Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why Environmental Sustainability Is Important
Looking after our environment is a key factor in ensuring the safety of both us, as well as the many other species of planet that live on our planet with us.
We live in a balanced ecosystem, which relies on many factors remaining within a certain threshold.
Two of these main factors are average temperature for the region, and food chain content.
In this blog, we are going to talk about how the production of plastic results in fossil fuel emissions, as well as how the improper disposal of plastic can lead to food chains being disrupted.
Plastic And Climate
A less widely known effect of conventional plastic is the result of carbon emissions forming from the production, manufacturing and transporting processes to bring plastic to market.
We are referring to fossil based plastics here. This is as opposed to bio based plastics such as biobased PET, which are formed from renewable resources, and as a consequence have lower carbon footprints on average.
The current carbon dioxide equivalent (a measurement tracking carbon footprints) is estimated to be 0.86 gigatonnes. Carbon dioxide equivalent is used to track the global warming potential of all greenhouse gases, and not just CO2.
This allows scientists to measure all greenhouse gases that contribute to climate disruption, and not just CO2.
The GWP scale, is based on CO2 having a GWP of 1.
Methane has a GWP of 34 over 100 years, meaning that methane traps 34 times as much heat in the atmosphere, when compared to CO2. All of these measurements are standardised, so the relative masses and other factors are taken into account.
So back to the CO2e of fossil based plastic, over its lifecycle.
Over the course of all fossil fuel based plastic's lifespan, created every year, 0.86 gigatonnes of emissions are released which result in the equivalent global warming potential created by 0.86 gigatonnes of CO2 emissions.
This currently is the equivalent of what 189 coal fired power plants release every year. The more concerning factor is the direction in which the trend of emissions released by plastic production is heading.
By 2050, the fossil based plastic lifecycle will be responsible for 615 coal fired power plants every year. In order to keep to the paris climate agreement, humanity as a whole must not exceed a temperature rise of 1.5 degrees centigrade.
The problem with the amount of greenhouse gas emissions is that by 2050, plastic production will account for a minimum of 10% of our entire carbon budget.
This leaves far less room for variances in other industries which are arguably more valuable to society, such as agriculture.
Recently it was discovered that microplastics continue to emit greenhouse gases, well into the degradation process.
Microplastics are pieces of plastic that have degraded to, or formed, below the size of 5mm in all dimensions.
Microplastics can be primary, meaning they were produced below the maximum size.
Secondary microplastics are pieces of plastic that have broken down from larger pieces of plastic.
An unknown job that the oceans and seas around the world do, is absorb and sequester carbon dioxide (to take in oxygen from the atmosphere, and store it).
Since the start of the industrial era, it is estimated that our oceans have absorbed a minimum of 20% of all anthropogenic carbon emissions.
Carbon sinks are areas of land or sea which take in more carbon than they release, meaning overall carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is reduced.
Oceans are the world's largest carbon sinks, meaning they take in the most carbon, in front of plants and soil.
Plastic appears to hinder the ability of our oceans to absorb carbon, meaning that more carbon will stay present in the atmosphere. The oceans take in carbon in two main ways: through microscopic plants, and microscopic animals.
Microscopic plants, phytoplankton, and microscopic animals, zooplankton, are key to capturing carbon, and starting it on the process of being stored in our deep oceans, away from the atmosphere.
Microplastics reduce the ability at which phytoplankton can fix carbon from the atmosphere, through the process of photosynthesis.
The microscopic animals, zooplankton, ingest microplastics.
Research has shown that zooplankton are negatively affected in their survival chances, reproductive rates and metabolism. With both zooplankton and phytoplankton at risk of non survival, reproductivity, and their ability to fix carbon, plastic in our oceans is having a potentially catastrophic effect.
So what does the increase of global temperatures mean for us?
In short, it will mean less land, less resources and a greater population density.
If the floods and other natural disasters, which are increasing in severity due to climate disruption, don't kill us, then wars over resources will.
