Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Engage in the discussion

"As meaningless as changing a CFL may be, the people that change the CFL bulbs get engaged in the discussion – and that's important." – Colin Bevan, aka No Impact Man

green man shielding black man under umbrellaThere seem to be a lot of people who challenge individual action. I have often found that those same people shift responsibility.

I am sure you have heard it before:
  • "What difference can I make? The government should..."
  • "For every plastic bag you recycle, someone else throws ten away."
  • "How does it help if I ride my bicycle to work while someone else drives their 4x4?"
The biggest difference that our small actions make is that they change what goes on inside of us. Let's look at my personal experience with recycling in Cape Town.

I decided that it was time to start recycling as much of our waste as possible. I already had a compost heap which was taking care of any organic waste. Now it was time to deal with plastics, cardboard, paper and the likes. After dutifully sorting my plastic waste I went to the Morning Star dump expecting to be able to deposit my various recyclables. Well, things did not turn out quite as I would have hoped. There just did not seem to be the facilities that were advertised.

Being me I sent off an email to find out what was supposed to be happening. After some emails back–and–forth it seemed like things should be better. So off I went for my second attempt at recycling. This time things were organised and clear. Everything went into the proper recycling bins. I was pleased.

Third visit...unfortunately it was exactly like the first. No recycling bins. Confusion. So back to square one with another email sent off.

So what is the point of my story? My action (recycling) has got me engaged with a problem within my community. It has me engaged in a conversation around the problems and challenges that we face. Suddenly I care about the quality of the dump in my area. That one small action has changed me.

So I encourage you to take action. Just choose something you care about and start doing something. It may or may not change the world, but it will change you.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

Degradable plastic

apples in degradable plasticI recently bought some apples and spotted an intriguing little logo on the back of the plastic packaging. I look carefully at just about all plastic packaging these days in an attempt to identify what type of plastic it is (and therefore how recyclable).

What I found was a bit different to what I was expecting. Below a little logo was a website reference, So, off to the website to find out what this was all about.

It turns out that these smart guys have developed a low cost additive for polyethylene and polypropylene which causes the plastic to break down into a biodegradable form (the long plastic chains break down into shorter chains which can then be accessed by micro organisms which break them down to carbon dioxide and water. You can read the full details on their site). Astrapak are the South African suppliers of these plastics. There are also some alternatives to the d2w process which make use of light sensitive, or starch additives.

d2w degradable plastics logoThe great benefit of this is that plastics which are disposed degrade much faster (they can be set to degrade after 60 days or up to 6 years later). One of the issues that this technique creates is that it impacts on recycling. The degradable plastic can be recycled, but in their words, "..there are many different and complex permutations of both input feedstock and output materials which need to be individually considered," i.e. it's complicated. It seems like it is easier to create recycled material that is degradable, while creating non–degradable recycled products is trickier.

This seems like a big disadvantage, but according to the EIA only 5% of plastics produced in America are recycled (I am sure that figure is much lower for South Africa). That means that up to 95% of the plastic produced ends up in land fills, water ways and generally strewn around the country side. At least using degradable plastics means that they will have a smaller, and shorter impact on our environment.

I am sure that a lot of people would rather argue the case for bioplastics. Personally I have always been sceptical of the benefits of bioplastics (and biofuels), mainly due to the pressure they place on food prices. More recently there have been some studies revealing that biofuels may damage the environment more [1][2] than emissions due to conventional fuels (bioplastics come from the same process, and therefore have a similar impact). So bioplastics may not currently have all the benefits that they claim.

Degradable plastic is a great product due to its reduced impact on the environment, but we do need to examine how we use and dispose of plastics. The reality is that plastic feedstock (oil) is a limited resource [3] and we need to use it wisely. Biofuels and bioplastics may not be the panacea that many people have hoped for. Only a small percentage of plastics are recycled. Plastics that are recycled are typically used to make other products rather than replace the recycled product, which means virgin feedstock is constantly required.

The real long terms solution is to reduce the amount of plastic we use, as well as reuse it as much as possible, and to continue recycling when a product reaches the end of its lifetime. So, in my mind, the question is this: how do we create plastic products with longer lifetimes? That is what really needs to change.

[1] "Use of U.S. Croplands for Biofuels Increases Greenhouse Gases Through Emissions from Land Use Change" by Timothy Searchinger, et al.
[2] More on the negative impacts of biofuels.
[3] According to Waste Watch,

"It is estimated that 4% of the world's annual oil production is used as a feedstock for plastics production and an additional 3-4% during manufacture."