Topic: Technology (86)

Greenwashing: The Filter on a Cigarette

Green Ribbon Schools, clean hydrogen, and recyclable plastics are propaganda campaigns

Green Ribbon Schools, clean hydrogen, and recyclable plastics are propaganda campaigns

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It is a tragedy to be writing an article comparing Bellingham schools to big tobacco. However, several months ago, I wrote an article urging citizens to hold the schools accountable by refusing to fund new school construction until Bellingham High School made solid commitments to the environment and sustainability. Their response was to run a propaganda campaign that would have made big tobacco proud.

Remember when big tobacco put filters on cigarettes and claimed they were now safe? Ran a few advertising campaigns proclaiming which brand most doctors smoked? They even funded a few “health” events, making sure that everyone knew big tobacco funded them. Suddenly, viola! They prevented real progress for decades. This same playbook has been used by all levels of government, industry, and even the schools, to promote and greenwash their relationship to the environment.

When pressure was put on the school district to commit to LEED Gold standards, replace their diesel bus fleet with electric buses, (like all of New York state is doing,) and remove their bus barn from above a salmon bearing stream, their response was to try to put a filter on a cigarette. They created a “sustainability committee.” (Or as I like to call it, the “quick, we need to maintain the status quo committee.”) This group concocted a list of some sustainability items the schools were doing…and won themselves a “Green Ribbon Schools” award from the U.S. Department of Education.

An award sound good, right? Isn’t this a step in the right direction? Yep, any step in the right direction is good. But, a quick analysis of this award quickly reveals that it is very similar to the play by big tobacco—and virtually worthless.

Keep in mind that our national standards and commitment to action are even lower than those at Bellingham High School. So this award goes to any district that does more than show up on environmental issues. The “Green Ribbon Award” doesn’t require any actual change, the award only confirms that schools are doing something toward sustainability. The three main requirements, from the U.S. Department of Education website are:

Reduce environmental impact and costs; (Note, you will qualify if you use smaller disposable water bottles than the previous year, you don’t need to stop using them to qualify.)

Improve the health and wellness of schools, students, and staff; (This one doesn’t even have to be related to the environment. If every class takes one walk, you qualify.)

Provide effective environmental and sustainability education (Again, not an actual adaptation, just an occasional mention, maybe a glossy flyer—that are difficult to recycle—and you, too, can be a winner!)

More dangerous greenwashing

Greenwashing is dangerous because it stops actual progress. Just look at the plastics industry. (Please watch this excellent video “Climate Town”) They knew their products were not really recyclable, but instead of actually improving them, they co-opted the triangular recycling symbol, called it a “Plastic Resin Identification Code,” put a number inside it; then went on ruining the planet. The world, especially Americans who were now operating under the false assumption that recycling works, was much less concerned about the horrendous impact that plastics have on the environment. (Note: Don’t stop recycling! About 10% of the plastic you recycle does get recycled, and we really need that 10%!)

Another example of greenwashing was concocted by our own Representative Alex Ramel, who is part of the neo-liberal, anti-workers crew run by Sharon Shewmake. Ramel successfully pushed through a bill adding hydrogen to natural gas. And while clean hydrogen has some good applications, putting it in natural gas isn’t one of them. Not if you’re serious about saving the environment. Here’s why:


1. Only 5% hydrogen is being added to the natural gas mixture, so 95% of it remains what you’ve been burning all along. It’s the same flawed approach as putting ethanol in gasoline or filters on cigarettes. It’s still 95% bad.

2. These mixtures of gas with hydrogen are usually fed into burners that are NOT designed for them. The result is excess Nitrous-Oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more hazardous to the environment than CO2. 
3. Using solar panels to create hydrogen is a second stage use of a clean energy source. Electricity from solar panels should be used directly; using that energy to create hydrogen is a loss of efficiency. Clean hydrogen has some applications, but use in our natural gas lines is NOT one of them.

4. Finally, promoting the idea that hydrogen somehow makes natural gas more “environmental,” allows the natural gas industry to continue to limp along when, really, we need to reduce our use of fossil fuels.

So just like filters on cigarettes, “clean hydrogen,” “recyclable plastics,” and “Green Ribbon Schools,” are all being aided and promoted by our government to keep real change at bay with greenwashing propaganda campaigns. We’ve just got to be smarter and more vigilant than that.

About Jon Humphrey

Citizen Journalist • Bellingham • Member since May 23, 2017

Comments by Readers

Ray Kamada

Jul 06, 2022

Actually, it’s the burning of hydrogen that creates NOx, which is an environmental pollutant, but which probably has a slightly net positive impact on global warming. One way to avoid burning hydrogen is by using it in fuel cells. But that doesn’t occur when you blend it with natural gas and pipe it into homes. 

Moreover, hydrogen is a tiny molecule that tends to leak through any pipe cracks, joints, or fiiting seams. Thus, the leakage rate for hydrogen in such blends is considerably higher than for methane gas itself. I.e., standard piping for natural gas is probably not suitable for effective containment. 

Because, besides being wasteful, hydrogen itself is not a greenhouse gas (GHG), but it does contribute to global warming at a rate per molecule roughly 5 to 15 times greater than CO2. That is, atmospheric hydrogen tends to react in complex ways with hydroxyl and other radicals to form more methane, which has a GHG CO2 equivalence of 20 to 100x, depending on time frame.

So, hydrogen can be produced quite cleanly from distilled water via electrolysis by alkaline or permeable membrane methods. But once formed, special care is needed to use it in a truly green fashion. 

Moreover, a variety of studies suggest that the roundtrip energy efficiency involved in going from renewable solar or wind-derived electricity to hydrogen storage and back to electricity is currently somewhere between 25 and 46%. Research is ongoing to raise this range of values by greatly boosting the efficiency of electrolysis (Some are claiming as high as 95% by 2030). But that doesn’t account for the return trip back to electricity.

So, thus far, hydrogen energy storage lags far behind the 60 to 85% roundtrip efficiencies now seen routinely for pumped hydro, gravity, thermal, compressed air, liquified air, or liquified CO2 methods of energy storage. Of course, such efficiency differences will also impact the bottom line cost per kilowatt hour to consumers. 

On the other hand, if you just blend hydrogen with natural gas, albeit not quite so cleanly, it might be fairly cheap. But it would be a misnomer to call that process “green”.

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