Greenwashing & Facts

What is Greenwashing?

Greenwashing is a global issue. It's a saying for the mismatch between what companies say they do to lower their climate footprint and what they do. If statement and action do not match then this is called greenwashing. As such, greenwashing is the act of misleading consumers into thinking a product or company is “green” or “eco-friendly – more than they actually are. It can be double counting CO2 emission reductions or branding a product as totally green and it may only be partly green. As such, the act of greenwashing makes it hard for the average consumer to see through the mirage of deceptive claims and thus making it difficult to make genuinely eco-friendly choices.

Below some facts to highlight and explain some of the perspectives behind and to better navigate the green aspects.

Fact 1

Upcycling vs. Recycling

To understand the difference between upcycling and recycling some terms are defined below. In essence, the difference between upcycling and recycling is that in upcycling additional, new (virgin), material or additives are mixed into the recycled material to enhance the appearance or mechanical properties. Hence an upcycled material is a recycled material with something added to it - where that "something" is not recycled content.

Plastic Recycling

Post Industrial Recycling

Plastic (waste) that is reused from production – e.g. plastic from the production scrap bin. It is plastic that has not been out to the consumers. 

Post industrial plastic material example

Example of post-industrial material sample with 50% recycled content

Post Consumer Recycling

Plastic that is reused after it has been at the consumer – typically collected from return systems. It is cleaned and/or sorted by specialized industrial companies. The CO2 footprint from this source is typically higher than post-industrial recycling as the supply chain is longer (more transport) and cleaning/sorting steps are included (which typically includes hot water which is energy heavy).

Post consumer plastic part material sample

Example of post-consumer material sample with minimum 50% recycled content. 20% talc filler added + UV-stabilized

Bio-based Plastics

Bio-based Non-biodegradable

Bio-based plastics are plastics that are made from renewable biological resources e.g. sugar cane, corn, or other leftovers from agriculture. Non-biodegradable means that the plastic will not automatically degrade in nature. This is good if you want to recycle the material – it is bad if you leave it the nature. The energy consumption to make the bio-based material can be higher than a fossil-based production.

Bio based material sample

Example of bio-based material sample with 45% bio-based content

Bio-based & biodegradable

Based on renewable processes and can be degraded in nature. it is difficult to reuse these types of plastics as they degrade with time. These types of plastics are often seen as pollution in recycling processes as their mechanical properties change over time and influence the need for constant material quality.

Fossil-based & biodegradable

Fossil-based and biodegradable production represent plastics that are produced by fossil-based production methods but are biodegradable – meaning that the plastics in a given environment will be degraded by microorganisms.

See more about bio-based plastic definitions here.

In RD8 Robust Engineering System (RES) and RD8 Index, we redefine robust design, by covering 8 crucial disciplines of mechanical design – while keeping the design process and outcome as simple and structured as possible.

Plastic Upcycling

Mechanical properties of recycled plastics are lower than commercial virgin materials since recycled plastics are a mix of different materials due to sorting and cleaning processes. To compensate for this and be able to use the recycled plastics as technical plastics, additives such as UV-stabilizers, flammability-stabilizers, glass fibres, etc. are added to get the desired mechanical properties – thus the amount of recycle-percentage decreases.

Challenge

By adding additives the density increases yet the plastic will not float. This makes the plastic harder to recycle in recycle facilities. This also means that if it ends at sea, it will sink and end at the bottom. Which can be a disqualifier for sustainable material selection.

format_paint
Colors

For recycled materials - it is hard to control the color of the incoming material - hence it is hard to reach 100% recycling if requirements to color is stated in the product requirements. To reach 100% often product requirement have to be challenged. Typically the color of the final blend is black - BLACK IS THE NEW GREEN. Thus, a few suppliers can deliver in some colors. It can be done.

not_interested
Smell

There can be a scent of the recycled materials depending on the recycling source.

