Rethinking Sustainability Buzzwords

And finally, as we move past Earth Day 2021, how about a rethink around sustainability buzzwords?

Conde Nast beauty industry media outlet Allure is pledging to change the labels it uses around plastic packaging and sustainability.

For example, it says it will no longer call any plastic “recyclable,” since it says that only 9 percent of plastic manufactured has ever been recycled.

Of course, you could point out that there are plastics like PET bottles that are readily recycled back into polyester fabrics in the fashion and beauty industries, the supply chains are strong in that part of the plastics sector and Allure should factor that into its thinking.

On the flip side, though, and here’s a fact in line with Allure‘s thinking: We do only collect about 30 percent of the PET bottles in the U.S. for recycling. That’s pretty much the best (grading on a curve) success story we’ve got around plastics packaging recycling in this country.

Allure also says it will limit the use of terms like earth-friendly, eco-friendly and biodegradable. The magazine said it was concerned that too many sustainability pledges don’t mean very much and that “sometimes they make us feel like we’re taking more dramatic action than we are.”

The Allure example is only a small piece of the language debate around plastics and the environment but we’ll see more of it.

I was reminded of this yesterday watching an online recycling panel discussion and heard again frustration from local governments around labeling of products for recycling, the resin identification code, how consumers are very confused and as a result, too much bad material goes into recycling bins.

And while we’re on the subject of environmental language, consider the phrase “advanced recycling.”

It refers to all the technologies to recycle plastic using chemicals or molecular processes, things that go beyond the traditional washing, grinding and pelletizing processes we call mechanical recycling.

But saying one group of technologies is “advanced” implies to me that others are not. The first antonym I find for advanced is primitive, and I don’t think that’s the right message to imply about mechanical recycling. Any suggestions on a term for those recycling processes that’s less value-laden than “advanced”?