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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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The Sun King of China: did he dream too big?


I don’t like [the sun king], the king often be killed” says China’s solar entrepreneur, Huang Ming. “I’d rather be called the world number one solar crazy guy”.

Huang Ming’s vision was to build a solar valley to demonstrate the power of solar. A way of life that he believes should be for everyone.

The valley includes a low emission hotel and conference center, a solar museum and solar houses. Solar architecture is integrated into the design.

Although his dream was to build a replicable example to be built across other Chinese cities, this has not transpired, mostly on account of technology being too expensive.

“When people ask me ‘Are you proud of Solar Valley?’ I would say that not really”.

“The purpose was to promote, to copy that. And now, there is only one solar valley in China, in the world”, says the entrepreneur.

When asked whether he dreamed too big he answers, ” a little bit”.

“But I don’t regret”.

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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?