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5 Bad Habits I Shook by Going Zero Waste

Often when we talk about the changes we’ve made since deciding to refuse single-use plastic, reduce our waste and/or live more sustainably, we focus on the products we buy (or no longer buy). There are plenty of articles online about ‘zero waste swaps’ and indeed, I’ve written a few myself.

I thought it might be interesting to change the focus slightly, and rather than talk about products, talk about habits. Now I’ve still got plenty of bad habits to shake (going zero waste does not make you a perfect human, alas), but luckily for me, embracing low waste living has enabled me to shake a few.

Throwing my food scraps in the trash.

That bin went to landfill, and I just thought that the landfill was a great big compost pile. I found out later it is most definitely not. It’s an engineered (and expensive to construct) depression in the ground that entombs waste without air, and creates a lot of methane instead.

Then there’s the fact that food makes for a stinky bin and attracts flies (particularly in hot climates), and needs hauling to the kerb every few days. Did you know that between 20 – 40% of everything the average householder throws away is food scraps?

Not to mention, I was throwing away my food scraps, and then buying plastic-wrapped bags of compost at the garden centre for my plants!

Setting up a worm farm, and then a compost bin, reduced my rubbish bin to almost nothing, solved the ‘how do I line my bin without plastic?’ problem (if there’s nothing stinky and wet going in the bin, it doesn’t need a liner) and gave me free nutrients for the garden.

There are so many solutions to dealing with food scraps. There are options whether you’ve got a garden, a balcony, or no outside space at all. There are options even if you can’t be bothered setting up and managing a system yourself.

Find more info here: How to compost without a compost bin.

Being ‘in love’ with my recycling bin.

Yep, I used to think that recycling was the best thing ever. (And pretty much that I was the best thing ever for filling it to the brim!) I saw that chasing arrow recycling symbol as my ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ card for packaging. ‘Oh it’s okay. It’s recyclable!’

It simply never occurred to me that I could say no to unnecessary packaging, refuse the excess, reduce what I did use and even rethink some of my choices for less wasteful alternatives.

As I’ve said often, recycling is a great place to start. But when I realised it was not the place to stop, and there was so much more I could be doing, that was when I really began to reduce my waste and my footprint.

Recycling – and learning how to recycle properly rather than chucking everything in and hoping for the best – that’s the first step. But it’s better to have an empty landfill bin and an empty recycling bin than an empty landfill bin and a recycling bin that’s overflowing.

Accepting free samples of everything.

I loved anything that was ‘free’. In fact, if somewhere was offering freebies, I’d quite often take one and then circle back round to take a second one. Because, free!

Cringe.

Whether it was sachets of moisturiser with real gold flakes in them (yes this was a real sample I once accepted), scented foot odour reducing insoles (again, a real thing) or any ‘free’ miniature or travel-sized thing whatsoever from any hotel, I was snaffling these thing up.

The old me thought all this stuff was great. It was duly popped in the cupboard and forgotten about. Yes, most of these freebies I didn’t even use. The new me just shakes her head at the old me.

What about all the resources? The pointlessness? The waste? The perpetuation of the cycle of more samples and free stuff?

Let’s just say, I don’t do that any more. I actually get more satisfaction now from refusing stuff than I ever did from taking it. (The only freebies I get excited about these days are my friends’ excess garden produce and cuttings from their plants which I’d like to grow in my garden.)

Taking ‘eco-friendly’ labels at face value.

Even before I went plastic-free and low waste, I’d buy all of the eco-friendly products. It was pretty easy, because so many products are labelled ‘eco-friendly’!

(Or if not ‘eco-friendly’, the equally eco-friendly sounding ‘green’. Bonus points – in my mind – for having an image of a green leaf on the packaging.)

It was only after I began to reduce my waste that I began to question these labels, and stopped taking them at face value.

There are no independently verified certification scheme for labels like ‘eco-friendly’ or ‘green’. (Or ‘biodegradable’ for that matter, but I won’t go into that now. If you want to read more, you’ll find my post ‘is biodegradable plastic: is it really eco-friendly‘ a helpful read.)

Anyone can write labels like ‘eco-friendly’ and ‘green’ on their packaging. And they do!

Rather than let the person who designed the packaging tell me that a product is eco-friendly, I now prefer to do my own research. If a company is truly environmentally responsible, committed to sustainability and equitable in the way they do business, they will be able to back up their claims.

They will be transparent, happy to answer questions, eager to find out answers that they don’t already have, and keen to talk more!

If ever I write to a company claiming to be eco-friendly, and receive responses that are cagey, defensive or hostile, I choose not to support those companies.

