Greenwashing (?) Strikes Again

Posted on October 21, 2010. Filed under: News | Tags: , , , |

The Clean Currents team is super pumped for this weekend’s DC Greenfest. We’ll giving away prizes for visitors to our booth who take the Eco IQ quiz. The grand prize is the Thames and Kosmos Power House kit that we got from our wind power customers at Toy Kingdom. We were really excited about this give away that comes with 10 green building projects including a solar array, greenhouse and wind power generator and guide for 30 alternative energy and sustainability focused experiments.

When we took the house out of the box to assemble it last week, we got an unpleasant surprise. The entire model was made out of styrofoam! The instructions and a representative at Thames and Kosmos justified this choice as a lightweight, low cost and durable material for the model. Though this is true, we feel that the company should really make it clear that the product they are selling to promote sustainable living is not at all sustainable. When asked about the company’s environmental policy, the customer service rep referred us to the president. Here is the email we sent:

Dear Ted,

My company just purchased a couple of the Thames and Kosmos Powerhouse models as giveaways at our booth at the DC Greenfest. We were really excited about this model, but were very disappointed to find that it is made out of Styrofoam, a petroleum based material that is rarely recycled, does not decompose well, and is produced in a co2 intensive process.

I spoke with Tim at Thames and Kosmos and he gave me the justification for why Styrofoam is the material of choice. While I see that Styrofoam is practical because it is low-cost, durable, and lightweight, I still think it is a problematic choice for a renewable energy toy that is marketed as “green”.

Does Thames and Kosmos have an environmental mission statement? I would hope that a company selling “experiments in sustainability” and “green essentials” would have some sort of interest in preserving the environment. If you do not have such a policy, I would hope that you would be willing to consider thinking about some steps you can take to make your operations more sustainable. If you would like, I can offer some suggestions on how you can get started with this!  

Thank you for your time and I hope to hear from you soon.


Update: Here is the thoughtful response from Thames & Kosmos. We appreciate this further explanation.

Dear Tanya,

Thank you for purchasing two of our Power House kits, and for your dedication and passion to environmental issues, which is clear from your blog and concern about the materials in our kit.

 First of all, I feel it is necessary to explain the material choice in our Power House kit: There is no Styrofoam® in the kit. Styrofoam is a brand name for a material called extruded polystyrene foam trademarked by the Dow Chemical Company. The polystyrene foam in this kit is actually not Styrofoam, but rather a material called expanded polystyrene foam (EPS).

            A number of the experiments in this kit deal with energy efficiency and insulation. In order to make these experiments work, a good insulator is necessary. EPS is a very economical and efficient insulator, with a high R-value. It is 95 to 98 percent air, so it is very light and uses very little material relative to its volume. If we were to have used wood, cardboard, or paper for these experiments, we would have had to have used such a heavy quantity of those materials that the fossils fuels burned by shipping the products around the country would negate the savings obtained from not using EPS. Also, the house model is meant to be used again and again, so we chose a material that would endure through many experimental sessions.

            In addition, the EPS foam tray protects all of the other parts in this kit from damage during shipment and storage. This saves a lot of energy and material because fewer parts are damaged. The EPS parts are not intended to be discarded quickly, and because EPS is lightweight and low density, it is actually a very economical and environmentally favorable material choice.

            Interestingly, the kit was designed in Germany, where they are years ahead of the U.S. in terms of energy efficiency, conservation, and renewable energy usage. It is common practice in Germany to wrap homes in EPS to significantly increase the energy efficiency of the home. In the U.S., for whatever reason, there is a gut reaction to EPS that is, quite frankly, disproportionately negative compared to the reaction to other types of plastic. All petroleum based plastics are equally unsustainable: once plastic is made, it can never be unmade (not in the human time frame anyway).

            Polystyrene can be recycled like other plastics. It falls into recycling category 6. The curbside recycling programs in most cities in the United States do not yet accept this category of plastic. However, you can do a simple Internet or phone book search for recycling centers and drop-off sites in your area that will accept expanded polystyrene.

            So, you see, our choice is scientifically substantiated. We would not endorse the use of EPS for disposable food packaging, for example, or hot beverage cups, because there are perfectly good alternatives (for example, a reusable ceramic plate or a reusable metal bottle).

Second, I would like to address the assertion on your blog that Thames & Kosmos is “greenwashing.” 

We have never made any claim that the Power House kit is sustainable. The kit teaches users about sustainability issues, energy conservation, and other scientific topics, through hands-on activities. While we make smart and economic material choices, none of our kits are sustainable. The concept of declaring any consumer product “sustainable” is problematic in and of itself, because the practice of sustainability is inherently anti-consumption. 

