Author Archives: Val Vanderpool

Debunking the Myths of the Paper vs. Plastic Debate, Part II

Photo by eco-wisdom

Last week, we weighed in on the Paper vs. Plastic Debate, and examined the pros and cons of each where waste, energy, and resources are concerned. This week, we’ll take a look at how the contenders fare when it comes to pollution and recycling.

Pondering Pollution

Myth #3: Plastic is man-made and chemical-based, so it’s better to choose paper.

When it comes to pollution, plastic has become the chosen whipping boy, but in fact, craft paper production requires huge amounts of chemicals, that end up in our rivers each year, and are released into the air contributing to air pollution. Plastic production generates about 60% fewer greenhouse gases than turning wood pulp into paper bags.

Let’s consider PLA. It’s been touted as a panacea for the plastic problem, because it’s compostable, and comes from a renewable resource. But upon closer examination, unless the corn crop is grown organically, it still requires fossil fuel-based fertilizers and chemicals that cause other environmental problems and does not reduce our dependency on oil. In fact, one study found that the production of corn- and other bio-based plastics actually use more fossil fuels than a standard PET plastic. PLA isn’t as eco-friendly as it seems.

When it comes to waste and pollution, the frontrunner so far is the bag made from biodegradable plastic.

Reconsidering Recycling

Myth #4: It’s easier to recycle paper, so it’s the more sustainable choice.

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In reality, it is more efficient to recycle plastic, requiring about 91% less energy pound for pound than paper, but the sad truth is that the recycling track record for either bag isn’t good. Only about 10-15% of paper bags, and just 1-3% of plastic bags are recycled; although paper bags have a higher recycle rate than plastic, every new paper bag is made from virgin pulp instead of recycled fibers for better strength, while many plastic bags are made from once-recycled plastic polymers.

PLA and other bio-plastics get another strike when it comes to recyclability. They cannot be recycled with regular plastics, but so often are, creating an expensive problem of having to sort them from the rest of the plastics.

Plastics that are biodegradable in the landfill and under natural conditions, like ENSO’s products, are recyclable with conventional plastics, and do not contaminate the recycling stream.

The Bottom Line

Choosing paper or plastic is still a tough decision because biodegradable plastics are not yet mainstream. The biodegradable disposable bag is the best solution because it can be recycled if that’s an option, or thrown into the landfill where it will biodegrade in a relatively short amount of time. In addition, the industry is moving toward renewable sources, like algae, for plastic production, improving biodegradable plastics even further. For now, bring your reusable bags, or choose a plastic bag and reuse it or recycle it, and keep up with latest developments on the biodegradable plastics front.

Debunking the Myths of the Paper vs. Plastic Debate, Part I

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Standing at the grocery store checkout, realizing you forgot your reusable shopping bags, or if you did remember them, you don’t have enough, you’re faced with the decision: paper or plastic? First, you’re momentarily overcome with pangs of guilt; second, the inner dialogue commences. You’re a deer in the headlights, frozen, afraid to make a move.

There’s a lot of confusion surrounding the Great Bag Debate, much of it perpetuated by misinformation, common assumptions, and a whole lot of greenwashing. For years, it was thought that the better choice for the environment was paper, but it turns out that paper and plastic bags are just about equal in pros and cons. They both use resources, cause pollution, and generate many tons of waste that more often than not, ends up in the landfill.

To further complicate the conundrum, there is more than just paper and plastic to consider these days; plastic alternatives, including corn-based PLA, and landfill biodegradable plastics are commonly being used in packaging. As eco-conscious consumers, which bag do we choose, and how can feel good about our choice?

The Resources and Energy Pitfall

Myth #1: Paper is made from a renewable resource, so it must have a lower impact.

The first part of this statement is true, but in fact, paper production deals a double blow when it comes to climate change and environmental impact. First, forests are cut down, removing trees that absorb greenhouse gases and convert it into oxygen (not to mention the other impacts on wildlife and ecosystems in general); in 1999, more than 14 million trees were cut down to produce the 10 billion paper bags consumed in the U.S. alone. Second, manufacturing paper from pulp takes a tremendous amount of energy, and because paper is relatively heavy, it takes a lot of fuel to transport the finished product.

