Eco-Friendly Gifts Blog: Why We Use Sustainable Products in Our Gifts
Many of our gifts are designed around the principle of sustainability. The term 'sustainable' gets thrown around a lot these days, without any substance to back claims up. In this blog, we are going to talk in depth about why we make the choice to design gifts to be respectful to the environment, by having minimal plastic and carbon footprints.
The Plastic Problem
Let's start by saying that at one point, plastic was one of the most helpful materials to humankind when it was invented. This is a fact that often gets overlooked, but it is an important one. In order to understand where we've gone wrong with plastic, we need to understand why it was popular and in demand in the first place.
Because of the characteristics certain plastics have, they made the perfect material for parachute chords, plane cockpits and gearing wheels for vehicles - all crucial materials. It is somewhat ironic that plastic played such a big part in winning WW2, but we now face a crisis which can result in the next generation facing health defects and potential deaths.
Plastic, as we all know it, is conventional plastic. Conventional plastics are produced from fossil fuels, which already makes it a non sustainable material - at some point, we will run out of fossil fuels.
Conventional plastics also do not have the ability to biodegrade, meaning they break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Plastic below 5mm in all dimensions are called microplastics. Nanoplastics are pieces of plastic not larger than 100nm in any dimension. We've included a great graph which shows how big a nanometer is, in comparison to millimeters. Otherwise, it's too small to comprehend!
We will get to the dangers that microplastics and nanoplastics pose to human, and animal, health, a bit later on.
Three of the most commonly produced conventional plastics globally are Polyethylene terephthalate, high density polyethylene and polyvinyl chloride.
We have used these three plastics because they are numbers one through three respectively, in the plastic recycling symbol system. This system gives each of the most common types of plastic (6, but 7 if you include the mixed plastics in 7th place) a number, based on the ease at which they are recycled.
So PET is number one, which means it is the easiest of the common plastics to recycle. HDPE is the second easiest to recycle, so it has been attributed number 2, and the list goes down to 7.
In 7th place are mixed plastics, which include polycarbonate, styrene and nylon. This group of plastics are the hardest to recycle.
Now we've gone a little through what conventional plastic is, we can look at the potential problems it poses.
Plastic pollution - it's a thing pretty much all of us are aware of, but it doesn't impact us directly, yet (We are writing this in the UK). The main reason for this lack of physical evidence of plastic pollution, although it is washing up on our beaches more and more, is because much of our plastic waste is exported to different countries.
It was China, before they brought in their National Sword System. The new regulations dictated that China, who from the 90s had been importing 45% of the entire world's waste, would now no longer accept plastic that was below a quality of 99.5% purity.
This panicked countries, including the UK, who had been exporting much of their waste to China for the last few decades. With no clear direction or method of dealing with plastic waste, that would not anger voters, the UK government, like many other developed countries, started to look for other developing countries to take in their plastic waste.
Many of these poorer countries are in Southeast Asia, such as Malaysia. As a result, the UK exported 611,111 tonnes of plastic to Malaysia in 2018.
It is for this reason, that roughly half of all the world's plastic waste entering the oceans is from just 5 countries, with four of them being in Southeast Asia. It is not their waste that is polluting the oceans, it is ours. The only difference is that we have the financial ability to shift our waste to the other side of the world, to then blame the poorer countries for not being able to deal with it.
We have all seen the devastating effects of plastic debris on marine animals. What is less known however, is the effect plastic debris has on marine plant life.
Coral reefs are victims of the ocean plastic pollution situation we see today. When conducting an experiment studying the rates of disease in coral reefs, scientists found a huge increase in disease when the reefs had been in contact with plastic debris. When carrying out the study, it was found that coral reefs that were victims of plastic pollution were had an 89% chance of being diseased, compared to just 4% of reefs when no plastic was involved.
There are thought to be a couple of main reasons for this increase in disease. First of all, plastic debris can block sunlight from reaching the reef. Without this crucial component, reefs do not have the energy to carry out their processes.
