Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why We Love Sustainable Materials
When it comes to designing our gifts, the materials used are one of the main factors in our decisions.
We find creative solutions to replace single use plastic in both our gifts and products, which contributes to our gifts being sustainable.
In this blog, we are going to cover which materials we use in place of conventional plastic, and the reasons why we use them.
For many of our compostable gifts, we use polylactic acid (PLA) in place of conventional plastics such as PET.
Conventional plastics do not have the ability to biodegrade, which means they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Pieces of plastic below 5mm in all dimensions are known as microplastics.
Clearly visible plastics such as whole plastic cups and plastic bags are known as macroplastics, whilst plastics, less than 1 μm (0.0001 cm) in size are known as nanoplastics.
Biodegradable plastics such as PLA break down into natural components: biomass, CO2 and water. This means that biodegradable bioplastics do not contribute to the growing microplastic pollution crisis.
Bioplastics differ from conventional plastics in two main ways: they have the ability to biodegrade, they are produced from renewable resources, or both.
In the case of PLA, it is both.
Being produced from renewable resources means PLA has a lower carbon footprint than fossil based plastics such as PET.
This reduced carbon footprint is down to the renewable resources, cornstarch in the case of PLA, sequestering carbon from the atmosphere, and storing it.
The captured carbon will remain stored until certain end of life processes
Any carbon released from the plastic itself will just mean that the carbon captured is released, so no carbon is being added to the atmosphere overall. Fossil based plastics are produced from non renewable resources, so any carbon from fossil fuels is being added to the atmosphere.
The natural ecosystem stores fossil matter in carbon sinks, such as beneath the ground or in our oceans, to regulate the temperature and level of carbon in the atmosphere.
Using fossil fuels is re releasing this trapped carbon, which adds to the overall level of carbon in the atmosphere. This is the basic principle on how fossil fuels contribute to climate disruption.
Fossil based plastics, as well as the carbon used in the plastic itself, need to undergo processes which also are carbon intensive. These include extraction, transport and end of life.
Bioplastics still need transport to deliver them to consumers, which is why the overall lifecycle of bio based bioplastics is not carbon neutral.
If sustainable carbon neutral processes were used in the transport and other processes required to manufacture bioplastics, then theoretically bio based bioplastics would be carbon neutral.
On top of this, bio based bioplastics could actually be carbon negative if the end of life processes do not release the stored carbon.
The other main positive characteristic that bioplastics have the potential for is biodegradability, which can lead to compostability in some cases.
Just being biodegradable is not good enough though, as there is no legal time limit on the time required for a biodegradable material to biodegrade.
Biodegradable plastics also are not guaranteed to break down in landfill, due to the necessary microorganisms needed to aid the biodegradation not always being present.
There is often the misconceived notion that biodegradable materials can't break down in the marine environment - this is not true.
What is true, is that it may take far longer for biodegradable in the marine environment than in other settings, but degradation will still occur.
Biodegradable plastics will break down in the ocean, but at a slow rate. Whether this be through photolysis, thermolysis, biolysis or hydrolysis, bioplastics will break down, like all plastics do in the ocean.
There are two main types of degradation when it comes to polymers: biotic (with living microbes) and abiotic (not involving living microbes).
It has been studied that abiotic decomposition of plastics (all plastics, conventional or bio) usually comes before biotic decomposition.
Abiotic degradation methods are hydrolysis (the chemical break down of a compound due to reaction with water), thermolysis (the chemical breakdown of a compound due to the action of heat) and photolysis (the chemical breakdown of a compound due from the action of light).
The rate of hydrolysis in PLA has been shown to increase with time.
However, the only reason we are mentioning what happens in the ocean is due to oceanic plastic pollution. Plastics of any sort should not end up in the ocean, full stop.
Compostable bioplastics are therefore much better than bioplastics that are solely biodegradable, and not compostable.
