Archive for September, 2012

EXPLORING SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES PART 2: DEGRADABLE VS. BIODEGRADABLE VS. COMPOSTABLE

September 26, 2012

From Flickr Common Creatives via @cobdogblog

Last week, we posted a piece on bioplastics and the problems that arise from improper disposal of bioplastic and plastic products. Primarily, we touched on the misconceptions regarding labelling. Labels are sometimes misleading and the terminology used is often confusing. We love that so many clients and customers are coming to us looking for sustainable alternatives to common materials like plastic. That’s why we want to further explore the differences between degradable, biodegradable and compostable to better manage waste and to make the most of these eco-friendly options.

The Environment and Plastic Industry Council states that the term “degradable” broadly implies that the product will break down into smaller pieces naturally, over a (vague) period of time. “Biodegradable” is the process that takes place after degradation, when the particles are consumed by micro-organisms, resulting in water, carbon dioxide or organic matter.

“Compostable”, meanwhile, refers to degradable materials that—under proper commercial or home composting conditions—turn into usable compost or humus that enriches the soil and returns nutrients to the earth. These products leave no toxic waste behind and the process takes between 90 to 180 days.

So, how do you actually dispose of these products properly?

As we mentioned in last week’s post, most municipalities in Canada and the US still lack the proper means to compost and recycle. Between that and misleading terms, well-intentioned customers are becoming frustrated.

With the help of some wonderful sources, including the Green Office, we’d like to clear some things up:

 

  • Compostable products must be disposed of in a proper industrial composting facility. If such facility is not available, these products can be disposed of in the backyard or in a home composter, though it will take longer for the products to fully disintegrate. Improper disposal of compostable products in the recycling bin will actually contaminate the recycling process.
  • Biodegradable products are most often thrown in the garbage. While this should theoretically be okay as these materials are thought to just “break down”, it’s really not. Landfills are basically built to entomb waste and therefore lack the microorganisms and oxygen to break down these materials in a timely manner. Until there are proper processing facilities for biodegradable materials—like in California and Washington—these materials should be disposed of through a composting facility. But again, with the green bin program only just taking off in major cities, most municipalities make it next to impossible to properly and efficiently dispose of biodegradable products.
  • Recyclables should always be disposed of through the municipal curbside garbage program—those blue bins that are handily available almost everywhere. If there is no access to these programs or blue bins, services like Earth911.org help locate drop-off locations.

 

As customers are becoming more inclined to choose products that are environmentally-friendly, eco-conscious consumerism has become a hot button for advertisers. While the Federal Trades Commission’s Green Guide regulates how companies can use the terms “degradable,” “biodegradable” and “compostable,” customers are still advised to beware of “greenwashing.” This is when companies deliberately lead consumers to think their brand is “green”, without actually being so. The next generation of green products can also be labelled oxo-biodegradable, hydro-biodegradable, photo-biodegradable or water soluble. With more and more terms being thrown into the game, companies are getting away with branding their products improperly—or even just making up terms that sound eco-friendly.

Recent amends to the Federal Trades Commission’s Green Guide and the Canadian Standards Association and Competition Bureau have tightened regulations on companies using these terms and require that environmental claims be made clear, specific and verified. Any claims made must now be backed up with evidence.

But, as with everything, it is up to the customer to use discretion when buying—and to always read labels correctly and to use and dispose properly. And let’s not forget that waste—any waste—should be reduced. Cutting back the purchase of one-time-use products and reusing or repurposing is always the best choice when thinking green.

EXPLORING SUSTAINABLE ALTERNATIVES: A LOOK AT BIOPLASTICS (Pt. 1)

September 18, 2012

We talk a lot about sustainable alternatives to commonly used products here at Fairware—from re-purposed and recycled items to organic textiles. It’s actually quite amazing how many options there are when making a conscious choice to buy better products.

Take plastic for instance. From plastic containers and packaging to utensils and bottles—so much of what we come across in everyday life  is made from plastics and they can have a devastating impact on the environment, human health, species maintenance, and the ocean.

First, let’s talk about what makes common plastics so damaging. Common plastics are obtained from petroleum, which significantly increases the production of greenhouse gases and makes the plastics reliant on fossil fuels. Aside from what these plastics take from the environment during manufacturing, there is the major issue of what they leave behind. Some common plastics such as Polyvinyl Chloride (PVC) and Polystyrene are notable for the hazards throughout their life-cyle.  The production and disposal of some plastics can threaten the life of ocean species and animals, but also humans.

So, in short: the production common plastics is threatening our environment and health. Yet, their uses are vast and the need for plastic is unavoidable.

