Ecologically Challenged – A Plastic Drama

From the movie American Beauty
How ironic! – From the movie American Beauty

I swear people in Berlin use more plastic than anywhere else I have lived. I literally see bananas wrapped in plastic on a daily basis (or I would, if I saw bananas on a daily basis), and I feel like every time I go to the market, someone tries to coerce me into individually packing each of my lemons to afterwards put them in a bigger plastic bag.

Of course, like everyone else on this planet, I found an easy way out: reusable bags. Does that make it easier to turn down an eager clerk who wants to give you the gift of plastic? Unfortunately, no.

On top of this, it does not solve one of my recurring daily dilemmas: What am I supposed to put compost in at home?

Compost is gross, it smells and it decomposes. I know, I know, it’s how nature works, and that’s supposed to make it okay, but still I don’t love the organic (as in breeding ground for thousands of fruit flies) side of compost. And yet, I am glad I live in a city that collects organic waste. Incidentally, I also live on the 4th floor, which makes taking compost out on a daily basis a very tiresome task. I decided I had to switch from lining the bin with a plastic bag to a more eco-friendly option, like bio-degradable bags.

But I did some research and who would have guessed? Biodegradable bags are most often a terrible choice.

First, there are not all created equals. Some are truly biodegradable, they can be broken down by bioorganisms in the right conditions, some are advertised as such but are in fact just degradable (meaning they break down and then spread everywhere and get inhaled/eaten by animals) – make sure the labelling is clear and check your country’s standards.

Even biodegradable bags might not biodegrade so well if they end up in a landfill. It turns out, many landfills now try to reduce leaks and gas emissions from waste by keeping it tightly packed under dirt and clay, without contact with oxygen and light. In these circumstances, biodegradable plastic bags emit methane when they break down, a greenhouse gas that  traps over 20 times more heat than CO2. Not exactly helpful.
To be disposed of properly, these bags need to be sent to the right collection facilities, which are not available everywhere. In Toronto for instance, bagged organic waste will be removed from the bag, and the bag, regardless of whether it is biodegradable, will be sent to landfill.

And of course, they require energy and material to be produced – like everything, they have an impact on the environment. I have read in several instances that some biodegradable plastic bags are made from oil, however, I cannot find a source to confirm. But oil or natural gas extraction are not the only threat to the environment. Biodegradable plastic bags that are made from bio-material are most generally made out of plants that were treated with fertilisers (not great for the environment) or genetically-modified (not cool either). I had never thought of it, but of course, who would use organic corn to produce cheap trash bags?

So here it is. My dilemma. I guess I should not line my organic bin with anything and simply welcome the mess. Or stop eating fruits & vegetables altogether.

If you have a better idea, I welcome it!

 

SOURCES: 1, 2, 3, 4

 

Ecologically Challenged – A Plastic Drama

You’ve got the Power #3

I find a lot of people still don’t really care about the environment, even in 2016 after all we know (and we’ve experienced). However, I don’t know many people who really, really, have no feelings about animals. So whether you are a dog person, a bird-watcher, a zoo-visitor, a safari-lover, a PETA-subscriber, or a hunter, take a sec to reflect on how your habits affect ecosystems and animal life. If you have no idea there is a correlation between both, go to 1. If you are ready to take your action to the next level, go to 2. And if you think you are doing everything that is humanly possible not to impact ecosystems, reflect on 3 (and let me know!).

1. Buy good meat

Captain obvious here: the meat you buy used to be an animal. Although I admit for a very long time I could not really see the chick in the pale flesh of chicken breast. It’s good to think about it, from time to time. And if you like animals, then it’s good to figure out  what you believe is okay for them to go through in order to end up on your plate (if you need help defining it, read this and watch that). No judgement here, it’s a very personal question that should have a very personal answer, and there is a world of options between eating meat 3 times a day everyday and becoming vegan. If you want to continue eating meat, but you want to make sure animals are treated humanely, start making sure you buy good meat. You can most likely easily find a butcher or a good supermarket within biking distance (see what I did here?) that will carry meat that was not industrially farmed, and that you know for sure meets your standards.

However, be prepared to pay the price! Meat should cost more money than it does in regular supermarkets. As a matter of fact, in his book Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer writes: “In the past fifty years, as factory farming spread from poultry to beef, dairy and pork producers, the average cost of a new house increased nearly 1,500%; new cars climbed more than 1,400 %; but the price of milk is up only 350%, and eggs and chicken meat haven’t even doubled. Taking inflation in account, animal protein costs less today than at any time in history.” (Interestingly enough, that’s also true of clothes). Meat comes from living beings that need to be reared and fed for weeks or months, and that has a cost that should not be forgotten, especially if you want to eat good-quality meat.

