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Plastic fantastic: can eco plastics save the world?

From food packaging to toys to airplanes… plastic is definitely one of the world’s most versatile, universal and, arguably, necessary materials. But – it comes at a cost. Made from synthetic carbon-based polymers made mostly from petroleum, plastic is a material that, once processed, does not easily integrate back into nature.

Yes, that bottle of water, in the hand for an average of 12 minutes, will remain on this earth for hundreds, if not thousands, of years if left to decompose of its own accord. Therein comes the plastic dilemma: disposable, dispensable and ubiquitous products of a material engineered to last forever (well, almost).

Plastic disposal creates pollution and leads to a catalogue of environmental disasters, such as The Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Getting rid of plastic is extremely difficult. Burning it releases toxic fumes. Recycling is complicated due to the many and various types of plastics all requiring different processes.

In an attempt to address our plastic addiction, a new wave of ‘environmentally friendly’ plastics are now hitting the scene. These plastics can be broadly divided into three types:

  1. Bioplastics: made from natural materials such as corn starch
  2. Biodegradable plastics: still made from petrochemicals but designed to break down faster
  3. Eco/recycled plastics: made from recycled plastics

Let’s take a look at them in turn.

Bioplastics are made on the principle that if we make plastic from kinder material to begin with they’ll break down more easily when we are done with them. Commonly made from corn, they often look indistinguishable from traditional plastic products. In addition to using less energy to produce, bioplastics also produce 70% less greenhouse gases when they degrade in landfills. (Read more on NatureWorks.) Products made from this type of plastic are surprisingly wide-ranging, in use for everything from 3D printing to beauty and household.

Biodegradable plastics are something you may have noticed if you are in the habit of reading supermarket bags. These plastics contain additives that will cause them to break down faster in the presence of light and oxygen (‘oxo-degradable’). Unlike their bioplastic counterparts, these plastics contain all the usual suspects of petrochemical base materials, may not degrade in landfill conditions and will leave a toxic residue when decomposed, making them unsuitable for composting.

Recycled plastics are one solution to turn old waste materials into new products – and that doesn’t just mean more plastic bottles. Plastics can, in fact, be recycled into everything from new shoes to building materials to clothes. It is more difficult to judge the benefit of recycled plastic for the environment, given that we must consider any potential saving in water and energy it takes to collect, process and transform old material versus simply making it anew.

However, the benefits of rubbish elimination and environmental transformation can be significant. An exemplary example of this is Haiti, where the lack of a formal rubbish collection system has led citizens to take control of their environment, establishing The Plastic Bank:

3 Problems with ‘eco’ plastics.

Unfortunately, saving the world is never as easy as one may hope. As with most things, the new ways to manage plastics face limits and complications. Three of the fundamental problems with the new plastics are:

  1. Even bio plastic takes its time to die. Biodegradable plastics and bio plastics do not decompose that easily. They need moisture and heat and good conditions and the process can take many years and then, still, leave behind a nasty residue.
  2. Recycling dilemma. Biodegradable plastics and bio plastics are not easy to recycle. The mix up of these plastics with traditional plastic products can wreak havoc on recycling management programmes, undermining years of effort. Companies need to be more clean in how to properly dispose of their products.
  3. The jargon. Many people thing terms like ‘biodegradable’, ‘compostable’ and ‘bioplastic’ are interchangeable, whilst they all signify a variety of different production and waste processes. This can hinder efforts to bring the products to market and consumers are a long way from being clear in their choice.

So, what’s the verdict on the earth credentials of eco plastics?

Whilst it is encouraging to see the progress made to solve the issue with traditional plastics, it is clear we are far off a perfect solution. Biodegradable plastics are, in particular, in the spotlight for misleading with the environmental promise given the length of time they take to decompose and their inherent toxic consistency. Bioplastics are in the line of fire for using GM crops and confusing recycling systems. Plastic recycling, in the meantime, does not eliminate the need for production of new products in the first instance.

As usual, in the end it’s just down to you. Some tips for assisting the plastic problem are:

  1. That canvas / reusable bag you have hanging around – put a few in the car and carry one around in your jacket pocket or handbag
  2. Collect loose fruit and vegetables from the supermarket isle rather than buying them prepackaged
  3. Invest in longer lasting items with replaceable parts rather than disposable items – e.g. drinking bottles, razor blades, pens, reusable coffee cups etc.
  4. Think about what you are buying. The heart trembles at the idea of how much empty space in the world is filled with unwanted Kinder Surprise toys.
  5. Dispose of your plastic properly. We know now that it matters.