Enter bioplastics or biopolymers, promising to be a safer, environmentally responsible alternative. While there are other types of “biodegradable plastics” on the market, for the purpose of this post, we’re looking at bioplastics such as PLA are plastics that are derived from renewable living sources, such as vegetable fats and oils, corn starch, potatoes, and rice. And as with most innovations, they’re bring opportunity and have risks. We explore both below:

But the biggest draw towards bioplastics is in its lifecycle. Most—though not all—bio-materials disintegrate rapidly in commercially managed composting processed. In theory, this means there are less harmful waste left in our ecosystems. Bioplastics that are not biodegradable are used to make non-disposable items such as cell phone casings or car interiors. The objective of these bioplastic applications is the use of sustainable, renewable resources in production rather than the end of life biodegradability.

According to some studies, bioplastics account for a whopping 42% reduction in carbon footprint. However, that’s not say these studies haven’t had their fair share of disputes. For example, Environmental data from NatureWorks, the only commercial manufacturer of PLA (polylactic acid) bioplastic, says that making its plastic material delivers a fossil fuel saving of between 25 and 68 per cent compared with polyethylene, in part due to its purchasing of renewable energy certificates for its manufacturing plant.

There remain critical changes that need to be made in the bio-plastics game. Powering farming machinery and irrigating crops rely heavily on petroleum as an energy source. There are also concerns around the use of genetically modified organisms in agricultural feedstock production and using a food based crop for fuel.  Finally, there is a major lack in composting and recycling infrastructure. Cities like Seattle and San Francisco have successfully implemented proper composting and recycling infrastructures. Without this infrastructure, most bioproducts end up as trash in a landfill. The emergence of a third party certification agency (BPI in the US) tasked with certifying a manufacturers claims regarding compostability to international standards will help to standardize what is and isn’t suitable for municipal composting.

Getting consumers on board is the first step towards implementing the proper production and composting infrastructure needed to make the best of bioplastic technologies. The first step comes in helping consumers understand the environmental, human and economic impacts made by their purchases (no small task, we know). But confusing labels often mislead consumers. Take “bio-based,” for example, sounds like a product branded like this would be biodegradable, right? Actually, this is not necessarily the case.

“Biodegradable,” meanwhile, does not always mean compostable, but rather that the product will eventually disintegrate. Bewildering labeling is actually a major factor of improper recycling and composting – it’s confusing to say the least. We are going to further into the FTC Guidelines on compostable vs. biodegradable vs. degradable in our post next week, so stay tuned for that!

Like all new, sustainable technologies and initiatives, there is good and bad. The development of bioplastics shows a promising push towards renewability and compostability. But there needs to be continued consumer education of how these products are properly used as well as adequate means to compost and recycle these bioplastics before this technology reaches its full potential.

LENDING TOWARDS SUSTAINABILTY: LANYARD LIBRARY

September 10, 2012

Lanyards from our lending library.

 

This month marks one year since we launched a unique project aimed at expanding the lifespan of lanyards. We sell a lot of lanyards at Fairware—those fabric necklaces that are handed out at conventions or conferences, usually bearing the wearer’s name at the bottom. They circulate all day and are usually tossed in the trash (or the junk drawer) at night.

We thought it would be a cool concept to lend out lanyards with both the purpose of reducing the amount being produced and discarded, and to document the events they have traveled to and the people that have worn them. This idea inspired the Lanyard Library.

It works like a lending library: we send out lanyards to be used for an event or conference and they are returned to us along with snapshots of the lanyards in use. Our lanyards are made from recycled plastic bottles by a supplier in Ontario that meets Fairware’s Supplier Code of Conduct.

Event organizers that use our lanyards not only save money and get to promote their event on our website, but they also demonstrate to delegates a commitment to sustainability.

Our lanyards have made their way to many fantastic events over the past few years—all documented on our website. From the Power the Vision event supporting Vision Vancouver and Gregor Robertson’s mayoral candidacy, to the Social Change Institute’s conference aimed at personal betterment in the midst of change, to the LOCO event hosted by Fairware at our Vancouver office. It’s great to see how our lanyards have connected us to so many great events and people. The wonderful reception of our concept reminds all of us that even small changes towards reducing your environmental footprint can have a big impact.

Lending libraries have historically been associated with books, but this trend towards borrowing other items is starting to take off. In Vancouver alone—where our office is located—there are a number of inspiring lending libraries that run with this concept. The Tool Library is a cooperative tool lending library that gives members access to a wide selection of tools for gardening, home repair, and bicycle maintenance. The Westcoast Child Care Resource Centre has a lending library which lends out equipment and tools for caregivers starting their own businesses.

We are hoping that more people will begin to rely on these lending libraries for their needs. It’s a great way to save money and cut back on the overproduction of products that are too often only used once.

As the 2012 event season heats up, we are excited to see our Lanyard Library grow. We are excited to see the journey our lanyards take this year!

The facts on borrowing:

  • Event coordinators are responsible for shipping and returning at least 60% of the lanyards (or they’re charged $0.50 a unit).
  • We take returned lanyards and wash and air dry them for the next user.
  • We expect to get a photo of the event (with the lanyards in action).

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