How does this compare with the plastics? Of course, there are impacts associated with the extraction of petroleum (just look at the Gulf), but it turns out that the actual production of plastic bags releases about 92% fewer emissions into the atmosphere than paper bag production, and requires about Plastic bags also weigh significantly less than paper, requiring less fuel to get them from point A to point B.

What About Waste

Myth #2: Paper breaks down in the landfill faster than plastic, so it must be the better choice.

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It turns out that under standard landfill conditions, paper does not degrade any faster than plastic. Even newspaper can take years to break down; newspapers excavated from one New York landfill were mostly intact after 50 years, and another in Arizona was still readable after 35 years. Indeed, the largest percentage of solid waste in U.S. landfills comes from paper and paperboard products, about 31%.

On the other hand, the new generation of plastics somewhat complicate this debate. PLA, or corn-based, plastics commonly used in disposable cutlery, packaging, and plastic grocery bags is compostable, but only among the perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility, NOT in the landfill where  most plastic ends up, or even in the backyard compost pile.

Biodegradable plastics, like ENSO’s products, however, do break down in the anaerobic landfill environment in a short amount of time (an average of five years), leaving behind only methane, carbon dioxide, and biomass. The use of an additive in standard plastic production also makes it a cost-effective solution. In terms of the plastic waste problem, the biodegradables currently hold the most promise.

Next week, in Part II, we’ll take a look at the aspects of pollution and recycling, and see how the contenders hold up.

The Impacts of Plant-based Plastics

Photo by Shira Golding

Corn-based and other plant-derived plastics are all the rage these days, and are marketed as the ideal way to treat our plastic addiction. They’re made from a renewable resource, lessening our dependency on fossil fuels, and they are compostable, reducing the amount of plastic waste lingering in our landfills—what could be bad about that?

Not so fast. The issue is a bit more complex than it seems on the surface, and it turns out that these plastics still have big environmental impacts, just in different ways.

Cool, My Cutlery is Compostable!

But wait. It won’t break down in my home compost pile, or in a landfill, you say? Plant-based, or Polylactic Acid Polyesters (PLA), plastics require the near-perfect conditions found in a commercial composting facility: consistent high temperatures, ideal humidity, etc. in order to break down. Very few consumers have access to these facilities; even fewer are lucky enough to have curbside composting pickup. This means that the majority of the plastics will end up in the landfill, where contrary to popular belief, they do not biodegrade.

Recycling Rewind

Well, then I can recycle it right? Wrong. PLAs are not recyclable and contaminate the recycling stream. Removing non-recyclables from the batch is a costly and time-consuming affair, and many of these costs are passed on to the consumer. Even worse, some facilities don’t bother to sort contaminated bins, and the whole load ends up in the landfill.

Oil Free, Guilt Free

But, they’re made from a renewable resource. At least I can feel good about that! Or can you? One of the strongest sellingpoints for many consumers lies in the fact that PLAs are plant-based rather than petroleum-based, and that’s a valid argument. But, consider how the majority of crops sourced to manufacture the PLA polymer are grown. Crops like corn, beets, potatoes, and other starchy plants are grown on a huge scale, are doused with tons of petro-chemicals, i.e. fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides in order to maximize production.

Processing the plant material to make the polymer also requires energy from fossil fuels. So, unless crops grown organically, the processing plant is using clean energy from the sun or wind, the process to make PLA relies pretty heavily on petroleum.

Wanted: Farmland For Food Production

But that’s not all. Perhaps the biggest, and most controversial, impact of growing plastics is the fact that it is taking up perfectly good farmland to grow food that is not being used…for food. Scientists predict that we haven’t seen anything yet when it comes to the global food shortage, so growing plants that could be used to feed people but using them to make packaging and fuel (that’s another argument altogether) doesn’t seem like a sustainable solution.