That’s not to say I can always find all the answers. But I make an effort and try to be conscious in my choices.

Waiting for ‘somebody else to do something about that.’

Before I decided to reduce my single-use and other plastic, I was the person picking all the overpackaged things off the supermarket shelves and muttering how ridiculous it was, and how somebody should do something about that, whilst piling those same things into my trolley.

I thought it was up to the manufacturers to change their packaging. I thought it was up to the stores not to sell these items. It did not cross my mind that I also had a role to play in this, and a way to influence change – I could just not buy them.

I don’t think it is solely the responsibility of individuals to create change. But we buy things and support (or don’t support) brands and companies, and companies pay attention. We can apply pressure, start conversations, write letters, share the good and try to hold the bad to account.

I don’t have the empirical evidence, but I’m pretty sure that nobody ever successfully influenced change by muttering under their breath. Nor by doing the exact thing they were complaining about.

It feels so much better to be doing something, and trying, however small that ‘something’ might be.

Embracing a life with less waste might not have ironed out all my flaws, but it’s definitely helped me shake some bad habits along the way.

Now I’d love to hear from you! What bad habits (if any) have you kicked through reducing your rubbish and trying to live more sustainably? Any bad habits you’re trying to shake that are still a work-in-progress? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share your thoughts in the comments below!

What’s the Controversy with Palm Oil (and is Sustainable Palm Oil Actually Sustainable)?

I’m guessing you’ve heard of palm oil. And I’m guessing that you’ve heard that it’s bad, or at least, you heard it’s bad for the orangutans. But if it’s so bad, you’re probably also wondering why all the companies that use it think it’s so good, seeing as it’s in around half of all packaged goods in the supermarket.

There’s got to be a reason for that, right? Otherwise wouldn’t they just swap it out for something else?

And what about certified sustainable palm oil? That sounds good, yes? So why do many environmental groups call for a boycott or ban on all palm oil, including certified sustainable palm oil?

Palm oil gets talked about a lot, but sometimes it can be hard to separate fact from fiction. Here’s the lowdown: what’s so good about palm oil, what’s so bad about palm oil, and what certified sustainable palm oil really means.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil is an edible vegetable oil, and it is produced from the fruit of the oil palms (a type of palm tree): primarily the African oil palm Elaeis guineensis, but to a lesser extent the American oil palm Elaeis oleifera and the maripa palm Attalea maripa. Palm kernel oil is a different oil, but it comes from the same plant – this oil is produced from the seed, not the fruit.

Oil palms are tropical rainforest plants, requiring high rainfall, humid conditions and warm temperatures. It grows best when planted 10° north or south of the equator. Oil palms are more productive when grown in plantations, fruiting after 2-3 years until 25-30 years, when they need to be replaced.

What’s So Good About Palm Oil?

Oil palm trees produce more oil from less land than any other oil crop (5x the second-highest oil crop, rapeseed, 6x more than groundnut and sunflower oils, and more than 10x crops like soy bean or coconut oil). The trees also fruit continuously, making them a reliable crop to grow and accessible for smallholders.

The fruits and kernels also have lower production costs than other oil crops, which makes palm oil an efficient and profitable crop to grow.

Because of this, palm oil is the cheapest plant oil to produce (whilst still being profitable for the growers), which makes it popular for use in foods and toiletries. 10% of palm oil is currently grown to produce biofuel.

Palm oil is tasteless, and has a long shelf life compared to other plant oils. Another advantage of palm oil is that it is semi-solid at room temperature, and can be easily refined into liquid and solid oils. The solid fraction has a melting point of 35°C (95°F). Solid palm oil is used in baked goods and pastry as a cheaper (and dairy-free) alternative to butter, in chocolate and desserts as a much cheaper alternative to cocoa butter, and in dairy-free spreads.

In cosmetics it’s a good foaming agent and considered preferable to using animal tallow (animal fat). It’s often used in soap to create bars that are harder and last longer.

In the 1960s, with concerns around the high saturated fat content of animal products like lard and butter, manufacturers began making alternatives by hydrogenating vegetable oils low in saturated fat to make them solid. Partly this was driven by health concerns, but it was also cheaper to produce. These trans-fats was later discovered to be even less healthy than saturated fats and many countries are now legislating to remove trans-fats from food (there are bans in Europe and Canada).

This left manufacturers looking for an alternative, which they found in palm oil.

Very few plant oils are solid at room temperature: the main alternative is coconut oil which has a lower melting point of 24°C (75°F). Cocoa butter is very expensive, and shea butter is rarely used in food products. With the rise in demand for vegetarian and vegan products, palm oil is a good alternative for products that traditionally would use butter or animal fat.

