Saturday 04 February 2023

Greenwashing our environmental policies

Pictured above: A real clean-up of the seabed organised by GreenPak

This article first appeared in Malta Today 

We’ve all heard of money-laundering allegations and the whitewashing of the truth. Now added to this, seems to be a new trend – greenwashing. This is when you try to make something out to be a positive environmentally-friendly initiative, only for it to turn out to be a lot of soap suds and not much else. It is usually an unsubstantiated or misleading claim about the environmental benefits of a product, service, technology or company practice.

For example, I am all for the organic waste initiative, the separation of waste and recycling, and despite a certain amount of flaws in the way it was rolled out on a national scale, the intention behind it is praiseworthy. We all need to be more aware of how much garbage we generate, and nothing drives this point home more than when you separate waste. More and more people are trying to cut down on the amount of unnecessary plastic they use and trying not to waste so much food which ends up being thrown away. However, I recently learned that this initiative was not made compulsory for those who generate the most waste of all: restaurants, supermarkets and industry in general.

As pointed out by AD Secretary General Ralph Cassar in a recent comment: “The big loophole in the scheme: bars, restaurants, hotels, food businesses are not obliged by law to separate their waste. Tonnes of food waste thrown away. Thousands of bottles, cans etc. (are) thrown away as mixed waste.”

This information completely floored me, for if domestic households are now subject to fines, then surely this should apply to everyone across the board? As a case in point, I read about an elderly woman who put her grey recycling bag on a street corner where other recycling bags had been gathered by the rubbish collectors so that they could be collected at one go and a lurking warden immediately fined her a hefty 150 Euro. Presumably, it was because she had not left it outside her own front door. However, such a fine is outrageous when one considers that she really had done nothing wrong; after all, she had taken out her grey bag on the correct day. But I suppose it is easier for wardens to pick on someone like this woman rather than some burly, aggressive man who dumps foul-smelling rubbish next to the bring in sites. The ones in my area of Mosta are regularly turned into mini-Magħtabs as all sorts of waste is hurled near them, and the culprits are mysteriously never caught, even though I bet if I had to spend a day there sitting in my car I would fine plenty of people quite easily.

Meanwhile, all of the efforts being made by us common citizens to diligently separate our waste is just a drop in the ocean in comparison, if business concerns are still not being obliged to do it (and human nature being what it is, unless they are forced to do so, few of them will take the initiative). Just think how much food is thrown away by hotels for example, and you can begin to appreciate how senseless it is to apply this scheme to households but not to industry.

The fruit and veg scheme distributed in schools is another issue: it looked great on paper, but in actual fact, it is only contributing to more plastic waste, and probably more food waste as well. Funded by the EU this scheme costs 350,000 Euro and one million cups are being distributed according to the Government website. “Don’t waste waste!” those commercials incessantly admonish us and yet I bet so many kids are just not eating those pieces of sorry-looking cut up fruit which are being unnecessarily distributed in plastic. After all, bananas and apples could just be handed out to children as nature intended. And since schools are not obliged to separate waste, it all goes into the black bag as mixed waste, and into our landfill.

The most classic example of greenwashing however is the very questionable White Flag which purports to award beaches which are completely plastic free. iGaming companies have been roped into this initiative to the tune of 25k each which effectively means that any company willing to fork out this amount can ‘sponsor’ a White Flag. The indefatigable Cami Appelgren, who leads the way in organizing clean-ups and reducing waste in our country, has raised legitimate concerns about White Flag International, the Croatian organization which is busy giving these ‘White flags’ to various Maltese beaches. Pointing out that clean-ups usually welcome extensive press coverage, in these cases, “there were no prior announcements of impending clean-ups or documentation to prove they even visited the beaches in the first place”. Most of all, declaring any beach completely plastic free is next to impossible because the currents will always wash up plastic from the sea, and if anyone knows this it is Ms Appelgren.

As she explains it, “The fact no Gaming company ever even questioned this organization, or tried to verify it, but simply handed over 25k (maybe because it ticks the good corporate social responsibility box) is suspicious in itself. Buying a certification for a plastic-free beach is the epitome of greenwashing.“

As reported by the Times on Wednesday, “Dr Herrera said he had attended repeated White Flag ceremonies and events in recent months, and he had become “obsessed” with the idea of clearing plastic from beaches. But no funds were disbursed from his ministry to White Flag International. He did not comment on whether any other ministries or government departments had handed over public funds to the organisation. Asked whether he had done any due diligence on the organisation prior to endorsing the clean-up project, Dr Herrera said he had not, but added that, in his defence, he would endorse anyone who wanted to clear plastic away from the island’s beaches.”

In fact, it has now been reported that the Gozo Ministry did indeed fork out funds for White Flags on Gozo beaches.

Meanwhile White Flag International is claiming that they will be taking legal action against Cami Appelgren and the Shift (which published the initial story) for their allegations. The courtroom might be just the right place to get to the bottom of all this and prove whether this is all a greenwash scam, why public funds are being used and if so, to determine exactly who is conning whom. Or to cut to the chase, the Government could just admit that in its eagerness to greenwash its environmental policies, it was taken for a ride.

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