Plastic Neutral: Greenwashing or Actual Waste Solution?

Plastic Neutral: Greenwashing or Actual Waste Solution?
Listen to the audio of this post here:
This post first appeared in our weekly Make Waves Mondays email series on February 20, 2023.

Hello, friend
! Imma keep this week's post short, sweet, and to the point (at least more so than my usual long and twisty blog posts 😅).

This week I wanna tackle something that’s been really bugging me in the zero waste space for a long time now, yet that I’ve never actually covered in a post. I mentioned it in our 22 Sustainability Buzzwords You Need to Know email, but it was way too surface-level for my liking.

And that topic, my friend, is the term Plastic Neutral.

What is “Plastic Neutral”?

If you aren't already familiar with the term, "plastic neutral" basically means that a company that packages their products in plastic is paying another organization to clean up the same amount of plastic they're producing somewhere else in the world.

You’ve likely heard this term from the company Grove Collaborative.

And when you first hear that it's like, "Yeah okay that's great! There’s so much plastic in the ocean! We need to clean up our oceans and I am so on board with this solution."

But then you pause and you hear these brands bragging about how they're plastic neutral…

Which means they've cleaned up 10 million pounds of plastic...

And you begin to realize...



That means this brand has produced 10 million pounds of plastic...or, looked at another way, produced 485 million plastic bottles.

Let me say that again.

💥 If a company brags that they've collected 10 million pounds of plastic because they're plastic neutral - that means they have produced 10 million pounds of plastic since going plastic neutral.

And, yeah, sure, maybe some of these brands have goals to use less plastic or be plastic-free or use recycled plastics instead, but it's 20-freaking-23.

Where’s the “yes, and…” of it all?

Where are the big brands not using any plastic in their products AND still contributing to these programs?

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop: Yes, and... gif

What’s wrong with “Plastic Neutral” products and companies?

Let's take Nestle, for example. Ahh, good ‘ol Nestle.

Here’s the dealio with Nestle:

Apparently Nestle is a plastic neutral company, but they're also consistently the third-most plastic polluting company in the world.

All this "plastic neutral" certification is doing is keeping the status quo.

It’s a PRIME example of greenwashing.

It's giving plastic-producing companies a way to brag about the "good" they're doing, when in reality it's pushing the responsibility onto people and organizations on the other side of the world and quite literally not changing a thing

That is the definition of "neutral" after all - not helping or supporting either side.

What can we do instead of “Plastic Neutral”?

I mean, you gotta wonder...if these companies invested in: 

👉 taking back their packaging for reuse, 
👉 advocating for better recycling infrastructure, 
👉 or switching to packaging that's actually closed-loop recyclable...

where would we be instead? 

And then, what if they KEPT investing in these cleanup efforts while STILL eliminating their own plastic footprint?

What if we said, “yes, and…”?

I'm not saying we need to be perfect overnight.

But I AM saying that a big company bragging about being "plastic neutral" is hardly anything more than greenwashing.

How is “Plastic Neutral” different from our “Carbon Negative Shipping” claim?

A couple weeks ago, I shared these thoughts on “plastic neutral” as a greenwashing scam on Instagram, and I got a GREAT message in response.

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop, Plastic Neutral Instagram comment

This message is SO valid and I was actually hoping someone would ask this. Because we need to hold all businesses - including small businesses - accountable.

And asking these questions will immediately separate the true EcoWarrior companies from the greenwashing ones.

Because companies that are actually doing things right and have truly sustainable business practices will want to shout that sh*t from the rooftops.

So when I got this question, I was buzzing with excitement. Because that meant I got to BRAG about all of the really cool sh*t we do around here

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop, Schitts Creek gif

You’ll recall that one of the questions I asked above was what if companies actually made these changes we really need AND kept investing in plastic cleanup efforts

Those are the companies I want to support.

So when it comes to my own business, A Drop in the Ocean, that's the mentality I keep. 

It's impossible to do anything without having some sort of carbon footprint, but there are ways we can minimize it.

For example, we take back all of our containers and packaging to be reused, which eliminates emissions from creating new bottles and jars with every order.

Shipping Orders via USPS

We also ship all of our packages via USPS, since here in the United States, USPS is already delivering to every home every day. By shipping our packages with them, we're not adding any additional emissions with our shipments.

I don't even have to drive to the post office to drop off our packages, because I schedule pickups ahead of time with USPS so they're just picked up on my mail carrier's regular route.

No extra emissions there, either.

Tacoma-Local Zero Waste Delivery

We also offer local zero waste deliveries here in Tacoma, Washington, which I do myself, and have intentionally designed to keep as low impact as possible:

✨ We keep a tight radius on our delivery zone so I’m not driving far for one delivery.
✨ We only do deliveries once a week to get the most out of my time on the road.
✨ We have an order minimum for delivery to ensure I’m not driving 10+ miles just to deliver one bar of soap.
✨ I do any personal errands I need to on delivery days (again, to get the most out of my time on the road).

Local Product Sourcing

Most of our products are sourced from small, local, businesses, too. 

30% of our products are sourced right here in Tacoma, and another 20% are sourced within a few hours of us. 

This means I can pick up these products myself, while I’m running other errands, and also exchange empty containers to be reused and refilled (making our products totally zero waste on our end, too - not just zero waste for you).

Carbon Offsetting of All Mileage

So then any time I drive anywhere for this shop, I track my mileage so that at the end of the year I can offset the emissions from those miles

Carbon offsets aren’t perfect, but when we’re already doing everything we can to limit our emissions (and only then), they’re a great step in the right direction.

Built-In Carbon Offsetting

Further, when you make a purchase on our site using Shop Pay as your payment method, our website host, Shopify, automatically offsets the emissions associated with your order. 

So even though your order is being shipped through USPS with essentially no new emissions or delivered by me as efficiently as possible, there’s still offsetting happening on top of that.

A Drop in the Ocean Sustainable Living Zero Waste Shop, Tree hugging gif

We Plant 1 Tree for Every Item Purchased

And then - on top of all of that - for every item purchased at A Drop in the Ocean, we also plant one tree, which over its lifetime will offset about 48 pounds of carbon dioxide. 

It’s not a ton, but since we opened our virtual doors in 2019, we’ve planted over 64,000 trees, which I’m really freaking proud of.

All of our tree planting and carbon offsets are done through an organization called Trees for the Future, which I’m proud to support. 

Their work is based in sub-Saharan Africa, and they work closely with local community members to plant “forest gardens,” which are not only regenerating the landscape, but also providing an income for the community members through the fruits that grow on the trees or in the sustainable sale of lumber. 

On average, participating community members see an annual income increase of about 400% - on top of all the ecological benefits of planting the trees.

The Difference between “Carbon Neutral” and “Plastic Neutral”

So, friend, all of this is to say, “carbon neutral” and “carbon negative” can absolutely be on par with “plastic neutral” as a greenwashing tactic. 

That’s why it’s so important to stay vigilant and ask these questions and look a little deeper to understand what the company is actually doing to limit their footprint, rather than just paying for an “offset” and calling it a day.

Final Thoughts on “Plastic Neutral”

Ocean pollution is a problem. 
Plastic pollution is a problem.
And we need companies to innovate and find new ways to truly help these problems.

But “plastic neutral” ain’t it.

It’s 2023. We been knowin’ plastic is a problem for decades now.

And we keep creating these new “eco” certifications and services that are letting these massive, polluting corporations off the hook without actually making any real change.

And I’m feeling pretty darn over it.

What do you think, friend? Drop a comment below and share your thoughts on 'plastic neutral' as a waste solution 👇

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