‘Good’, of course, depends on your perspective.

What’s So Bad About Palm Oil?

One of the biggest concerns with oil palms is that this demand for palm oil has meant a significant amount of deforestation, because forests are what grow on the land that is prime for palm oil plantations.

Deforestation means displacement of indigenous people and wildlife habitat loss as old growth rainforest is cleared to make way for new plantations. Animals that have lost their homes enter plantations looking for food: they are seen as a threat to the oil palm crops and considered pests, and often shot.

84% of all the palm oil produced worldwide comes from Indonesia and Malaysia. This also happens to be the only place in the world where orangutans live (on the islands of Borneo – which has both Indonesian and Malaysian territory – and Sumatra, which is Indonesian).

The WWF estimates there were over 230,000 orangutans in the wild a century ago, but their population has halved over the last 100 years, and the Sumatran orangutan is now critically endangered.

Orangutans might be the most famous victims of palm oil, but they aren’t the only species at risk. The Sumatran elephant, tiger and rhino and the Bornean pygmy elephant are also threatened.

Land clearing isn’t the only threat to wildlife – poaching and logging are also issues – although in Indonesia it can be easier to get a land clearing permit than a logging permit, so land is often cleared for logging under an oil palm permit, but no oil palms are subsequently planted.

Palm oil isn’t just a threat for wildlife: it’s a threat for the climate. Another concern with palm oil is that many areas used for oil palm plantations are natural peatlands. Clearing of peatlands and planting of oil palms in these ares increase risk of fire, and the UN suggests peatland fires contribute around 5% of human-caused carbon emissions.

Palm oil is also the 6th most heavily fertilised food crop in the world per hectare. Chemical nitrogen fertilisers are made using natural gas, which can react with nitrogen gas in the air during an exchange that takes place at 400-500°C. This requires fossil fuels not only for the reaction but also to get to these temperatures.

It is estimated that the nitrogen fertiliser industry accounts for 3-5% of all natural gas used and causes more than 1% of all greenhouses gas emissions produced worldwide.

What Is Certified Sustainable Palm Oil – and Is It Sustainable?

The Roundtable for Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) was established in 2004 by a collective of industry representatives, environmental groups and social advocacy groups to promote the growth and use of sustainable palm oil products. It now has over 4,000 members worldwide, who have all committed to produce, source and/or use sustainable palm oil certified by the RSPO.

To support this, the RSPO have developed a set of environmental and social criteria which companies must comply with in order to produce Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO). The RSPO trademark was launched in 2011, and RSPO currently certify about 20% of global palm oil production.

The RSPO is not without criticism. When the certification began in 2005 it was found to be complicated, costly and hard to implement. Many consider the standards to be weak, enforcement is limited and there is little retribution for non-compliance.

Certification can be given to palm oil plantations planted on land cleared of tropical forest, which begin as non-certified palm oil and later apply for the sustainable palm oil accreditation: this hides the reality that this certified plantation was recently tropical forest.

Studies have repeatedly shown that certified sustainable palm oil does not stop deforestation (although it may slow it down), it does not reduce the threat of fire or halt the decline in orangutan populations, and there are questions around whether it actually lifts people out of poverty.

Is ‘Certified Sustainable Palm Oil’ Greenwashing?

Many critics of the RSPO call it little more than greenwashing; a way for corporate palm oil stakeholders to look good to the public whilst continuing business as usual.

Some call for a full ban on palm oil, and many shoppers choose to boycott palm oil altogether.

Others critics argue that despite its flaws, a certification scheme for sustainable palm oil is still better than nothing at all, and it provides a way for organisations and companies to transition to more sustainable practices.

Supporters of the scheme, which include the WWF, argue that palm oil is necessary because it is cheap, more efficient than other oil crops, and provides economic benefits to the countries that produce it.

But production has roughly doubled every year since the 1970s, from around 2.5 million tonnes in 1970 to 75 million tonnes today (it’s estimated to reach 240 million tonnes by 2050). It is hard to imagine that such rapid growth can happen in a way that is truly sustainable.

This continued demand means the threat to natural tropical rainforest areas remains as great as ever, as does the threat to wildlife.

What Can We Do About the Palm Oil Problem?

Start With an Audit of Your Pantry and Bathroom Cupboard.

If palm oil is something you’re concerned about, the first thing to do is find out whether any products you’re using actually contain palm oil.

If you live in Europe, an EU law on food information that came into force in 2014 requires that palm oil must be clearly labelled as palm oil: it cannot be called vegetable oil. The US FDA also requires that oils be declared by their common or usual name in food products.

