Is there a miseducation around sustainability?

May 17, 2024

Sustainability has become deeply ingrained in the public consciousness as more and more people and businesses strive to be more environmentally friendly with their practices. In fact, research commissioned by Elopak and done by Absolute Market Research found that 75% of consumers consider companies’ environmental processes the most important when shopping with them.

Many companies are also making a greater effort to change to more sustainable processes internally, either due to their own eco-friendly goals or regulations set by the government. But with these fast motions to be more sustainable, how much of our understanding has been marred by misinformation?

Scott Hawthorne, Founding Director from Skips & Bins, leading suppliers of 240L wheelie bins in the UK, has offered some insight into the misconceptions around sustainability that have made their way into becoming common beliefs.

Recycling – are you sure you can?
Sustainability and eco-friendly practices are most associated with recycling. It’s something that individuals and businesses alike are concerned with, especially around packaging, common plastic items, and caution as to which can be recycled. This has become especially true with items sealed with plastic film or bottles with attached caps.

Hawthorne comments that this is a common misunderstanding of the composition of the materials in both packaging elements: “Many packages might be made up of materials that could be recyclable while other parts aren’t, making recycling more difficult in the sorting process. For example, plastic bottle bodies might be recyclable while their caps aren’t. This can even be a problem due to cap size, as they may not be picked up at recycling facilities and can find their way back into the environment as a pollutant.”

This is an issue that companies manufacturing these bottles could address, specifically by designing bottles where the caps are made from the same materials for easier recycling once they reach the plants. This extends to food packaging, often sealed with film, which often can’t be recycled due to the film’s material.

Sustainable products aren’t more costly
The cost of products is a vital conversation given the cost-of-living crisis and inflation concerns. This is where another misconception arises around sustainability, which is that more eco-friendly alternative products are more costly. While this can be true for some products, it’s not a hard and fast ruling in costings.

Demand for sustainable products in the UK has increased as time has passed, with the Statista Global Consumer Survey from 2023 finding that 33% of consumers would be willing to buy more eco-friendly products. As this demand increases, more manufacturers will likely be able to produce more products to meet said demands and offer competitive prices, which will scale with their availability.

Not only does it move away from the idea that you can only be sustainable on a generous budget, but it indicates that sustainability is not solely centred on recycling. Every stop on the product’s life cycle from production to disposal is important, including the energy and materials used in manufacturing, its durability, and how it affects the environment when thrown out. As a result, a product that’s labelled as recyclable may not be.

Sustainability needs to be considered by everyone
Governments and large corporations are a huge focus of conversation around sustainability, with a huge misconception being that it’s entirely their onus to drive sustainability. When considering sustainability practices, it is essential to recognise the significance of individual behaviours, lifestyle decisions, and systemic change.

Hawthorne outlines the importance of educating businesses and governments as well as individuals on how important their choices are: “Education and awareness are crucial for everyone to understand how each decision made impacts your sustainability.”

“When it comes to sustainability, it’s important to consider the ecological costs of materials. For example, despite being considered sustainable, bamboo requires heavy pesticide use and deforestation when grown. This indicates the wider misunderstandings around what’s sustainable and what’s not, as well as the nuances within sustainability and the decision-making that goes into it.”

When considering sustainability, the answer lies in connecting every aspect of the concept. This extends from a product’s lifecycle and where it ends up to the individual behaviours of consumers. Education is an important aspect of this, and with a greater focus on teaching the public what appropriate sustainable practices look like, it can build towards a healthier future from a social and environmental perspective.

Copyright © 2023 INSAF. All Rights Reserved.

Partner With Us

The Institute for Sustainability Africa (INŚAF) is an independent multi-disciplinary think tank and research institute founded in Zimbabwe in 2010 with the Vision to advance sustainability initiatives for Africa.