            We have made the practical and ethical determination that teaching children today about environmental science, alternative energy, chemistry and physics, is utterly critical to the future inhabitability of this planet for humans. If children cannot come to trust the empirical wisdom of the scientific method, the country will continue to produce adults who are scared of science, mistrustful of scientists, and skeptical about climate change, and human life as we know it will be doomed. We already do not have enough time to entirely stop the climate change brought on by increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, and still some huge percetage of the country won’t believe it is happening and won’t even begin to change their behaviors. The impetus behind our mission is to change this.

            From your blog, it sounds like you understand that sometimes one has to make compromises in one’s approach in order to achieve a goal. You say yourself, “There’s nothing like sensible pragmatism to achieve grander goals.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. This is exactly the justification behind the choices made in bringing all of our kits to market. I could move to Maine and live in a passive house almost completely sustainably (actually it sounds quite nice), but we all couldn’t do that. Earth’s not big enough to support all of us this way. So we have to be smarter. We have to innovate. We have to use science and technology to help solve our environmental problems. But first, we have to have a general population that understands basic science in order to support this.

            We are both on the same side of the issues here. I do not call your blog “greenwashed” even though I can assume with almost complete certainty that it was not written on a sustainable computer that was delivered to you in sustainable packaging by a delivery truck powered by biodiesel. Wordpress’s server farms aren’t sustainable. No amount of carbon offsets you buy can change that. But, like our Power House kit, your blog is important enough to justify the use of those resources. We are educating people. We are working towards a better future.

 Lastly, I would like to answer your question as to whether or not Thames & Kosmos has an “environmental mission statement.” 

 Our mission concerns informal science education, not the environment. We are a small business and do not have a formal written environmental mission statement. I am more than open to hearing your suggestions for what should be included in one, and would be grateful if you were to send those to me, but I do not think having a written environmental mission statement by itself does anything to change a company’s behaviors. I can, however, tell you about all the “environmental” (for lack of a better word) activities we have been involved in over the past 10 years:

            1. Since 2007 I have volunteered countless hours on the board of a local non-profit called the Apeiron Institute for Sustainable Living, which has the lofty mission of making RI the first sustainable state in the nation. 

            2. One percent of the retail sales of our Renewable Energy Kit “Wind Power” has been donated to Apeiron, since 2008, and 1% of the retail sales of our Hydropower kit has been donated to the RI chapter of Clean Water Action since 2009.

            3. From the time Thames & Kosmos was founded and began selling the fuel cell car kit in 2001, we have been focused on teaching kids about alternative energy, conservation of natural resources, sustainable living, and environmental science. We have helped educate millions of children on the topics of fuel cells, hydropower, wind power, solar power, global warming, sustainable living, energy conservation, chemistry, biology, and physics. 

            4. We have moved our office to a more central urban location so more employees can take advantage of public transportation and shorter commutes. We would love to convert the building to alternative energy (solar/geothermal) over the next 10 years.

            5. I have invested $50,000 into environmental remediation at the new building site to bring it up to today’s DEM environmental standards.

            6. We reuse office paper and recycle paper, cardboard, plastic, metal and glass.

            7. We had our fluorescent lighting switched out with lower energy compact fluorescents, and in fact, the building has such great natural light that most of the day we do not have the overhead lights on at all.

            8. We are always evaluating the materials used in our products and whether there are more environmentally friendly alternatives.

I realize full well that this is just scratching the surface, and we are dedicated to doing more as we continue to grow.

I appreciate your feedback and will continue to take it into consideration.


Ted McGuire


There are lots of good points in Ted’s letter. It is certainly true that sometimes sacrifices are necessary to achieve progress towards a goal and of course we make sacrifices all the time (Clean Currents staffers do often feel guilty about driving around to various events, but we understand that by attending festivals and meeting all over the region, we are spreading the word about sustainability and green power to more people, which is hopefully worth the carbon emissions). And hopefully, since consumers of the Power House will only by buying one model, they will learn enough about sustainable living and renewable energy from the kit to make up for it.

However, although “EPS can be recycled like other plastics”, it is unfortunately not widely recycled. Montgomery County, MD, where our offices are headquarted, is a very progressive county in a pretty progressive state. However, according the county government, “We are not aware of any very local opportunities for recycling or reusing those blocks”

So yes, it seems like Thames and Kosmos is doing a good deal to benefit the environment, and we trust they dont drive around in Hummers drinking out of styrofoam cups all day, so maybe the greenwashing claim was a bit too strong. But EPS is still an unfortunate choice for a sustainability kit…

Readers, what do you think?

Speaking of sustainable Styrofoam…


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