The Paper and Paperboard Packaging Environmental Council (PPEC) sat down with its former and long-standing Executive Director, John Mullinder, who helped formed PPEC in 1990, and retired in February 2021.
John recently published his new book, Little Green Lies and Other BS, which focuses on environmental claims and advertising; it is a follow up to his first book, Deforestation in Canada and Other Fake News, published in 2018.
Little Green Lies is well researched and organized, covering about 40 different subjects in alphabetical order from “Ancient” Forests to “Zero” Waste.
PPEC chatted with John about his new book, and excerpts from our conversation follow, edited for length.
Hi John! Can you please give our readers a brief description of your new book and why you wrote it?
One of my reviewers described it as “an entertaining and informative dictionary of environmental buzzwords (and claims) that are widely used (or made) but often poorly understood.” The book examines those buzzwords, what they mean and whether the current use of these terms is accurate, misleading, confusing, deceptive or just plain wrong, and includes 38 pages of sources for the information (that’s the dictionary part).
I wrote it because there is so much misinformation, and sometimes deliberate greenwash, about these buzzwords and claims, and I want to set the record straight.
What can readers hope to learn from this book?
Not to accept all environmental claims as apple pie. To question the use of particular buzzwords. To understand and analyse the context in which claims are made, whether they are made by businesses, governments, or environmental groups. And to avoid making those same claims themselves.
The book doubles as an educational tool for staff, customers, journalists, policy advisers.
Or as one of my reviewers wrote: “This is a great reference book that will help you sort the facts from the fiction. If you’re a writer, editor, public relations professional, legislator, educator, work for an NGO, or are simply a consumer who wants to know the truth, this book should be on your shelf or Kindle list.”
How does this book differ from your first book, Deforestation in Canada and Other Fake News?
The focus of “Deforestation in Canada and Other Fake News” was to debunk two commonly-held myths: that Canada is running out of trees, and that massive deforestation is taking place in our own backyard. Both not true.
While “Little Green Lies” does cover these issues as well, it is far broader, examining a wide range of forestry and paper issues, packaging, recycling, and waste. It is also more international, incorporating as much global and US data and perspectives as possible, not just Canadian data.
There are a lot of misconceptions when it comes to forestry – particularly related to deforestation and “ancient” forests – where does the confusion come from, and how do we address it?
There is widespread confusion about each of these because people work to different definitions of them. And the media makes it worse by not explaining what the terms mean and/or misapplying the meaning of the words. We (and I mean collectively) need to develop broadly agreed-upon definitions that we can all work to, and to publicize them widely, especially to journalists. The United Nations, for example, has a very clear definition of deforestation.
With increased activity and attention on corporate greenwashing — the practice of making false or misleading environmental sustainability claims — and with the Competition Bureau of Canada archiving its Environmental Claims Guide, do you believe there are enough resources available to provide clarity on claims and misleading marketing practices?
Absolutely not. And even the advice that is out there (the archived guidelines you refer to) are inadequate. This is one of the reasons they were archived as a matter of fact. Greenwashing is a major issue and it needs sufficient resources allocated to it, urgently. Or nobody will believe anything. And that is a slippery slope.
PPEC has long called for disposal bans on paper-based packaging, considering such materials are recyclable and end markets exist; why do you think there is resistance to implementing such bans?
What really gets up my nose are provinces spouting off about how we should all move to a circular economy while they do little or nothing to change the economics that make it cheaper to send stuff to landfill rather than to recycle it.
The circular economy is all about reusing materials again and again, and the provinces have the power to do something about this. They need to demonstrate some political fortitude and be willing to take on the commercial interests of municipalities and waste haulers who happen to own landfills.
Do you have any comments on the state of Extended Producer Responsibility (EPR) policies and legislation in Canada as they relate to the paper-based packaging industry? And how does the consumer/resident – who ultimately decides how to dispose of their waste and recyclables – fit into the concept of EPR?
I think we have to be very careful in claiming EPR as the solution for materials ending up in landfill. Any costs that producers incur through EPR schemes will inevitably be passed on to consumers. What’s important for industry (including the paper industry) is that any fee structure be fair and evenly applied. Non-performers must be penalized for any scheme to work.
And a major education job is required to get the consumer in the loop. For example, about 40% of Ontario Blue Box recyclables go straight to the trash because householders are confused about whether certain materials are recyclable or not. Much (but not all) of this trashed material is perfectly recyclable.
Is there anything else you would like to share about your new book Little Green Lies?
I know this will sound a bit like a sales pitch (it is!), but I think the book provides a sound basis for critically examining many of the environmental claims we see and hear today (whether they are from industry, governments, or environmental groups). The sources for the information I provide are all there. Facts do matter.