The second reason is to do with plastic debris being a carrier of persistent organic pollutants. These microbes are disease carrying, and are attracted to whatever solid surface they can find, in order to thrive and multiply numbers. As persistent organic pollutants are ever present in the environment, it is not unlikely for many items of ocean plastic debris to be carrying these microbes.
When plastic debris comes into contact with coral, it has the potential to abrade the 'skin' of the coral. This means that the microbes being carried by the plastic will be able to enter the interior of the coral, and slowly spread and thrive within the reef itself.
'Why are coral reefs important?', you may be asking. There are several reasons that prove the economic, safety and health values that coral reefs provide us.
In terms of economic value, coral reefs provide a conservatively estimated $3.4 billion to the US economy. This is through many channels, including tourism, subsistence fishing, and hotels. Without this economic benefit, many could lose their jobs and livelihoods.
Sticking with hotels, coral reefs also provide coastal protection. Reefs are estimated to reduce wave energy at the shore by 95%. Without this reduction in wave energy, many shoreline businesses face a very real threat of their properties being damaged.
As well as businesses, there are also the many people around the world who live on the coast. These people are at risk, not just from rising sea levels, but from the threat of coral reef death leading to increased frequency of significant property damage, through large waves and marine natural disasters.
In terms of the broader, more applicable picture to the entire human and many species of wildlife population, coral reefs are the backbone of the marine food chain.
They play an important part in the marine ecosystem by fixing nitrogen, meaning they convert molecular nitrogen into products that plants around them can use to grow. These small plants are then eaten by small fish, and the process continues all the way up to large predators at higher trophic levels, like us.
Without this baseline that coral reefs provide, there is a very real risk of the entire marine food chain being affected.
The Carbon Footprint Of Conventional Plastic
As mentioned at the start of the blog, conventional plastics are produced from fossil fuels. This results in a high carbon footprint, which is contributing to the climate crisis.
Fossil based non biodegradable plastics, instead of breaking down into natural components like biodegradable plastics, break down into smaller and smaller pieces of plastic. Microplastics are formed, and then nanoplastics.
All the time that conventional plastic is in the natural environment, it will slowly degrade. This can happen in a few forms - photolysis (degradation through UV light), thermolysis (degradation via heat), and hydrolysis (degradation through the reaction with water).
When conventional plastics degrade, they form smaller molecules, as a result of the polymers that make up the plastic breaking down. A common product of plastic degradation is methane, which is a greenhouse gas that contributes to the climate crisis.
As the plastic breaks down into smaller pieces, the total surface area increases. With this increase in surface area, comes the increase of plastic that is able to be directly degraded by the three methods of photolysis, thermolysis and hydrolysis.
This means that more methane is released at a quicker rate, which in turn means more plastic is degraded, which increases the surface area further. This is why the rate of greenhouse gases being emitted from plastic increases over time.
The world around us is changing fast, and we need to make decisions that contribute positively to the environment around us. One of the bizarre political phenomena of right wing politics is to disregard the environment as a left wing issue, which is almost certainly to do with large polluting companies lobbying governments to not force regulation.
It doesn't matter what your political beliefs are, if you're living in an environment and which is becoming dangerous to live in, everyone will be affected. If your house is on fire, you wouldn't stand around disregarding it and claiming it was the left wing who had somehow devised a plot to trick you into taking action to put out the fire.
Many believe it is down to the human brain not having evolved enough to realise that a threat is real, even if you can't see it.
Plastic production and pollution is contributing to the global 'house on fire', and significant action needs to be taken to save it, and us.
If you would like to read more about plastic, climate and potential solutions to these problems, feel free to subscribe to our email list at the bottom of the page.
Gifts For Environmentalists
The purpose of this blog is to give an insight into the reasons why we pin sustainability at the top of our priorities, when creating every single one of our gifts for environmentalists.
As time goes on, it is becoming more apparent that we need to rethink many of our processes.
In order to ensure we are doing the best we can when it comes to treating the environment with respect, our range of gifts for environmentalists is designed to be sustainable in production, use and end of life.