Have you been trying to lower your impact or reduce waste? Maybe you’re finding it a bit confusing sorting out through all the buzzwords and marketing tactics aimed at ‘green living’.
I did too. So I asked my friend Dora from Mamoradiary to help me out. She does an incredible job of comparing the overall impact of our everyday actions so we can each make the best possible choice that’s right for us. I asked her to take a few topics that she thought would be most helpful and lay the facts out for you.
Crushing Myths About Waste
What does biodegradable actually mean?
The thing is, everything biodegrades! Vegetables take 5 days to a month, plastic about 500 years and a glass bottle 1 million years. It shouldn’t be an eco-marketing tool or “good news”. “Biodegradation is the breakdown of organic matter by microorganisms, such as bacteria, fungi.” Everything ever existed breaks down and becomes part of our environment ultimately. Plastic (labeled as biodegradable or not) when biodegrading into tiny, minuscule pieces they will be floating in our oceans, into our soil from landfills or into our air when incinerated. Possibly eventually into all living things’ lungs, food, and systems.
What about bioplastics? The one which is made from plants, like vegetable fats or oils, corn starch, straw, woodchips, food waste and even, palm oil (normal plastic made of petroleum, oil). When they break down, they will be better for the environment. However, the length of time to break down could be the same as normal plastics, due to the fact that hardly anywhere in the world has processes in the place to deal with them properly.
There are companies out there claiming their products biodegrade quicker than other non-eco ones. That sounds great but the thing is, those items to biodegrade faster as they claimed to be (for example, eco nappies) needs a special industrial environment where the conditions are prefects like the high temperature of around 50C and plenty of moisture. These conditions can’t be found in the oceans, on landfills or in incinerators. At the moment not many places can create such conditions and there aren’t companies either out there collecting and processing them separately. On the contrary, bioplastics usually get mixed with other plastics (which has a well-working recycling system) contaminating batches with their different components.
This whole biodegrades, bioplastic aka alternative to the “evil” plastic just doesn’t stand right. They do sound better, but just aren’t cutting it to tackle pollution. The rules still the same. Refuse virgin plastic, reusing what we have and always bringing our own.
Shopping online or locally, which one has a lower impact?
I have to admit I always thought that shopping locally is better, simply because I walk (I don’t drive) to my local shop and just take what I need from the shelves without adding any extra CO2 emission to the trip itself. But then I looked into it and the answer was, again, more complex than that. Also, it depends.
Shopping locally doesn’t actually mean that items we are getting are locally produced. In fact, supermarkets or even local greengrocers and independent shops could have their stock delivered from anywhere far and wide. Heavy trucks on roads delivering stocks from faraway lands to warehouses and then to shops, adding to CO2 emission. Let’s also not to forget that physical shops require a lot of energy and upkeep. The fridges at the frozen and deli aisles, the lights on and all the cash machines, etc.
As for online shopping, items are arriving from the warehouse direct. There is no middle ground. In fact, ‘e-commerce had about 30% lower energy consumption and CO2 emissions compared to traditional retail” I know what you are thinking. How about all that packaging? While we worry about the packaging the items come through our door, in a huge scheme of things, they are less impactful that items on shop shelves. Buying online had a carbon footprint almost two times smaller than a traditional shopper. What we need to remember is, when we online shop it is best to opt for slow deliveries. This helps to lower even further our impact. Items that we want the next day, will be arriving the fastest way possible, meaning more trucks running on roads half empty or worse – air delivery.
Conclusion. If it is available to you and you can, buy only local products locally while getting to the shops without a car and only stopping at shops that are on your fixed routes, such as on the way to school or work, to a friend’s house. Overall, online shopping is probably the way to go.
Reusable vs. disposable nappies: which is better for the environment?
On average a baby goes through 7 nappies a day, starting with 12 when newborn and 4 when potty training at age 2,5 till 4. That is approximately 7000 to 12.000 nappies for one child. While reusable nappies usually the ones labeled ‘better for the environment’ it is worth touch upon a few things to be sure of that.
