Are We Being Greenwashed by the State of NSW? An Investigation

Joanna Psaros

14 April 2021

Photo by Alexander Tiupa on Pexels.com

I’m deep in my very own conspiracy. Here’s my theory- we’re being greenwashed by the State of NSW.

Let me back up. “Greenwashing”, a term attributed to environmentalist Jay Westerveld in 1986, describes the practice of misleading the public, directly or indirectly, into believing that a company or organisation is more environmentally friendly than they are. On the scale of greenwashing there are a whole range of offences, some worse than others. One of the less serious forms of greenwashing for example, would be a company making token, public environmental gestures while refusing to enact any large-scale changes to their operations that could have a noticeable impact (think throwing a small percentage of your profits to a wildlife charity while drilling for oil in the Arctic). No-one’s directly been harmed by the gesture, but the difference it will make is disproportionately small in comparison to the positive attention it seeks.  

Slightly more serious is when corporations co-opt the environmental movement’s symbols and language in their advertising. This often involves taking advantage of vague descriptive terms that don’t have a set scientific or legal definition like “eco-friendly” and “green” (if a word’s meaning is subjective, how can you objectively prove the company’s actions contradicted it?).

And then there are those that are willing to flat-out lie to the public or to regulators to generate unearned goodwill or avoid environmental backlash- the one form of greenwashing that’s actually illegal.

It’s pretty appalling corporate behaviour, but in a sense it’s to be expected. The purpose of a company after all, is to make a profit for its shareholders. That’s not my conclusion by the way- under the Corporations Act 1901 companies are legally obliged to act on this motivation, arguably to the exclusion of all else.

That’s not to say that there aren’t plenty of examples of corporations making philanthropic donations or operational changes that are more environmentally conscious. But not to the extent that it seriously effects their bottom line. They can’t. And it would be naïve to expect corporations to prioritise the planet at their own cost when the same amount of goodwill can be achieved through greenwashing.

So though much of the business world has embraced the concept of “corporate social responsibility” with open arms, I’d argue that the venn diagram between corporate social responsibility and greenwashing is almost circular.

Corporations and their directors don’t actually owe us, the general public, anything provided they operate within the law. Government departments on the other hand, do. They owe us a whole lot, not least transparency and accountability.

But the NSW State Government’s transparency and accountability are what I’m starting to doubt. To be specific, its transparency and accountability in regard to environmental management. Or to be even more specific, in regard to what the hell happens to our recycling at NSW State Transport train stations.  

I was recently waiting on a crowded Town Hall station platform when a State Transport NSW employee began emptying the rubbish bins which, for those who don’t catch NSW public transport, have one half labelled “Recycling” and one half labelled “Garbage.” I paid no attention until I heard a loud voice berating the worker.

“You just combine the recycling with the rubbish?” a man was asking disbelievingly. “That’s disgusting.” The employee said that it wasn’t his decision and invited the man to take it up with management.

As much as try to avoid being a Karen, on this occasion I did want to speak to the manager. So I visited the station’s customer service booth and requested more information about what happens to the recycling.

“It gets recycled,” was the blunt response. On the back foot (apparently I’d assumed that there was a rule that State Transport employees had to tell the truth when asked directly, like undercover police having to tell you they’re a cop*), I tried doubling down.

“So the recycling and the garbage don’t get mixed in together?”

“Noooo,” said the woman as though she was dealing with somebody very slow, “That’s why there are the two sections.”

It wasn’t the expose I’d hoped for. But at least I still had hard photographic evidence- a picture of the empty bin (damning).

Damning

Still convinced I could land a confession, I made an online enquiry to Transport NSW and days later received the following response:

We encourage customers at all our stations to recycle their waste products. The recycle bins can only be sent off for recycling when the bin contains less than 4% waste.  Unfortunately, most of the bins contain a significant large amount of waste which then needs to be sent off for sorting before it can be recycled. The bins are collected by staff and sent to a location off-site for sorting.

Less than 4%!  I knew that some amount of waste could contaminate recycling, but if I had to guess I would have put it closer to 20% or 30%. I thought back to all the times I’d unknowingly thrown coffee cups in with recycling, feeling guilty. But what I felt even more was sheepish and disappointed. I’d found an entirely reasonable explanation and my Erin Brockovich moment was over before it had even begun. The NSW Government weren’t the eco-villains; we, the filthy general public, were.

Except… why didn’t the employee emptying the bin say that in the first place? The man questioning him was clearly steaming over the issue. Wouldn’t that have been the easiest way for him to shut the altercation down?

Of course, the employees that collect the bins might not necessarily be privy to this information. But if that was the case, how would they know which bin contents to combine if they weren’t following the 4% rule?

And wait, what? 

I’d interpreted the response to mean that the bins which contained too much waste were the only ones sent off site for sorting, not the recycling bins with less than 4% waste. But if so, why were those “contaminated” bins mixed in with even more waste from the garbage side before they were sent for sorting? Or do all of the bins- recycling, contaminated recycling, and garbage- end up in the exact same place?

I don’t have a clue. I think it’s likely that at some point, some of the re-cyclable items from NSW train stations reach a recycling plant, but who knows what percentage? And of that percentage, how much actually gets recovered or is able to be converted into recyclable matter?

At the very least, we can probably conclude that the separation of garbage from recycling at NSW Transport stations is totally inconsequential. I can only assume the reason there are recycling bins at all is for public morale, or “feel-good” environmentalism; a tactic that the government and corporate world have in common. Greenwashing, in other words.

But when governments engage in greenwashing they’re doing more than overselling consumers about the merits of a product or brand. They’re overselling us on how optimistic we should feel about the planet’s future, and subtly discouraging us from thinking too deeply about or demanding further action on the problems that, like landfill, are hidden from view but aren’t going away on their own. And like mountains of landfill, these problems will continue to grow and grow until they become so big it will be impossible to hide them.  

But at least I got my Erin Brockovich moment.


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