2. Change your eating (and overall) habits

If you really cannot stand the idea of eating meat anymore, or want to go vegetarian/vegan most or all of the time, rest assured your stance will have an impact! Not only on the industry and the environment, but also on the people you spend your time with (trust me, talking about your choices may be uncomfortable sometimes, but it does make people think about their own, and change breeds change). Although, make sure your other choices are consistent: if you are super serious about not eating meat for moral or environmental reasons, extend your reflexion to other animal products you might have a problem with, such as leather. Again, buying secondhand shoes, bags, and accessories takes the edge off the problem. Don’t forget to check that the beauty and hygiene products you buy were not tested on animals (even better, that they are also not harmful to animals after being used, like unfortunately microbeads are).

3. Think about animal habitat and ecosystems in a broader way

Making sure your consumption habits don’t hurt animals is a very complex matter (like pretty much everything in this world). Pesticides, for instance, are harmful to insects and bees, but also, amongst others, to fish, amphibians and aquatic life, pets, birds, and bats. Buying organic produce is actually a pretty efficient way to help preserve our ecosystems. As a general rule, reducing your water or carbon footprint, as well as your waste, will help preserve the environment and therefore the animals that live in it. Being educated about issues that lead to deforestation and mass-destruction of animal habitat, such as the culture of palm for oil or soy, or the practices that may harm animals, like renting out bees to pollinate the Californian almond mono-culture, is especially necessary to make informed decisions as a consumer.

What would you add to this? Does that seem easy or in the contrary, impossible to achieve to you?

You’ve got the Power #3

Things We Should Know About Shoes

Ah, shoes. Since I began shopping only for second-hand items, finding shoes has been a problem of mine. It’s really hard to find shoes that I like, look good, and are my size in second-hand stores. Although I am trying my best to avoid it, I have been forced at times to buy new shoes. That prompted me to ask myself: what should I know about shoes in order to shop for the best possible alternative to second-hand shoes?

Is leather okay?

Leather definitely gets a bad rap. Its detractors usually hate the fact that it’s an animal product, or by-product. Indeed, if it’s generally argued that the cows that leather is made from would have been killed for meat anyways, this idea has been challenged. Even though it’s really hard to get figures on the matter, some advance that leather can be a more profitable business than meat, which would make meat the by-product of leather, and not the opposite (it’s true for ostrich farming for instance, where the skin represents 80% of a bird’s value). It is also true for leather made out of animals that are not farmed to be eaten, such as snake leather. If you are vegetarian or vegan for ethical reasons, you might prefer to avoid it altogether, as cows are not better treated when they are destined to become leather. Actually, they may even be worse off, since people usually buy meat coming from their own country or region, where standards exists (for instance, in the EU). Leather, on the other hand, comes from all over the world, including developing countries where considerations regarding animal welfare may not as established as they are in developed countries (and that says a lot).

The process of making leather is also disastrous for the environment. The process of tanning animal skins to transform them into leather is mostly outsourced to developing countries,  where pollution standards are lower. They sometimes even import non-processed hides from Western countries — after all, that’s where most of the world’s meat is consumed. Leather is most often chromium tanned, as it takes far less time and is therefore cheaper. The chemicals used in tanning, including the very toxic ones like chromium, are not always disposed properly. The example of Kanpur, India, is chilling: the city is the biggest leather exporter from India (90% of its production is sent to Europe and the US), but this lucrative activity has led to the contamination of the groundwater with chromium, methane, leads and arsenic (to only name a few). Researchers believe it is linked to the higher morbidity rate of leather-factory workers, the numerous occurrences of kids being born with severe mental or physical disabilities, and the increase of skin diseases (again, to name only a few) – check these photos  or this documentary by Sean Gallagher to get a better idea of the situation. Add to this, of course, that as usual leather workers in developing countries run better chances of being paid a very low wage, of being child labourers, and of working in sub-standard working conditions.

And to make matters worse, depending on the way it was made, leather is not always biodegradable.

