Separating Greentech from Greenwashing: An Analysis of Industry-Scale Green Language Manipulation in Bioplastic Marketing

Towler, Hannah, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Foley, Rider, University of Virginia
Kester, Mark, MD-PHAR Pharmacology, University of Virginia

Bioplastics have been hailed as the solution to our global plastic pollution crisis by relying on renewable resources instead of finite petroleum reserves to sustainably generate plastics. Our capstone project aims to increase the yield efficiency of our company sponsor’s bioplastic-producing bacteria by selectively knocking out genes that divert resources away from bioplastic production. While the concept of bioplastics may seem technically sound, the technology raises a number of complex obstacles for both consumers and supply chains. The main points of contention revolve around our over-consumerist culture, a linear buy-use-dispose economy, the absence or mismanagement of recycling/ composting facilities, and the lack of standardized advertising language for sustainable plastics. In truth, the urgency to transition from petroleum-based plastics would not be nearly as pressing if not for our manic consumption of plastics followed by their immediate disposal in landfills. Much of the conversation around emerging sustainable technologies is not contextualized as a part of broader deliberative approaches in restructuring our culture’s over-reliance on plastics. The constructive sustainability assessment (CSA) evaluates emerging technologies’ claims to sustainability and facilitates a practical framework between the interests of engineers and policymakers that have sustainability as an implicit or explicit motivator. Application of the CSA framework to leading bioplastic companies will determine the potential sustainable implications of their technology using methods such as anticipatory life-cycle assessment. The widespread operationalisation of these bioplastic giants can be best understood using document analysis of their mission statements, press releases, and interviews with the companies’ CEO. While there may be evidence of partnership between recycling/composting facilities coupled to these bioplastic manufacturers, it is much more unlikely that these organizations are attempting to fundamentally shift plastic over-consumerism. For this reason, document analysis will be extended to searching for bioplastic manufacturer ties with policymakers to mitigate our over-reliance on plastics. This research aims to elucidate the transdisciplinary nature of our sustainability crisis in that the basis of our plastic crisis is tied to the absence of a circular economy that emphasizes products in circulation for as long as possible.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Bioplastic, Greenwashing
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