Let’s start with disposables. Cheap to produce, lightweight, therefore, reduced manufacturing material. Other than manufacturing energy, no other energy is wasted when using it, only when it gets collected and transported to landfills or incinerators. “2-3% of our household waste is estimated to be disposable nappies, approximately 400,000 tonnes of waste each year in the UK.” They will rot in landfill for approx. 500 years, slowly releasing methane into the atmosphere. Not forgetting the constant shopping which adds up to higher overall cost in the years that they are needed, plus the carrying and storing of those big bulky bags.
How about washables? Higher cost, energy and more complex materials are used to produce them. Still considered expensive and need an initial investment to make an overall savings in that 4 year period. There is always an option to buy them second hand to save money and also it helps with trialing different brands. Home-washed reusable nappies have the potential for the least environmental impact if washed in a water-efficient frontloading washing machine in cold water, and line-dried.
Reusable nappies washed on 60 degrees (with every wash) or above, tumble dried can have a higher impact than disposable nappies. “Using disposables creates around 550kg of carbon emissions, where reusables could create up to 570kg of carbon emissions!” Why? Because of the way they’re washed and dried.
Palm oil – Would banning the complete use of it just create another problem?
Deforestation to produce more palm oil is horrible. It needs to stop. But if we don’t use palm oil, what will we use? Demand is soaring and our population is rising so is there an answer here?
Palm oil is a very land-efficient crop. You get a lot of oil per hectare. Globally, palm oil supplies 35% of the world’s vegetable oil demand on just 10% of the land. It requires relatively few pesticides and it’s highly versatile. It’s in close to 50% of the packaged products we find in supermarkets, everything from pizza, doughnuts, and chocolate, to deodorant, shampoo, toothpaste, and lipstick.
Therefore, if we boycott palm oil altogether the demand would switch to another vegetable oil – perhaps soy, rapeseed or sunflower. Producing those in the quantity we need would lead to the same problem, if not more severe which we are in now.
What is the solution here? Not an easy one because it is everywhere and just unavoidable. What we can do is, live with less. Waste less. Cook from fresh ingredients when you can. Avoid the processed and the convenient. One make-up kit to last for years before replacing, rather than 50 unused then tossed later in life. Moderation, with all our consumption. If unavoidable, look for The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO sign). Certified palm oil protects the environment and the local communities who depend on it for their livelihoods, so that palm oil can continue to play a key role in food security.
Impact of Paper vs plastic
Looking into shopping bags life-cycle assessments (LCA) it is now transparent that manufacturing paper grocery bags have a heavier environmental impact than plastic bags. Four times more water is used compared to plastic bags. Paper generates three times more greenhouse gases. Plus, plastic bags consume 71% less energy during production than paper bags.
What about their usage? The same LCA also looks into how often certain bags need to be used to lower their global warming potential. Data shows that paper bags need to be used at least 3x, plastic bags need to be used 4x and cotton bags to be used 131x. While plastic and cotton bags on average more likely to get reused, paper bags are less so.
Once used, on landfills, paper bags take as long as to break down as plastic due to lack of light, air, and oxygen which means nothing decomposes. They also take up a larger space. When recycling, 91 percent less energy is used to recycle a plastic bag than it does a paper bag. Paper bags though, tend to be recycled at a higher rate due to a bigger market for recycled paper.
Conclusion – reusables (the sturdier the better). Always bring your own whatever it is made of (cotton or recycled textile is probably the best) and reuse till it falls apart.
I hope you found this post by Dora helpful, I know that I did. Do you ever get confused (or overwhelmed) by trying to make the best possible choice? Let us know if there are other topics you would be interested in comparing. Head on over to Dora’s blog to download your free Low Impact Life guide.
Dora Botta is a London based mum of two and freelance writer, blogger. She is passionate about encouraging others to live a sustainable and low impact lifestyle. She also shares tasty and easy vegan recipe ideas. She is non-judgy and honest about her journey with all the wins and the fails. You can read more about her day to day life on Instagram @mamoradiary or her blog.