Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why Being Environmentally Friendly Is Important
With the two main crises we are facing today being environmental (climate change and plastic pollution), everyone is looking for ways to do their bit when it comes to protecting the environment. Whether it's buying more local food, driving electric cars or cutting down on single use plastic, there are many positive ways to impact the world around us. In this blog, we are going to look at why making these changes, cutting down on single use plastic in particular, is beneficial to us all.
Single Use Plastic
Many of us are now aware of the effects of single use plastic pollution on the environment. Conventional plastics - what we think of as 'plastic', are damaging the world around us in a few different ways, and at different stages of their life cycle. Conventional plastics such as PET (a common material in single use plastic water bottles) are produced from non renewable fossil based resources.
Because of this, PET has high carbon emissions, which means the production of PET contributes to climate disruption. As well as emitting carbon in the production process, fossil based plastics also continue to emit greenhouse gases when they are degrading.
Fossil based plastic in the ocean continue to break down over time, regardless of if they are biodegradable or not. All polymers (plastics are made from polymers, which are long chains of repeating sequences) are susceptible to be degraded from a few different mechanisms. Heat, light, water and microorganisms are the main ways in which plastic can break down in the natural environment.
If we take the PET water bottle for example, it will slowly break down over time. The first mechanisms of PET are typically abiotic (not carried out by microorganisms), so come in the form of heat and light most likely. The PET bottle will degrade slowly, until smaller pieces of plastic are formed.
Eventually, when these plastic pieces are less than 5mm in all dimensions, they are called microplastics. Due to the increased surface area meaning an increase in greenhouse gas emissions, the amount of greenhouse gas being emitted by plastic debris increases over time.
'Environmentally Friendly' Plastics
Let's focus on the alternatives to single use conventional plastic (plastic that is produced from fossil fuels, and cannot biodegrade).
The main alternative we have to conventional plastic is the group of polymers known as 'bioplastics'. These materials have the ability to biodegrade, they are produced from fossil fuels, or both. In some cases, such as bio based polyethylene and conventional polyethylene, the chemical structures are the same.
The only difference is that bio based polyethylene is produced from renewable resources, which has the potential to decrease its carbon footprint compared to it's fossil based counterpart.
There are now several bioplastics that are being produced on a mass scale, with the most well recognised arguably being PLA. Polylactic acid is produced from cornstarch in the western world, and it is what many of our compostable gifts are made from.
The race to make your mark on getting your environmentally friendly (compared to conventional plastic, anyway) material out there, is turning into a bit of a space race. With many companies who are manufacturing bioplastics that exhibit desirable characteristics such as biodegradability in the race, it's only a matter of time before conventional plastics will (hopefully) be gone in the mainstream plastic production industry.
We should say that there are absolutely certain reasons for having non biodegradable plastic, such as in the medical world.
In order to break down within a reasonable time frame, PLA must be industrially composted. That's why we have developed LFHP Zero, which is our postal scheme enabling all of your used compostable waste to be sent back to us for free. We then process it, and pass it on to our industrial composting partners who fully compost everything. This means zero waste goes to landfill, and the compost will be used to grow the next generation of crops.
There are also a few bioplastics starting to be used more regularly, for their different characteristics. PHAs (polyhydroxyalkanoates) are polyesters, and are produced from bacteria and microorganisms. PHA actually refers to the polyester itself, so when we are talking about the bioplastic produced from PHAs, we are going to call them PHA polymers.
A manufacturing method of producing PHA involves bacteria in an industrial vessel metabolizing raw biogas (methane, CO2 and hydrogen sulfide). The resulting product from the bacteria metabolizing the methane is PHB, a common type of PHA (a bit confusing, we know).
These bacteria then store the PHAs (scientists have found more than 150 different kinds of PHA) as energy and carbon storage material, when they don't have enough nutrients to reproduce.
The stored PHAs are then harvested, by 'cutting into' the bacteria cells where the PHAs are stored.
PLA requires industrial composting to break it down within 6 months. It will biodegrade in other marine environments, but far slower than it would in industrial composting conditions.
A main advantage of PHA compared to other bioplastics such as PLA, is that they will degrade in a range of environments including soil and freshwater within 18 weeks.
We do have to question the use of the word 'degrade' though, as opposed to 'biodegrade'. Research has been carried out showing that PHB can still form nanoplastics, as a result of degrading from other methods such as thermolysis and photolysis. These nanoplastics do harm the environment in the way of creating a decrease in the cellular growth of local organisms.
We should say that this is why it's imperative that we work on a large scale, fool proof system for disposing of items produced from plastic, regardless of their biodegradability. We have become so used to plastic ending up in the ocean, it has become normal to us. This is completely crazy one you step back, and see that no plastic should be ending up anywhere in the natural environment full stop.
If we take the common household example of stepping on lego, we can see what the previous point illustrates.
So you have just knackered your bare foot on a lego piece left out by a child. A thing you could do would be to spend millions developing a set of lego that wouldn't hurt your foot when you stepped on it.
However, you could just take steps to ensure that the person who left the lego out would return it to it's box, where it wouldn't be able to get stepped on. This is why developing a scheme for every material produced the world over (plastic or not) to be 'put back in the lego box' is so crucial.
However, we do have to consider that there will be a significant portion of the population who will not put the lego back in this box. This could be for time shortages, convenience or carelessness. So in the real world, it's all about balancing these difficult problems and creating a solution that ensures the maximum success rate of disposing of plastics sustainably.
In order to realise the full potential of eco-friendly plastics, we must have a large scale, easy to use system in place to ensure that all waste is disposed of properly, and sustainably.
This means not using landfill, not having it end up in the natural environment, but a safe, controlled destination, preferably where the resulting products of disposal can be used to create the next batch of the material. This is what industrial and home composting achieves.
A common problem with certain bioplastics is that they require different streams of waste management chains in order to process them. PHA does not have this problem, as is shown by the methane yields being similar to food waste. This potentially means that PHA could be processed in the same stream as organic food.
If you're sat reading this, thinking 'why aren't all plastics biodegradable anyway', then you are not alone, and you have a good point!
Sadly, there have been a few companies that have tried to bring PHA to market, but there was not yet the demand from consumers to make the switch. An example of this is Metabolix, who had to shut their factory down after two years, due to lack of sales.
If you're reading this, you are probably in the minority of people who, like us, care hugely about sustainable processes and protecting the environment. If you went out on to your street and asked 100 people if they cared about the environment, there would be significant portion who said they don't really care.
However, this is changing every day as we can see the evidence right in front of our eyes through media outlets.
Choosing To Respect The Environment
With this blog, we've gone over several reasons why being environmentally friendly is important. The surge of conventional single use plastics being produced every year is contributing to the climate crisis in both production, as well as plastic debris in the natural environment being sources of greenhouse gases. We've also gone over two potential solutions in PLA and PHA, as we know the effects of plastic pollution is an often talked about topic, so we wanted to provide you with something new and intriguing (hopefully!).
If you would like to read more about the importance of choosing to be kind to the environment, and the new solutions that are being developed all the time, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.