The average price for a solid bar is $0.28 per wash compared to $0.21 per wash with liquid shampoo. Solid bars usually come in a paper box, while a liquid shampoo is in a plastic pump bottle. Why larger volume with a plastic pump bottle can be cheaper? There are a few reasons.
- Plastic is heavily subsidized all the way from oil exploration to plastic resin production. The cost to clean the pollution is paid by taxpayers.
- Technologies and production lines for liquid products and plastic bottles have been improved over 20 years and optimized to the best. Solid products are still in the development stage in terms of technologies for mass production. Therefore, the production process for solid bars requires more manual tasks done by humans, which is more expensive.
- Because a wide range of liquid products has already been created, research and development costs for liquid products are usually less than for solid products. There are many established facilities that are specialized to make liquid products available for small businesses as well.
Convenience – Even though the idea of reusable products makes sense, achieving real environmental benefits is not simple. Here are some examples showing how much effort you need to put in. Before spending money on these items, ask yourself if you can commit to it.
- You need to use a cotton bag at least 150 times to have less impact on the environment compared with single-use plastic bags. Remember to carry cotton bags when you go shopping.
- You need to refill a reusable shampoo bottle at least 50 times. Anything that contains water has a risk of growing germs. Whether a shampoo bottle or a drinking water bottle, you need to thoroughly wash and sanitize before refilling. You can change to different shampoos but never mix different batches or products.
- You need to use a reusable coffee cup at least 10 times. Remember to take your coffee cup to cafes.
- You need to use a stainless steel straw at least 150 times. Make sure to wash and sanitize inside out after you use it and carry it in your bag.
Quality – As discussed earlier, no matter how bamboo is sustainable, it is not a suitable material for items in wet areas. You can imagine soap dishes, bamboo oral care tools, and bath caddies will become moldy in a bathroom in weeks. You might have heard about the toxicity of Formaldehyde and other preservatives used in cosmetics and building materials. However, removing them for the sake of being “eco-friendly” causes a higher risk to our health and the quality of the products. For example, non-formaldehyde adhesive for building floors did nothing to inhibit mold growth. Removing chemical additives from the formula let bacteria grow and caused a terrible odor. Achieving long-term sustainability, safety, and performance together is challenging.
Solutions for single-use plastic
New technologies always excite us and give us hope to live sustainably without any changes. But finding new materials is not always the best solution.
What do you think of those alternatives to rigid plastic packaging:
- Cove has developed biodegradable plastic bottles with PHA (polyhydroxyalkanoates). This material is compostable in a natural environment. However, the price is 20 to 30% more than conventional plastic bottles.
- Paper Bottle – Except for a cap and cap liner, the bottle is made of bamboo and sugar cane pulps with an inner barrier. 98% of the bottle is naturally biodegradable. But there is a catch. The bottles need to be kept dry to maintain their shelf life of one year.
- UrthPact – Made of bio-based plastics. Bottles and caps are compostable only in an industrial composting facility. The problem is that consumers don’t have access to industrial composting facility services.
Alternatives for rigid plastic packaging are still a big challenge. Rigid plastic bottles are required because the content is liquid. With current technology, making the package compostable needs a compromise with moisture and bacteria to work. You will agree that conventional plastics are still the best materials to package liquid products. It is possible to keep your shampoo bottle for 2 years in a shower room because the bottle is made of plastic. Note that aluminum bottles have a plastic coating to prevent corrosion. Aluminum cannot be in wet areas without some help from plastic.
How about if we had a system to reuse plastic bottles forever? Make the plastic packages in a few standard sizes, shapes, and colors without printing. There are collection, cleaning, and redistribution systems to keep using them again and again. We think this is better than spending effort and time to develop new materials that still need composting or recycling. We should know how much materials we can compost in our residential homes.
We have plenty of alternatives for soft plastic. Soft plastics are for packing solid products such as fresh and dry food, powders, clothes, and small electronics. Solid products are easier to eliminate single-use plastic packaging with the minimum price difference.
Reusable water bottles hold more bacteria than toilet seat, study finds - https://www.news.com.au/lifestyle/health/reusable-water-bottles-hold-more-bacteria-than-toilet-seat-study-finds/news-story/54fccf860b79e28f61937582483db910
Silicone - https://lifewithoutplastic.com/silicone/
Do Laundry Detergent Sheets Work? - https://news.yahoo.com/laundry-detergent-sheets-153018055.html
Why Do Green Building Enclosures Fail and What Can Be Done about It? - https://web.ornl.gov/sci/buildings/conf-archive/2010%20B11%20papers/164_Desmarais.pdf
Effect of cyclic reprocessing on nylon 12 under injection molding - https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2589234720300257