As we continue to lose arable lands to commercial development to support the burgeoning population, cut down the rainforest to grow corn and graze cattle, it makes less and less sense to use farmland to grow plastic. Some might argue that much of our cropland is used to cultivate livestock feed to grow animals that only a small percentage of the population eats, so it’s already an inefficient system, and this is a valid point. But, it doesn’t mean that we should add insult to injury and use food as a source for plastic, it only means that the whole system needs an overhaul.

Biodegradable Plastics to the Rescue!

ENSO Bottles

So what’s an eco-conscious consumer to do? It’s not very practical (or even possible at this point) to ditch plastic altogether, so what’s the alternative?

Enter biodegradable plastics. Products made with ENSO’s leading edge technology render any conventional plastic biodegradable in a landfill setting, where most plastic ends up.

ENSO’s biodegradable bottles and other products offer a sustainable solution to the growing plastic waste problem. They disappear under natural conditions, thanks to the work of microbes that quickly and completely break them down, leaving behind only organic compounds and new soil. They’re also recyclable. To move away from dependency on petroleum to source plastic, ENSO is always working with an eye toward the future, to consider other sources like algae, and improve existing technology.

At the end of the day, the take home lesson is this: Know what you are buying, and understand the impacts of the full process of how it was made, and what happens after it’s disposed of, because green products aren’t always what they’re cracked up to be.

350, 365 Days A Year

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On Sunday, 10-10-10, people in all corners of the world joined together for a Global Work Party to support the grassroots movement known as 350. Thousands of participants in 188 countries worked on more than 7,347 projects to raise awareness about, and take steps toward solving, climate change. By building community gardens to fortify local food systems and planting trees to offset CO2 emissions, to installing solar panels in the Namibian desert, project organizers hoped to send a clear message to world political leaders: “If we can get to work, so can you.”

Why 350?

Scientists and climate experts say that 350 parts per million is the safe upper limit for carbon dioxide in our atmosphere; the number currently hovers around 392 ppm, so it’s become a matter of both reducing emissions to keep the number from creeping upward, and changing behaviors to reduce the amount.

It’s a tall order, no doubt, that requires an overhaul of not only our lifestyles, but our political policies, business practices, and everything in between.

A Little Less Talk, A Lot More Action

It’s not just about 350. Reducing carbon emissions and fighting climate change are at the forefront of a worldwide dialogue, and it’s a long conversation. Add to the docket the related problems of the energy crisis, waste management, petro-laden conventional farming methods, the dwindling supply of fresh water, and the discussion could go on forever.

While having a clear understanding of the issues at hand is important, there is more than a lot of work to do to affect change on the large scale. Let’s hope the Global Work Party and similar events will inspire people and governments across the globe to get moving, and make these activities a part of everyday life. But where do we even begin, and how can the average person make a difference?

Getting to 350

Image courtesy of ENSO Bottles

The most sweeping changes must be mandated at the federal and international levels; policy and environmental impact go hand in hand, so a logical first step is to keep up with the issue and be vocal about it. Tell local and state representatives, congressmen and women, and the President how critical the issue is, then get to work at home, at work, and in your community.

Many of us are already working to reduce our impacts, and efforts like bringing reusable shopping bags to the grocery store, opting for the to-go mug instead of a paper cup, and even driving a hybrid car are a great start. But there are other overlooked steps we can take to further minimize our impacts, and make an even bigger difference.

Reduce environmental impacts at home and in the workplace by:

  • Examining daily habits, including consumption, energy, and waste. Track patterns for one month.We often don’t realize how much we are consuming, and how much goes to waste in a typical month-long period of day-to-day living.
  • Consuming less. Buy only what you need, share when you have extra, and use less water and electricity. You’ll save money, and reduce the amount of carbon dioxide your household contributes to the atmosphere.
  • Investing in alternative, clean energy to power your home. The upfront cost of technologies like solar panels is coming down, and many states offer tax credits and rebates to help offset the initial investment.
  • Understanding that all labels are not created equally. Currently, the onus is on the consumer to know what they’re buying. Just because a product claims to be eco-friendly that it really is; research, and substantiate green claims.
  • Changing the way we look at waste. Whether we recycle or not, all waste eventually ends up in the landfill, and can take thousands of years to degrade–if ever. It’s important to look at the inevitable last phase of the cycle, and factor it in to consumer decision-making. For example, biodegradable packaging, like ENSO Bottles, is a good option because it can be recycled along with other plastics, and completely breaks down in the landfill, often in less than a year’s time.
Paying it Forward

