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Confession: I am an internal pessimist striving to be an optimist.

I am always on the lookout for how I am being duped – greenwashed — in the environmental field.

Everywhere I go, I look at trash/recycling/compost bins – heck, half of the photos on my phone are of them—and what kind of service ware businesses are using for packaging to gauge how much they care about their impact.

I now cringe every time I “have” to buy something covered in plastic, get annoyed when I see cucumbers individually wrapped in plastic, and stop myself from buying that loose bulky item if there are no compostable bag options and I forgot my reusable bag. I know where that plastic goes and it is not pretty.

And so, as you can imagine, it is hard for me (and many others) not to be a cynic in this line of work. We’ve all seen the reports – microplastics in the water/air/food we eat; hurricane off the coast of Portugal for the first time in recorded history; whales dying with car engines inside them.

And so I keep this quote close to my heart and head: “Unless someone like you cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It’s not”—The Lorax

Thank you, Dr. Seuss.

And it is true – unless we start caring, arming ourselves with knowledge, and making and demanding changes. nothing will change.

When consumers demand change, businesses change.

This age of data and technology has allowed for a wider dissemination of basic understanding of what impacts our everyday choices and purchases have on the greater environment – from pesticides, to plastic consumption, to fair wages – and people want to be “greener.” A wave of activism is on the rise. Millennials are cited as more likely to buy eco-friendly/environmentally conscious items even when the price is higher and businesses have come to recognize that.

Enter stage left: Greenwashing.

Greenwashing. I loathe it. And it happens everywhere – I have even fallen victim to it. How can we make the right choices when companies are purposely (and sometimes not) trying to dupe us?

What is greenwashing? It is when a company sells their product or themselves as green/eco-friendly/environmentally conscious and the product or their everyday actions are not. Or when they use confusion and misunderstanding to their advantage.

Large-scale example:

1. The recycling “symbol” on film/flexible/soft plastic (plastic bags, Saran wrap, shipping materials).

Companies know most people associate that symbol to mean “recyclable” – but in reality, it only indicates the type of plastic/resin the item is made out of. But for companies, labeling it with that symbol gives them a greener edge (sometimes purposely, sometimes naively), making consumers believe they’re being greener than they are.

In reality, corporations are causing major issues for recycling facilities down the road. If they just put the resin code number without the recycling symbol around it, it would serve the same technical purpose but not confuse the average customer. But when you choose the path of greenwashing, customer confusion is your friend and ally.

2. The words ‘biodegradable,’ ‘bio-based’ or ‘sustainably made’ on utensils/cups/service ware:

When a product is marked with biodegradable/bio-based/sustainably made it means nothing, it could take 30 days or 5,000 years to decompose. It does not mean it is compostable. Your shoes are biodegradable, if that is the case. Don’t be bamboozled/greenwashed. Always look for compostable.

Small examples (without specific location names to avoid public embarrassment and potential lawsuits!):

- A popular coffee or food place that uses all compostable service ware but does not have a compost collection container. This means all of it ends up mixed into the compost, recycling, and trash in both the kitchen area and customer area and therefore ends up in the landfill.

- Another location that offers only recycling or compost containers in their eating area, but also gives out landfill/trash-bound items, has poor signage (or none at all) and it all gets mixed together so ends up as trash.

My list can go on for days, months, years.

So how can you arm yourself?

1. If buying “green” service ware, always look for the word “compostable” on the item – it has a true legal meaning in the state of California and is usually on the bottom, side, or back of the product.

2. Ask your favorite places if they compost or recycle. Consumers make amazing changes (especially if they demand the truth).

3. Look for certifications – BPI Certified, B Corp Certified, the little bunny rabbit and remember to check if the certification actually means something.

And I know I am supposed to be impartial in all of this, but here is a local place to check out if you want to see the opposite of greenwashing: Ben & Jerry’s on Main Street. For years now, the previous owner, Roger Bubel, has gone out of his way to use only compostable or recyclable materials – and provides ample passive education on what goes where.

Got a question about a specific item? Send it my way at kbruno@cityofnapa.org.

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This monthly column is written by Kendra Bruno, aka Compost Girl, who is the waste prevention specialist for the city of Napa. To submit questions, email kbruno@cityofnapa.org.

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