However, in Australia there is no such requirement and palm oil can be labelled as vegetable oil. Most companies will have information about whether they use palm oil on their websites, or will answer requests for information, so you may have to contact them directly to find out.

With non-food products, palm oil may be labelled as Elaeis guineensis, which is the name given to palm oil by the International Nomenclature Cosmetic Ingredients (INCI).

So far, so simple. However there are actually over 200 ingredients in food and cosmetics that can be derived from palm oil (you can find the list here). If you come across an ingredient in a product, ask the manufacturer for clarification of its origins.

If a Company Uses Palm Oil, is it Certified Sustainable Palm Oil? Switch Out Non-Sustainable Palm Oil First.

Most companies who use Certified Sustainable Palm Oil (CSPO) don’t use the logo on their packaging, but they will be keen to tell you their sustainability credentials on their website or if you ask.

If your audit reveals a lot of products containing palm oil, a next step would be to find out which ones use CSPO and which ones do not.

This gives you a priority list of products to swap out first. Better to support a company at least trying to do better over one that is not.

As well as swapping products, it is worth telling both the company whose product you’re no longer buying and the company whose product you’re switching to why you’re making the swap. Send a quick email, letting them know. This makes them aware that their customers are concerned about palm oil in products.

Slowly Switch Out Products that contain Palm Oil for Those That Don’t.

One by one, as the things you buy run out, start looking for a palm-oil free version.

Some products are easy switches. Palm oil doesn’t need to be in things like peanut butter, it’s added in because it’s a cheap filler. The same goes for chocolate bars: palm oil is simply cheaper than cocoa butter.

Some products are trickier. It may mean switching to a slightly different product (muesli over processed cereal) or it may mean deciding to make our own (and learning how to make our own).

The more processed a product is, the more likely it is to contain palm oil. Switch to less processed foods and less packaging and you’ll reduce your palm oil consumption, naturally.

Ultimately, the problem isn’t oil palms, it’s the way we’re using palm oil. Supporters of palm oil love it because its cheap. But do we really need to make more cheap fast food and processed snacks with empty calories?

Everything comes with a price. Cheap palm oil that results in deforestation, habitat loss, displacement of indigenous people, wildlife extinction and greenhouse gas emissions actually seems like a very high price to pay for low-cost shampoo and snacks.

Now I’d love to hear from you! Is palm oil something you’re concerned about or not? Have you ever audited the products you buy to find out how many contain palm oil? Do you have any ideas for anyone wanting to reduce their palm oil? Anything else you’d like to add? Please share in the comments below!

All links to facts and figures can be found here.

Biodegradable Plastic: Is It REALLY Eco-Friendly?

If there’s one environmental claim that makes me nervous when I see it printed on plastic-like products and packaging, it’s “biodegradable”. Why? Because without context, this label is vague and potentially misleading.

A one-word label like this tells us nothing about the true biodegradability of a product. What does it biodegrade into? Toxic or non-toxic? How long does the process actually take?

Yet companies plaster it on their products in an effort to make us believe they are more eco-friendly. As customers, we gravitate towards these products, as we want to make better choices.

Of course, some companies are diligent and can back up their biodegradability claims with real evidence. But others are not.

For the average shopper, it’s hard to pick out the good claims from the bad ones.

This post will help make some sense of it all.

What Does “Biodegradable” Mean?

Biodegradation is a chemical process in which materials are metabolised into water, carbon dioxide, and biomass by microorganisms. Depending on the material, toxic residues may remain.

The process of biodegradation is influenced by a number of conditions, including temperature, humidity, oxygen levels, presence of bacteria and time.

But what does “biodegradable” mean when it’s printed on packaging, or on the label of a product?

There is actually no single common understanding or definition of “biodegradable”, so different companies will mean different things when they use this label. That makes it pretty confusing for us.

We might assume that if a product is labelled “biodegradable”, it will be non-toxic, it will break down in home compost bins, and / or it will break down quickly.

But this isn’t necessarily the case.

The good news is, if a product is truly biodegradable, the company should be able to provide details supporting this claim.

And by details, I mean scientific evidence. Not anecdotal claims by the company CEO that they put it in their home compost bin and it “disappeared”.

Real data, based on actual laboratory tests.

Biodegradable Standards: What They Are and What They Mean

Because there are no defined understanding around what “biodegradability” means, certification schemes have been developed based on scientific standards and testing.

Certification is a way for companies to back up the claims they make about the biodegradability of their packaging and/or their products with scientific data.

Whilst voluntary, these schemes are attractive to companies wanting to demonstrate environmental responsibility and safety of their products.