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Get involved with grassroots efforts already underway, like and other local causes. Once we’ve taken steps in our own lives, raising awareness and educating others is the only way to affect change on a large scale. For our kids, families, neighbors and our friends, set the example, and inspire others to take steps toward healthier living, and a healthier planet.

Will New Green Guide Revisions Help or Hinder Efforts to Market Eco-Friendly Products?

Photo by J Bloom

In light of recent news that SunChips is pulling their compostable bag off supermarket shelves, and the release of the new green marketing standards, now’s a good time to get down to the nitty-gritty of labeling. Are labels like “eco-friendly”, “biodegradable”, “compostable”, and “recyclable” a good idea, or do they just muddy the waters? Is there really any way for consumers to know what they’re buying?

The SunChips bag was pulled because it is supposedly too noisy, interfering with the consumer experience. Online chitter-chatter over the decision suggests that people didn’t really mind the extra bag noise, and the ones who did might be willing to make some sacrifices because they felt the bag’s environmental benefits outweighed any inconvenience…or do they?

Here’s where some critics have, shall we say, made noise over the issue. The bag is marketed as being fully compostable—and like all PLA (Poly-Lactic Acid, derived from starch from corn or potatoes) plastics it technically is—in a commercial-grade composting facility, where temperatures are high enough and conditions are perfect enough to break it down. The fine print, if there were any, could read that unless the packaging is disposed of in such a facility, it isn’t going to break down in a timely manner. Since the majority of consumers don’t have access to these mega-composting facilities, are the bags—or any PLA plastics—a sustainable solution to the packaging, and subsequent waste, conundrum?

Photo Courtesy of Bookshelf Boyfriend

Not really, it seems. If thrown in the landfill or the home compost pile, these products aren’t going anywhere fast; if recycled, they can contaminate whole batches of otherwise recyclable waste. So what about customer perception? Most people who buy these products think they are making a sustainable choice, and are casting a vote for the planet with their consumer dollar, when it can be argued that in fact, these products aren’t much better for the environment than conventional plastic. Indeed, they may even create new problems. Mass production of PLA materials requires farmland to grow the corn to make the plastics, instead of for food production, which could lead to rainforest destruction and increased use of petrochemicals, among others. Finally, these plastics are compostable* (*read the fine print), but not necessarily biodegradable, which may cause confusion for the consumer, and such claims could be misleading.

What it really comes down to is semantics, and these labels have been the subject of debate for months on the federal level, with greenwashing being the primary motivation for the FTC to take a look at how products are being marketed. Revisions to the Green Guides were released this week, with the proposed updates aiming to help businesses “better align their product claims with consumer expectations”.

Photo courtesy of voteprime.

The updates specifically define what “compostable”, “(bio)degradable” and “recyclable” mean, and do a good job of laying it out in a two-page summary of the nearly 200-page document. If a product is to be marketed as “compostable”, then it should, according to the proposed standards, break down into usable compost in the same amount of time as other materials in the pile. The meaning of “degradable” is also clarified, saying that in order to be labeled as such, the product must completely decompose in a “reasonably short period of time”, or no more than one year.

So what does this all mean for companies developing and marketing green products, and the consumers spending hard earned dollars to buy them? The heart of the matter lies in transparency. If a company advertises any kind of environmental certification or label, they must be very clear about how the product delivers, and be able to substantiate such claims. Period. Will this require more work on the back end? Of course. Will it make a difference in the quality of sustainable products available on the market? We can only hope so.

If nothing else, these revisions will help reduce instances of greenwashing, and hopefully hold those companies making green claims to higher standards. Clarifying the definitions of eco-labels will also make it easier for consumers to make informed decisions—which at the end of the day, helps keep the process on track and moving forward.