Bioplastics, electric cars, and a vegan diet will not save the planet – a brief explanation

    02 Dec 2021

    “Once, by giving flowers to your grandmother, you received plus 145 points for karma. Today – minus four: for unintentionally supporting underground workshops, pesticides and the head of a company that committed a crime against many people and one horse,” says the protagonist of the series “In a better world.”

    Today, environmental issues are indeed more complex than we used to think. You can compare alternatives in terms of the size of the carbon footprint – greenhouse gas emissions, or the amount of hazardous waste, the possibility of recycling or the rate of biodegradation. But given water and soil use, resource allocation, economic viability, and a dozen other factors, identifying less evil is not easy.

    Let’s investigate this issue, reading the Hmarochos article.


    Bioplastic is a safe alternative

    Perhaps the first step towards conscious consumption is usually the abandonment of plastic bags and disposable plastic utensils. The damage from them is obvious: after falling into the landfill, they do not decompose for decades or even hundreds of years, pollute the land and oceans, pose a threat to marine life.

    Packages that are offered as “environmentally friendly” are often oxo-degradable. Metal salts are added to ordinary polyethylene, thanks to which such a package “disappears” quite quickly. Actually, it simply grinds into microplastic.

    A report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature states that plastic microfibers make up between 15% and 31% of the total amount of plastic in the ocean. Today, microplastics are found in soil, water, glaciers, and living organisms. So far, its impact has not been sufficiently studied. Plastic microparticles have been formed before: due to abrasion of car tires, washing clothes made of synthetic fabrics, and adding granules to cosmetics. However, with the spread of oxo-degradable plastic, the problem will grow much faster than before.

    Bioplastics, at first glance, may be an alternative. It is not made from refined products, but from organic substances such as starch or cellulose. For example, LEGO recently introduced a constructor for which plastic is made from sugar cane. Refusal of oil is undoubtedly good for the environment. But plastic made from organic substances does not always decompose on them.

    Bioplastics may be suitable for composting, but often only in special, industrial conditions. For the system to work, such plastic products must be sorted separately and technology and infrastructure for composting must be created.

    Plastic can also be biodegradable. Each manufacturer of such plastic has its own technology, so research that would confirm the safety of its decomposition products is hugely lacking. In addition, a certain percentage of ordinary plastic is often added to the product, which after disintegration, turns into the same microplastic. For example, the Mexican company Biofase makes cutlery from avocado pits. However, only 60% of the material in them is actually bioplastic.

    Alternative types of plastic are practically not recyclable: their composition makes the process difficult, and a small amount – the development of technology is not economically feasible. The same applies to composite materials such as paper cups for drinks, covered with a special film inside.

    By the way, even paper bags cannot be considered a good alternative, although they are completely decomposed in the natural environment. The production and transportation of such packaging consumes much more energy, and therefore the carbon footprint of one paper bag is three times greater than that of plastic. In addition, due to their low strength, they are rarely used twice.

    Whatever material your package is made of, a lot of resources are spent on its manufacture, transportation, and subsequent collection and processing. The longer it is useful, the more justified this path will be. Therefore, the best option would be to abandon single-use and shopping with your own bags.


    The most environmentally friendly transport

    This year, the Irish low-cost carrier Ryanair was included in the top ten companies that pollute the air in the European Union the most. In fact, airplanes have the most significant negative impact on the environment regarding harmful emissions per passenger per kilometer. But cars are incomparably more than airplanes, so airlines are responsible for only 12% of all transport emissions. Motor vehicles account for 74%.

    Electric cars are often presented as a possible solution to this problem. However, there are a few nuances to consider. First of all, resources are spent on the manufacture of any car. Therefore, updating your number of cars every time a new Tesla model is released,  is extremely irrational from an environmental point of view.

    You should also consider the source of electricity. If the car is charged by coal burned at a local power plant, the benefits to nature may be less than the owner expected. The electric motor also does not solve the problem of congestion in large cities.

    Another nuance of electric cars is batteries that need to be disposed of properly. They contain lead, mercury, nickel, which, when they enter the soil pollute the land, water, and harm living organisms. One conventional battery can contaminate 16 m² of land with toxic substances. The car battery is ten times bigger.


    Fast eco-fashion

    In 2016, the environmental organization Greenpeace named the Swedish brand H&M among clothing manufacturers that have significantly reduced the use of toxic substances in production. Today, the company accepts clothing for recycling, produces collections of recycled materials, and recently launched the sale of vintage items in test mode.

    Such company initiatives set a positive trend, but we should not forget that the H&M brand has become almost the biggest promoter of fast fashion. This fashion encourages people to buy a lot of cheap clothes that almost immediately cease to be relevant or wear out in a short time.

    With the changing views of its audience, the company began to implement “green” initiatives, but, except for individual collections, they did not affect production volumes, quality of goods or pricing policy. 97% of their climatic influence is made by clothing brands at the stage of production. Therefore, as in the case of packaging, the more durable the thing, the more justified will be the damage.

    However, due to the poor quality of fast fashion things have almost no chance to move to a new owner or become vintage. In the United Kingdom alone, 300,000 tons of clothes are dumped every year. In 2016, H&M organized World Recycle Week, during which it planned to collect up to a thousand tons of old clothes. According to journalist Lucy Siegl, it will take about 12 years for the company to fully use the collected material. At the same time, the brand produces about a thousand tons of new clothes in 48 hours.

    In 2018, the company collected 20,000 tons of textiles. However, this material does not return to the shelves: things in good condition are second-hand, the rest goes to rags or shredded into fibers. Those who donate old clothes usually receive a voucher at a discount that encourages new purchases.