Compostable materials biodegrade in set conditions, within a set time frame, to form compost. Having end of life processes such as industrial composting is crucial in reducing waste sent to landfill.
Industrial composting results in industrially compostable bioplastics breaking down fully within 6 months. See the infographic below which shows the main differences between home composting and industrial composting.
Different Bioplastic Groups
We have just gone over PLA as a bioplastic, so let's now discuss the different groups of bioplastics based on their biodegradability and base.
Before we go into detail with discussing the different bioplastics, let's get a green myth out of the way.
Just because a material is made from renewable resources, does not mean it is biodegradable. This is something that is a natural association to make, but it is not true. This is shown by bio based polyethylene.
This also works the other way round. If a material is biodegradable, it does not mean it has to be made from renewable resources. Fossil based biodegradable bioplastics include polycaprolactone.
Let's start by delving deeper into the group in the top left; bio based non biodegradable bioplastics.
Let's stick with bio based polyethylene as the example. The bioplastic material is produced from sugar cane in some cases, giving it a lower carbon footprint than it's fossil based counterpart.
Because it can't be composted like PLA, traditional waste management processes have to be used, including recycling, incineration and landfill. This is not necessarily a bad thing, because large scale recycling processes already recycle fossil based polyethylene.
Because of it's identical structure and properties, biobased polyethylene can be mixed in with it's fossil based counterpart in the recycling chain.
This means that new facilities do not have to be built, which in some senses makes bio based polyethylene more economically viable than compostable bioplastics, which require industrial composting facilities to be built.
However, the average recycling rate of conventional plastics is only 9%. This means that less than one in ten pieces of conventional plastics get recycled, leaving the rest to go to landfill, incineration or end up in our natural environment.
Next up we have fossil based biodegradable plastics.
Polycaprolactone is produced from fossil fuels, but does have the ability to break down into CO2, biomass and water with the aid of microorganisms.
It is often used as an additive to improve the properties of other plastics, making them tougher, more flexible and stronger.
Research has shown that the rate at which polycaprolactone biodegrades is dependant on the environment it is in. Biodegradation still occurs in the baltic sea, but at a slower rate than went placed into a compost pile.
Some of our gifts which include our range of desk accessories, use bamboo as the main material instead of conventional plastics.
Bamboo is a fast growing crop, with most species reaching maturity within 3-5 years. As well as being fast growing, bamboo produces 35% more oxygen than the average non bamboo tree.
Going back to earlier in the blog, bamboo also sequesters carbon from the atmosphere, as do all plants.
It is far more sustainable to use renewable resources to manufacture products, than it is with fossil based plastics.
Microplastics, whether primary or secondary (produced as a microplastic, or formed from larger pieces of plastic breaking down) have been shown to negatively affect both zooplankton and phytoplankton in their ability to process carbon from the atmosphere.
The ocean is the world's largest carbon sink, and without the necessary processes taking place to enable the capturing of carbon, climate disruption will be made worse with the increased amount of carbon in the atmosphere.
To sum up, in this blog we have looked at several of the sustainable materials we use in place of single use conventional plastic. By changing the materials we use, we can decrease both the carbon and plastic footprints of each gift.
By changing the materials, more sustainable end of life options now become available, that aren't open to conventional plastics, such as composting.
The earth has a carefully designed natural system, that humanity is currently throwing out of balance. We don't need to stop doing anything, we just need to change the processes that fulfill our needs.
Using plastic free materials is one of these choices, alongside clean energy and electric cars, to name just a couple.
If you would like to read more about sustainable materials and other green economy content, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.
Environmentally Friendly Gifts
To keep current with the flow of information relating to sustainable materials and end of life processes, we are researching all of the time.
Our range of environmentally friendly gifts is designed specifically to take the place of less sustainable materials, which can go hand in hand with end of life processes.
When considering each new collection of environmentally friendly gifts, we always source from producers who have sustainability at the top of their list. It's important for us to work with people who we can trust, and people who share our values.