Further Reading:

Biodegradable plastics: are they better for the environment?

Greenwash: Biodegradable bags carry more ecological harm than good.

Biodegradable plastic: ‘false solution’ for ocean waste problem

The difference between degradable, biodegradable and compostable

The New Plastic Economy: Catalyzing Action

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VOCs: what you need to know

VOCs (volatile organic compounds) have been getting a lot of attention lately.

At the local home center, you may have noticed a lot more low or no VOC proclamations. It seems that the seal on VOCs has officially be broken, and the discussion on what they are, where they are used and why we should avoid them is now on.

VOCs often get emitted into the air as the paint (or varnish, or adhesive, or cleaning product etc.) dries and are at their most potent during and shortly after application. Essentially, VOCs are gases that are emitted from certain liquids and solids and can be harmful to health to varying degrees.

In fact, hundreds – if not thousands – of products emit VOCs. Common cleaning, decorating, disinfecting, cosmetic and hobby products can all be counted among the culprits, explaining why the concentration of VOCs is up to ten times higher indoors than out. During certain activities, such as paint stripping, the indoor levels may be up to 1000x outdoor background levels.

Paints, paint stripped and other solvents may have got a lot of attention for VOC release lately, but other products to be aware of include items as diverse as nail varnish, hair dye, aerosol sprays, wood preservatives, glue, permanent marker, office printers and copiers, carpet, flooring and dry cleaned clothing. Even common air freshers release high amounts of VOCs.

Should we be panicking about VOCs?

It is hard to imagine sleeping in a freshly painted room with the windows closed without suffering at least some degree of malaise.

The immediate health effects of limited VOC exposure may include skin, eye or throat irritation, nausea, headache, dizziness and fatigue, visual disorders and skin reaction. Effects of more severe and/or prolonged exposure include damage to liver, kidneys and central nervous system,allergies, respiratory problems and, possibly, cancer.

As with all polluting substances, there are a number of factors affecting risk levels. Considerations such as age and length and intensity of exposure greatly affect the degree of impact. Painting interiors is, for example, frequently not recommended if living with newborns or young infants, due to increased risk of respiratory problems.

Limiting the risk

  • Ventilate the room when using products containing VOCs.
  • If possible, vacate the house when renovating expensively with paint, varnish etc. to allow the chemicals to settle for 2-3 days, when exposure would be the greatest.
  • Gases can leak even from closed containers. Dispose of half-full or empty containers or unnecessary chemicals in accordance with local toxic household waste procedures.
  • Store spare chemicals in a well-ventilated space and away from any possibility of contact with children.
  • Wear a fume mask when doing household renovating work.
  • Don’t expose skin when taking on household repairs. Wear long pants and sleeved tops, use gloves and, if necessary, wear a hair cover.
  • Where possible, go chemical-free. Ask yourself if VOC exposure is necessary or if you are happy to go with alternatives – e.g. fitting a VOC cocktail of plywood, underlay and carpet flooring versus simple natural hardwood flooring.
  • Use water-based, low or no VOC paints and decorating materials.
  • Avoid using synthetic air fresheners in the car or home.
  • Clean green.
  • Read warning and hazard labels. If a product comes with a toxicity warning to marine life, for example, are you sure you want it in your home?

Further Reading:

Indoor Air Pollution: An Introduction for Health Professionals

Volatile Organic Compounds’ Impact on Indoor Air Quality

Tox Town: Volatile Organic Compounds

Greenguard Air Quality

Envirovent: What are VOCs?


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Bamboo fabric: what, why, how

Silky, luxurious and surprisingly versatile, bamboo has been fast gaining popularity as a common choice of cloth for increasingly mainstream fabric. No doubt that it looks – and feels – great. But does it deserve its much-paraded eco label?

Botanically categorised as a grass rather than a tree, bamboo is a wonderfully sustainable product that can grow at rates of over a meter a day. It matures quickly and is ready for harvesting in just four years. Its vast roots network continually sprouts new shoots, preventing the need for re-planting. In short, bamboo has the capacity to grow before your eyes without the need for ploughing, fertilising or poisonous pesticides.

However, whilst bamboo itself is a wonderfully sustainable plant, the fiber is more difficult to categorise. Essentially, there are two ways to convert bamboo to fabric: mechanical and chemical.