    To reduce the damage to the environment, you should buy quality clothes made of natural fabrics, preferably from local manufacturers. Second-hand is also a good option from this point of view. Old clothes in good condition can be donated to a consignment shop, donated to charity or exchanged with friends for something new.


    Green diet

    In terms of conscious consumption, meat is a disaster. Raising animals requires a lot of space, which is why forests are constantly being cut down. Between 1990 and 2005, beef producers were responsible for 71% of deforestation in South America. Some of the cereals used for feeding are already suitable food for humans. In addition, the meat industry leaves a noticeable carbon footprint. One of the reasons is that the livelihood processes of cattle contribute to the release of methane, which has a much stronger greenhouse effect than carbon dioxide. The damage from one steak is, on average commensurate with a five-kilometer car ride. In general, the meat industry is responsible for 14.5% of greenhouse gas emissions.

    However, abandoning the meat industry altogether is not the best option. Scientists have calculated that it is a vegetarian diet that allows the consumption of milk and dairy products and can feed the most significant number of people through the rational use of resources. Today, the average American needs land compared to the two football fields, to provide for his annual diet. For vegetarians, this number is reduced by five times.

    However, not all meat alternatives are equally effective. Let’s consider, for example, avocados, a source of healthy fats that are common in the diets of vegetarians and vegans. Due to excessive demand, this fruit has become a major environmental and even social problem. Rainforests are being cut down in South America to grow avocados and the same with coffee trees in Kenya. Large landowners are replacing small farmers.

    Avocados also need a lot of water. In a favorable climate, in order to grow one fruit, you need 70 liters of irrigation water. In comparison, a tomato needs five liters, an orange 22. In Chile, up to 1,200 liters of water are used for one kilogram of avocado, which is almost eight full baths. Due to the depletion of water resources, the Chilean province of Petorca has begun to turn into a desert, whose inhabitants now have problems with access to drinking water. Trillions of liters are spent on watering avocados in South Africa, whose population is suffering from drought.

    Consuming seasonal and local today is not only a direction of gastronomy but also an eco-trend. However, these concepts only work together. If you want, for example, bananas, fruits brought from other parts of the world may have less carbon footprint than those grown in a greenhouse in Europe. It is almost impossible to calculate the environmental damage from each product: even farm vegetables may not be the best option if you follow them 50 kilometers in your own car.

    In addition, overconsumption remains a significant problem. 40% of food made in the United States will never be on the table. Today, the world produces almost one and a half times more food than humanity needs, but it is unevenly distributed. Resources for making, transporting, preparing, and storing food are wasted when a piece of cheese begins to mold in your refrigerator, and then its biological remains, rotting in landfills, continue to emit greenhouse gases.


    Alternative energy = completely safe energy

    The first thing that skeptics about solar power plants mention is the cost of producing panels. This process is really energy-intensive, but modern panels compensate for the damage caused by 2-3 years of operation when it comes to greenhouse gas emissions.

    There are a few more things to keep in mind. The first is land use. The capacity of such power plants is directly proportional to their area. Today, the most significant stations are located in the desert, but in Europe, business people also use land suitable for agriculture to install panels.

    The solar power plant in Ouarzazate, Morocco, is planned to be completed in 2020. It is planned to cover an area of ​​16.8 km2 and provide electricity to one million people. Even Pavagada Solar Park’s largest power plant in India, with an area of ​​53 km2, has a capacity of 2,000 MW.

    Solar power plants also use large amounts of water to wash the panels and, in some cases, to cool them. One of the four planned units has been launched at the already mentioned power plant in Ouarzazate. It needs 1.7 billion liters of water a year, which can be extremely limited in the desert. In addition, such areas of solar panels heat the surrounding air by 3-4° C. The impact of this phenomenon on flora and fauna near the stations has not yet been sufficiently studied.

    Toxic panels are used to make solar panels: hydrochloric, nitric, and sulfuric acids, acetone, hydrogen chloride, etc. Subject to safety rules, they are not released into the environment during the production phase. However, the issue of disposal remains. The service life of the panels is about 30 years, so most stations have not yet faced this issue. At the same time, the International Renewable Energy Agency notes that by 2030 more than 1.7 million tons of spent photovoltaic cells will be generated, and by 2050 they will account for 10% of all electronic waste.

    Disposal of solar panels is mandatory only in the European Union following the Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (WEEE) Directive (2012/19 / EU). The technology allows reusing up to 70% of the materials from these modules. However, gaps in the law allow used panels to be exported abroad, where they are more likely to end up in conventional landfills. Today, the processing of installations remains economically unprofitable. Damage to the panels also complicates the processing. For example, in 2017, Hurricane Maria almost completely destroyed Puerto Rico’s second-largest solar power plant.

    Not so simple is also a question with wind stations. Although they require less toxic raw materials, land, and water, windmills and related infrastructure still impact the environment. First of all, on its inhabitants. Some studies suggest that wind noise and vibration make surrounding areas less suitable for certain species of birds, bats, and squirrels. Buildings can change animals’ usual routes, and noise can interfere with effective communication.

    Deadly collisions can also reduce populations: at Altamont Pass in California, turbines kill about 1,100 birds of prey each year. And although the number of victims is less than from collisions with cars or buildings in the city, such cases can threaten small species, such as golden eagles.

    Therefore, while Dyson’s sphere is embodied only in the pages of science fiction, alternative power plants remain much cleaner in terms of carbon footprint but not yet an ideal energy source.


    Sunshine-rich Gulf is currently slow to adopt solar, clean energy. The share of renewables in Gulf states’ electricity generation is marginal, and the region still utilizes fossil-fuel-driven power grids, but the potential for clean energy is substantial. Do you want to know more? Check the analysis here.

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