Fact 2

Recycling vs. Biodegradeble

The difference between recycled and biodegradable materials is that biodegradable materials are hard to recycle as they are designed to degrade very fast in a given environment.

The Paper (Biodegrade) Straw vs. the Plastic (Recyclable) Straw

The Biodegradable Straw

The biodegradable straw – in this example a paper straw – can be left in nature and it will degrade over time.

Because the straw degrades very fast it cannot be used for recycling purposes. Thus the material is “lost”. The energy that has been used for the creation of the straw is lost. 

The Recycled Straw

The recycled straw – in this example a plastic straw – cannot be left in nature because it will not degrade over time (compared to the lifespan of a person). If left in nature it will take many years to degrade and there is a risk that the plastic straw will end up in the belly of a turtle or a fish.

In another scenario the straw ends in a recycling eco-system where it can be used for recycling purposes. Hence the material is not lost and the energy and CO2 emissions that went into creating the material can be reused to minimize the CO2 footprint of the second use of the material.

Fact 3

Examples of greenwashing

...a little too smart

An example of Greenwashing or where at least where it is very hard for the common man to judge what is true – a story from the Danish’s municipalities…

The commune of Copenhagen owns Hofor (a danish energy company) which owns 22 windmills that are located in Lolland (app. 150 km from Copenhagen). 

The issue is that both the commune of Copenhagen and the commune of Lolland (where the windmills are located) includes the CO2 reductions from the windmills in the CO2 accounting – hence double counting. 

Placement of Copenhagen, Denmark

Placement of Lolland, Denmark

The CO2 reduction can of course only be counted once. It harvest the energy one place – not at both places.

Read more about story in detail here: 

Fact 4

Greenwashing makes products attractive

The first real green steps are hard

Companies are proud to show their efforts and want to get the most out of them. It is not easy to go 100% green for technical products in first take. This is sometime interpreted as greenwashing as headlines can be a bit misleading.

In this case, Microsoft launches and promotes a new “Ocean Plastic Mouse” which is “a whole level beyond” – and they explain how much effort they have put into this first iteration of green design. But as you see in the comment below from LinkedIn – not all customers / potential customers are satisfied when they read the details in the fine print. The mouse shell is “made of 20 percent recycled ocean plastic and the packaging is 100 percent recyclable”. The consumers probably expect a higher degree of recycling based on the name of the product.

Read more further down about the challenges to reach 100% and click the link to recall the upcycling aspect.
Fact 5

How the companies manipulate the CO2 emission reduction

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Framework

A lot of companies are reviewing their sustainability efforts and work with baselining of their current or past emissions. The framework that is widely used to account for CO2 emissions is the Greenhouse Gas Protocol (GHGP) – see more at https://ghgprotocol.org

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol dictates 3 scopes in which different types of emissions are divided into – read more about them here.

Scope 3 = Complex

Scope 1 and 2 are less extensive than Scope 3 and sometimes not all of Scope 3 emissions are included in sustainability reports as these parts have not been covered yet – thus these can be a huge part of the company’s carbon footprint. Many of Scope 3’s contributions require extensive qualification and lifecycle analysis for the products – which can be complex – and in some cases, it is out of the production companies reach.

For example, Scope 3 includes “end of life” and “use of sold product” aspects which in some reports are not yet included and thus the given sustainability report may only tell half the story or not all of the story.

Science-Based Targets

To add transparency many ambitious companies commit to the “science-based targets” framework and commit to CO2 emissions to comply with the 2015 Paris Agreement.

The site offers a nice feature where you can look up companies and their committed efforts.

Fact 6

The Greenhouse Gas Protocol Scopes and CO2 Emissions Efforts

For product production companies; in most cases, scope 3 is by far the biggest source of greenhouse gas emissions. We have picked 12 product production companies from different industries and compared the shares of greenhouse gas emissions. Scope 2 and 3 account for more than 95% on average.

