Carbon neutral and the packaging paradox

An English A-level student known to me has frequently asked what’s the difference between an oxymoron, a paradox and irony?

A couple of packaging labels put the question into full perspective. Both companies claim to be carbon neutral – a noble aim in a world more geared towards sustainability than of old. Some businesses are concerned about how far their products travel and how they are made and have been making strides to improve for years or even decades.

Yet their packaging…

The first item that came to my attention was a packet of tea in a box that came wrapped in cellophane and the second was a box of health food crackers in a single wrapper that wasn’t recyclable in any way – from the doorstep, the TerraCycle scheme previously written about or via deposit return.

Yet the latter, in particular, trumpeted that it had received Carbon Neutral certification. Recognition. It wasn’t just offsetting what carbon it had created in making or delivering the project. It had a stamp of approval from an authoritative body.

“Our CarbonNeutral┬« certification is the global standard, managed for over 20 years to deliver clear, conclusive and transparent carbon neutral programmes,” says the Carbon Neutral website.

There are five basic steps to achieving certification, including understanding how you would reduce your carbon footprint, setting targets, reducing and communicating this to your staff and customers.

All lofty aims. And achievable.

When I emailed one of the two companies with whom I took issue, I received the following reply:

“To achieve CarbonNeutral┬« certification, the programme involved an independent assessment of our CO2 emissions across all of our company operations, followed by a combination of internal reductions and external offsetting for the remaining, unavoidable emissions.

“This means that for every one tonne of GHG emissions that we produce, we purchase a verified carbon offset which guarantees an equivalent amount of GHG emissions is reduced from the atmosphere.

“Sadly at present there is no recyclable material which will retain the freshness of this product, however we are in the process of looking for an alternative.”

Offsetting unavoidable emissions. No recyclable material (not even a bread bag type packet?) as an alternative available. But, as they have a responsible environmental outlook, they’re working on it.

By way of a follow up, I asked: was the awarding body aware of the irony (the incongruity between expectations for a situation and what is reality), of their packaging not being recyclable?

The answer was, they’re probably working on it.

The other company makes a huge play on its website about how it helps plantations in tea growing nations. How every part of the process of production creates emissions.

So they have made huge strides to reduce the carbon footprint of their tea at source, while improving the health and livelihoods of their farmers. They plant many trees, too. Their energy sources in British offices come from renewable sources.

That’s all very laudable. However, the very packet from which we pluck their product from the shelves – the last time I did – comes in a cellophane wrapper. Even if they have offset the creation of that plastic, have their carbon calculations included the unlimited effect that plastic will have on the environment? The hundreds of years it will take to degrade in landfill, for example? If it gets that far. 

That’s another A level English device I am using, a rhetorical question: one where you don’t expect an answer because it doesn’t seem needed.

But when you could make an easy change such as not using that plastic in the most high-profile and public part of your business (the packaging), yet gain Carbon Neutral status having kept that packaging, isn’t that a phrase combining contrasting meanings – an oxymoron? Or a paradox –  a statement that appears to be self-contradictory?