The other main side of conventional plastic that is showing environmental consequences is plastic pollution. The build up of plastic that we see in the natural environment is a result of improper disposal, on an international scale.
As we have just mentioned, plastic pollution is actually inhibiting the ability for vital plant and animal organisms to capture carbon, and transfer it into to the world's largest sink which is our oceans.
As well as disrupting climate, non biodegradable plastic also causes damage to larger organisms, both animal and plant also.
Coral reefs are the prime example of plastic pollution having a negative effect on ocean life.
A study carried out in the Asia Pacific region showed a dramatic jump in rates of disease for coral reefs that had been affected by plastic pollution.
In coral reefs that had come into contact with plastic, 89% of them had been diseased. This is compared to just 4% of coral reefs that were diseased, where there had been no contact with plastic.
The reason for this jump lies within what plastic attracts in the natural environment.
Plastic debris is the perfect space for diseased pathogens to bind to, which means that wherever plastic travels to in the ocean, it is likely for disease to be already on the plastic.
Persistent organic pollutants are organic chemicals, that are ever present in the natural environment due to their resistance to environmental degradation. This is why persistent organic pollutants are sometimes referred to as 'forever chemicals'.
When plastic debris comes into contact with coral reefs, it has the potential to pierce the 'skin' of the coral, which is a process known as coral abrasion.
When this abrasion has occurred, the pollutants bound to the plastic enter the reef. From there, they spread throughout the coral, causing disease and slowly killing it.
Coral reefs are important for many reasons, with the primary one arguably being its ability to fix nitrogen.
In this context, nitrogen fixing refers to the coral converting molecular nitrogen in the ocean, into nitrogen products that other marine life can use to carry through their processes.
Without this conversion of nitrogen, the plants surrounding the coral won't be able to survive.
This will mean that the smallest animal microorganisms won't have anything to eat, and this process will continue up the food chain all the way to the larger predators, which include us.
Plastic pollution, on a more visible level, can harm many of the marine wildlife species we know and love.
Turtles now have a 22% chance of death from coming into contact with plastic in the ocean, and a 50% chance of death from coming into contact with 14 pieces of plastic.
The death rate can come from several ways, including inadvertent starvation. This starvation will arise from plastic entering the stomach of the animal, and remaining there, not being digested.
This will either make the animal too sick to hunt, or the animal will believe it is full of nutrition, resulting in the animal not feeling the need to hunt.
It is not well known that plastic pollution on land is actually a minimum of four, a maximum of 23 times more prevalent than of that in the marine environment.
As well as plastic itself, it is the additives added to plastics which can have a negative environmental effect.
Specifically, phthalates are an additive added to plastic as a plasticiser, which will make the material more flexible. Phthalates are not chemically bound to the plastic they are added to, meaning they have the ability to leach out of the plastic, and into the surrounding environment.
Manufacturing facilities producing plastic, and then disposing of waste including phthalates, are using disposal methods that end up with waste entering the soil surrounding the manufacturing plant.
From the soil, the phthalates can drain into the local water courses, and from then on they can enter rivers which lead to our seas and oceans.
Phthalates, like many plastic additives, are potentially carcinogenic.
Hopefully, throughout this blog, we have shown why environmental sustainability is important.
We need substantial action from our world leaders to act on climate disruption, and for them to (particularly in the UK) forget their self serving interests for a moment, to save millions of lives.
It seems unfortunate that at just the time when we need science the most, our populist political leaders have forgone taking scientific advice, and in place are pushing the agenda of the largest polluters of both plastic and carbon on the planet, for the only morally inept reason of pursuing financial gain.
We need huge investment in artificial carbon capturing technology, as well as decreasing our overall carbon output, in order to stop the trend of global temperatures increasing to past the point of no return.
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As an organization, we feel it's important to be open and transparent with the reasons for doing what we do - this is one of the main motivations behind our blogs!
Sustainable gifts should be designed to have minimal impact on the environment at every step of their life cycle.
This means sustainable gifts should have minimal plastic and carbon footprints, as well as being environmentally friendly through production, use and end of life.