In many cases, the low hanging fruits are to reduce scope 1 (company facilities CO2 emissions and company vehicles CO2 emissions) and scope 2 (purchased electricity, steam, heating & cooling for own use related CO2 emissions) which account for very few percentages and is often solved by purchasing of energy from renewable sources, optimization of company facilities and use of CO2 friendly vehicles.

This can for many companies create nice headlines which are true, but do not solve the primary source of CO2 emissions that are originating from Scope 3; the use and production of the actual product that the company makes.

In the example to the left the company is switching to 100% renewable energy sources which are great – but this only covers 3% of the company’s CO2 emissions. 

Fact 8

Why do companies greenwash there products?

Screenshot from LinkedIn – from the comment section of the eco-friendly mouse post mentioned above. Explains some challenges with return programs for PCBs and electronic components.

Why does greenwashing exist? Hopefully because companies want to perform better than they are – and have a hard time catching up with the promises. 

On the other hand it is very difficult to reduce many of the Scope 3 emissions due to various challenges.

3 examples:

  1. Sourcing: work with new suppliers, ensure availability and supply of materials
  2. Working with green materials can create technical challenges:
    • inconsistent behavior of materials
    • batch to batch variation of materials
    • materials with weaker mechanical properties
    • issues with certifications and regulations
  3. Eco-systems for recycling or end-of-life upcycling have to be set up

To the left; an example of circularity challenges.

A perspective for how to ease the effort for CO2 emissions reductions:

  1. Reduce product complexity to state less requirements to part manufacturing and assembly.
  2. Reduce component requirements to enable use of green materials
  3. Setup guidelines for “design for sustainability” in product development. Ensure easy and non-destructive disassembly of products to separate or upcycle parts/modules.

Robust design is an engineering tool that support these activities.

Fact 7

Example of a CO2 reduction lever

Aluminum is a commodity and can be purchased in primary (virgin) and secondary (recycled) ingot. 

The mechanical properties are almost the same.

The cost is almost the same.

The CO2 footprint is very different! Depending on supply chain details – the estimated difference in CO2 footprint is around 90 percent. Read more here.

Aluminum: Recycling Facts

Primary vs. Recycled Aluminum

Typically there is no difference in mechanical properties or expected tolerances in primary (“virgin”) vs. recycled aluminum. 

Thus some alloys cannot be made “the recycled way” from “post-consumer recycling“. “Post-industrial recycling” is easier as the alloy composition is known and can be reused.

If appearance is important – note that despite that the mechanical properties are the same – anodizing can vary from product-product when using recycled alternatives.  

Alloy Types

Recycled alternatives are a mix of scrap/recycling types which in most cases are difficult to separate and extract into exact alloy compositions/chemical compositions. 

This typically limits the production of the cleanest types of alloys with extremely low content of Fe, Cr, Zn, Cu, and various trace elements.

Price

Making recycled aluminum requires only a fraction of the energy of making a primary ingot thus recycled aluminum is typically slightly more expensive than primary ingot due to the cost of the separation and recycling system.



Links

Check out more at:

  • Hydro.com – link to Hydro’s recycled materials
  • Alumeco.com – link to Alumencos recycled materials. Note that they offer both recycled options and primary ingot made by green/renewable energy sources.

Get inspiration for more CO2 reduction levers by design

Fact 9

Design for 100% recycling of plastic components

At 100% recycling of plastics the end blend is depending on the incoming, recycled, content. This results in that there will be a variation from batch to batch of mechanical properties, e.g.:

  • Stiffness
  • Yield strength
  • Tensile strength
  • MFI (Melt Flow Index)

The mechanical engineer would face challenges in the design – as the designer would need to design for the lowest expected boundary.

The injection moulder would experience that the machine cannot run with the same settings from batch-to-batch.

Get in touch with us

Our headquarter is located in the center of Copenhagen, Denmark.

Male hand underlining hand drawn contact and communication icons on yellow background. With copy space.