An eco dictionary...kind of

Dennis Salazar

January 30, 2014

5 Min Read
An eco dictionary...kind of

"You keep on using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means," states the vengeful yet good hearted Inigo Montoya to the unquestionably villainous, Vizzini in the Rob Reiner film "The Princess Bride." Just in case you are one of the few who has never watched this very funny, enjoyable family movie, throughout the first part of the film, Vizzini repeatedly uses the word "inconceivable." When what he cannot conceive or imagine happening, comes true over and over again, it drives Inigo to eventually question Vizzini on the meaning and use of the word.

What does this have to do with sustainability or packaging you might ask?  Over the long weekend my wife and I were debating what the word, “natural” meant in today’s health and environment focused world. Yes, we are indeed a fun couple and enjoy this type of conversation on our time off. I was struck by the number of words we all utilize in our efforts to live healthier, greener lives but how rarely we agree on the meaning of the words we use. 

Some Examples …

Green – Could there be a more vague term than “green”? Even proponents have determined that the word is so useless that they have opted to create and categorize products, packaging or markets into shades of green. Light green is better than no green at all but it falls short of medium or dark green. What is next? Emerald green for the status oriented, forest green for the outdoors type and pool table green for the bar room environmentalist who will only drink beer made with organic hops? 

And of course no one wants to be guilty of “greenwashing” which is not good but it is confusing since in most cases, washing is a good thing. I admit to often using the word “green” because people can relate to it and I know what it means to me. However, I never assume it means the same to each and every reader or member of an audience, because it really never does.

Biodegradable – is a generic, cover all term used to describe product and packaging that will eventually breakdown in time and circumstances to once again become one with the earth. If you think about it, that covers a lot of ground but it is confusing because the various forms of degradation are not the same. Composting is not the same as oxo-degradable and, oxo degradable is definitely not the same as hydro-degradable. They are all inter-related but distinct enough to create great confusion (some intentional) in the market place.

Compostable - the product degrades with heat and moisture and a little help from micro-organisms. The end result is compost for use as a very effective fertilizer, to grow new living matter, so in theory the life cycle continues. The question that is rarely asked is in what environment and under what conditions? Industrial or municipal compost processes are far different from back yard composting, yet rarely does anyone ask about the process or how long it will take a specific product to be consumed by little eco critters.

Oxo-degradable – it is similar to the above biodegradable but does not require the presence of living organisms to complete the breakdown of the product or packaging in question. All this process needs is sunlight and air to make the degradable component degrade. That sounds easy enough but the first question is how soon will it degrade. Will it vanish in our warehouses or storage shelves before it is even used? This brings inventory loss or shrinkage to a whole new level, doesn’t it? 

Organic – this category is so overwhelming that the federal government had to step in and save us from ourselves. The obvious question of course is who is going to save us from the federal government?

The USDA has created guidelines for organic products. So unlike some areas like sustainability or “green,” there exists a bar that products have to clear in order to qualify for approval and to earn the now familiar organic seal. What is not quite as clear are the required standards. I am glad the use of pesticides is forbidden but why are non-organic or synthetic fertilizers allowed in some circumstances? In live stock, antibiotics are OK but not hormones?  Undoubtedly, we have come a long way but have much further to go.

Natural – the culprit word that began this whole exchange and led us down this path. I am far from being an expert in the organic and natural food arena but kind of like art, I know what I like.

I do however believe the word natural is even more misused than the word green. There are no clear definitions, guidelines or standards we can rely on and there is no certification process so natural can pretty much be whatever the seller wants it to be. I predict eventually there will be categories and classes of natural such as “kind of natural,” “mostly natural” and of course, “super natural.”

Green Spoken Here?
In the end I think it always comes back to good common sense, reading labels and doing our homework, rather than listening to neat catch phrases and trendy key words. Unfortunately the responsibility is usually right back where we least want it – on us consumers.

As companies rush to grab their share of the green, organic, natural, etc. market, the more likely they are to elongate if not rip the truth to non-organic pieces. This forces us to be more vigilant and careful about what we buy, use and quite frankly, what we pay for it, whether it is packaging or vegetables.

Surprisingly, the movie “The Princess Bride” was by all accounts a box office flop when it was first released in 1987, I believe because it lacked a clear category or niche for the movie-going public. Gradually over time as people learned to disregard the movie tags and accept it as good entertainment, it has gained a faithful audience making it a huge hit long after it left the theaters.  

Perhaps in time living healthy and more environmentally responsible lives will also transcend from a cult favorite to mass appeal?


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