As consumers, knowing that the packaging / product is certified gives us piece of mind, and helps us make better purchasing decisions.

These are the standards to look out for.

Standards for Biodegradable Plastics:

There are a number of different standards for biodegradable plastics, with different certification schemes established by different certification bodies. There is currently no standard with a clear pass/fail criteria for the degradation of plastics in sea water.

Standards for home composting:

These standards are awarded to products that will break down in home composting systems.

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

Australian AS 5810 “Biodegradable plastics – biodegradable plastics suitable for home composting”.

Belgian certifier Vinçotte had developed the “OK compost” home certification scheme, requiring at least 90% degradation in 12 months at ambient temperature.

Labels proving home compostability are Vinçotte’s OK Compost Home, the DIN-Geprüft Home Compostable Mark and the Australasian Bioplastics Association (ABA) Home Compostable logo.

Standards for industrial composting and anaerobic digestion:

These standards apply to products that will break down in industrial composting facilities or anaerobic digesters within a stated timeframe. (This is not the same as home composting, and these products may not break down in home compost bins.)

Look out for these numbers stated on the product or packaging:

European Standards EN 13432 / 14995 (13432 applies to packaging only, 14995 applies to plastics generally);

The Australian standard AS 4736 which additionally includes an earthworm test;

ASTM D6400 is the US standard with clear pass/fail criteria;

Japan has no accepted standard, but certification scheme GreenPla is widely used.

Labels proving compostability in industrial facilities are the ABA Compostable Seedling logo, the Vinçotte OK Compost logo, the DIN-Geprüft Industrial Compostable Mark, and the Biodegradable Products Institute (BPI) Compostable logo.

The catch with these products is that not everybody has access to industrial composting facilities. Even when they do, the timeframes required to break down these products (typically 90 days) are often much longer than the timeframes these facilities use per composting cycle. In short, these products may not biodegrade at these facilities and some facilities will not accept them.

Biodegradable Products Aren’t Perfect

Even where a product is certified as biodegradable, that doesn’t mean it is 100% biodegradable.

For example, for a product to comply with EN 13432 / EN 14995 standards, at least 90% of the organic material must convert into CO2 within 6 months in controlled composting conditions; and after 3 months’ composting and subsequent sifting through a 2mm sieve, no more than 10% residue may remain (as compared to the original mass).

The Japanese certification scheme GreenPla specifies the minimum level as only 60%.

“Biodegradable” doesn’t mean there are no heavy metals or toxic chemicals present. Each certification standard has its own permitted levels of metals including copper, nickel, cadmium, lead, mercury, chromium and arsenic: US standard ASTM D6400 has the highest permitted levels.

And if there’s no commercial composting facility in your area, it will likely end up in the bin.

Where possible, it’s always better to avoid packaging altogether.

Is “Biodegradable” Labeling Regulated by Law?

With no mandatory standards on biodegradability: however, there are guidelines about how the term “biodegradable” (and other environmental labels) can be represented so that they do not mislead consumers.

In Australia, the Trade Practices Act (1974) requires businesses to provide consumers with accurate information about goods and services. Businesses that make claims such as biodegradable on their packaging must ensure these claims can be substantiated. It’s the law.

Being able to substantiate claims is particularly important if the claim predict future outcomes, such as whether plastics will biodegrade or within a certain timeframe and under certain conditions.

Claims about biodegradability must:

  • Be honest and truthful;
  • Detail the specific part of the product or process referred to by the claim;
  • Use language the average member of the public can understand;
  • Explain the significance of the benefit but not overstate it;
  • Be able to be substantiated.

In Australia, the ACCC (Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) has taken action against a number of companies making misleading claims about biodegradability, including supermarket chain Woolworths.

Biodegradable Plastics: A Summary

Companies make unsubstantiated claims about biodegradable products all the time, sometimes deliberately but sometimes because they have a limited understanding of what it really means. Certification schemes are one way for us as consumers to pick out the good guys from the shady ones.

A product saying it’s “biodegradable” should specify what percentage the biodegradable content is, how long it take to break down, what it will break down into, and what conditions it needs to do so. (That’s what the certification labels are telling us.)

Look for products labelled “Home Compostable” first.

Bear in mind that even products that can be composted industrially may still end up in landfills, and  biodegradable plastics do not break down in the marine environment. A plastic bag will still look like a jellyfish to a sea turtle, whether it’s certified biodegradable or not – and biodegradable does not mean digestible.

If biodegradable packaging ends up as litter, it can be just as destructive and harmful as conventional packaging.

Certified biodegradable plastics are better than non-biodegradable ones, but they are not the perfect solution. Refusing, reducing and reusing are always better options, where we can.