The mechanical way involves crushing the plant and using natural enzymes to break down the woody mass to natural fibers than can be spun out to a yarn to form what is sometimes called bamboo linen.

Mechanical manufacturing of this kind is labour intensive and costly, which is why most bamboo fabric is produced chemically to create a fiber that is similar to rayon or modal. In this process, the bamboo leaves and shoots are ‘cooked’ in a chemical concoction using solvents in a process called hydrolysis alkalisation along with multi-phased bleaching. The two main chemicals, sodium hyprodixe and carbon disufide, have been linked to a variety of health concerns, with carbon disufide being a particularly toxic nerve poison.

Given how chemically intensive hydrolysis alkalisation and multi-phased bleaching are, there have been some newer processes and nano technologies that have attempted to make the process more benign. Examples include the lyocell process, where the bamboo cellulose is dissolved into a viscose solution using N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide, a member of the amine oxide family (a group of weak alkalines). N-methylmorpholine-N-oxide is supposedly non-toxic to humans and the chemicals used in the lyocell process are up to 99.5% closed-loop, which means they can be used again, leaving only traces of waste.

In another example, Boston start-up Greenyarn is making ‘Eco-fabric’ from bamboo charcoal, which it claims is made without harmful chemicals and the company also proclaims to be highly environmentally aware in its production process.

Whether chemical or mechanical, bamboo fabric maintains a number of significant positive advantages, including:

  • Easy to launder
  • Anti-bacterial and anti-fungal and does not smell
  • Hyper-allergenic
  • Absorbent
  • Breathable
  • 100% biodegradable
  • Bamboo itself grows very rapidly without pesticides, herbicides or fertilizers
  • Growing bamboo improves soil quality
  • There are no GMO versions of bamboo known to date
  • It is possible to manufacture bamboo fabric without harmful chemicals

The bottom line? The growing of bamboo is an environmentally friendly practice but there are valid health concerns about the chemical broth used to cook the bamboo plant. Manufacturing facilities in developing countries are unlikely to have stringent health and pollution controls to mitigate the risks of working with these chemicals, opening a bag of environmental, health and ethical concerns.

Even ISO 9000 and 14000 standards do not regulate how the company regulates its industrial and commercial standards, and is more a generic summary of standards than a thorough checklist.

Independent certification bodies such as Oeko-Tex or Soil Association are other useful standards for fabric quality and harmlessness to the consumer, although they cannot vouch for the manufacturing process.

Right now, bamboo is only at the beginning of its journey as a textile fiber – and it’s a good place to start.

Further Reading:

Bamboo: Facts behind the Fiber

Material Guide: is bamboo fabric sustainable?

Bamboo fabric: how it’s made

Pandering to the green consumer

 

 


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Natural Cleaning

Along with questioning what we’re eating, wearing and putting on our skin, there is an increased demand for transparency when it comes to cleaning products that we use in our home.

Only a few decades ago, ingredients like vinegar and bicarbonate of soda were common household cleaning products. Since then, these have been replaced by hundreds of mainstream offerings containing a soup of complicated chemicals. Few are aware that many of these toxic chemicals can be legally labelled as ‘fragrance’.

Driven by an increase in skin sensitivity issues and a growing public awareness of reducing the impact on water supply, marine life and the overall environment, the demand for more natural cleaning products is rising.

More and more brands such as Bon Ami, Delphis EcoEcover, Method, Simple Green, Biokleen have been getting in on the act, migrating from boutique bio stores to supermarket shelves. The movement has further been bolstered by Celebrity treatment, with Gwynneth Paltrow speaking out about green cleaning on her lifestyle blog, Goop. In the meantime, Jessica Alba’s brainchild The Honest Company is now said to be valued at more than $1 billion.

Most of us harbour a suspicion that just because a product is labelled ‘legal’, that does not make it ‘safe’. The bright colours, strong smells and large warning labels on common household products should alert us to the dangers they pose, especially in areas where chemicals are left to accumulate over time, like carpets or air freshener scent build-up.

Affordable and accessible, natural cleaning has firmly made a move from hippy-ish to mainstream and even aspirational with an array of products you want to display, rather than hide under the sink.

Further Reading:

The Ultimate Guide to Homemade All-Natural Cleaning Recipes

Natural Cleaning Tips and Recipes

Non-Toxic Home Cleaning (Substitutions, Formulas, Habits, Products)

Make at Home Cleaners

7 Benefits of Green Cleaning