Of course, the environmental cost of vegetable tanned leather is not as high (even though it can still be wasteful and toxic, just not as awfully toxic as chromium), and you can try to source leather that was made in North America or in the European Union to ensure a certain level of working conditions, health, and environmental standards. Nevetheless, however the method of tanning, cow farming has a high water and carbon footprint that should not be forgotten.

But aren’t vegan shoes made out of plastic?

That’s a pretty big point against vegan shoes as plastic is terrible for the environment – it’s made from oil, and is far from being biodegradable. However, vegan shoe companies seem to generally be sensitive to sustainability and human rights issues, but of course it’s good to always double-check that they are transparent about all aspects of their production.

Here is a look at the material that vegan shoes and accessories are often made of:

PVC: Polyvinyl chloride (or plastic #3). Many, amongst which Greenpeace, argue that it is toxic, as it is mostly made of chlorine; that dioxins, another highly toxic chemical, are released during its fabrication; and that although it can theoretically be recycled, it’s not easy to do so, so a lot of it ends up in landfills to be burnt or buried.

PU (Polyurethane): also made of fossil fuel, but less toxic.

PET plastic (Polyethylene terephthalate, commonly called polyester in the textile industry): not considered toxic, can be easily recycled from water and soft drink bottles to be transformed into fibers. Sometimes used to make linings.

Rubber: can be wild or synthetic. If synthetic: it will be derived from petroleum. It may take hundreds of years to break down, and releases toxic chemicals and GHG when burnt. If wild: like everything, there is a right way and a wrong way to cultivate rubber trees – it’s better to directly take a look at the practices of the brand that you are checking out.

Cotton: incredibly water-intensive, yet 73% of the world’s cotton comes from irrigated land. Unless it’s organic, it’ll be sprayed with tonnes of pesticides that contaminate drinking water and groundwater. Prefer organic cotton, whenever possible.

Full disclosure: I am not a huge fan of the aesthetics of a lot of “eco-friendly” shoe brands. Below, I listed some of the companies I think make sleek shoes AND have a consistent approach to sustainability (At the exception of Everlane, and Beyond Skin, from which I have preordered shoes that have not been shipped yet, I have never bought from them, but would definitely, if I needed to – again, I’d rather avoid buying new shoes):

Matt & Nat

Beyond Skin

Good Guys

No Harm

BBoheme

Companies that also have leather shoes:

Veja, for instance, transparently documents its leather, and admits that it’s nearly impossible to work directly with leather producers and to know exactly where the leather comes from. It’s also impossible to have fair trade leather. They also carry non-leather shoes, and use vegetable-tanned leather. They are very transparent about their factories and how they work with their employees.

Everlane: Their website does not hold a lot of information about where their leather is coming, but they wrote back to me when I asked as follows:

“Our sourcing of materials from animals come from sustainable, non-violent sources. The leather we use comes from cows in Italy. The cows are pasture-raised just outside of Pisa, Italy, and the leather is a by-product, meaning that these cows are not raised and killed solely for the purpose of producing leather goods. Once the cows are killed for meat, the hide is saved, and we use this by-product for our leather accessories.” 

They also said that they use both vegetable tanned and chromium tanned leather.

Sources 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10:

 

Things We Should Know About Shoes

You’ve Got the Power #2

power-1-2-3-copy_block_3

Today is a big one! Some of you might have guessed, that’s kind of my pet subject. Yes, of course, I care about human rights and peace, or animal welfare (coming up next week), but what I am really passionate about is the environment. I am always a bit shocked, and concerned, that not so many people seem to share that interest of mine for sustainability and environmental issues. So just like everything published here, it’s pretty much a pep-talk to myself, and a work in progress, just like those 3 points are. If you master them already, please get in touch, I want to know how you do it!

1. Stop buying new things

How to start… well, I am going to just say it: shopping for new things is not exactly environmentally friendly, and in the long (actually not so long) run it’s not sustainable. That’s such a huge part of our lifestyle, it can be a bit hard to acknowledge and integrate, but it has become pretty obvious, even for IKEA.

The great thing is that the less you buy, the less you want to buy. I realized it early on. I spent less time in malls or on online shopping websites, and it did not take me long to get completely over it. Instead, I got to have a lot more time and energy to spend on productive things. To be honest, a huge part of my non-materialistic personality comes from the fact that I move all the time, and I get anxiety thinking about clutter. Packing boxes is the worst, so when I want to buy something now I always take a second to think about whether I’ll take it with me when I move. I visualise my two relatively small suitcases and all the things I need to fit in there, and I can assure you that it does the trick! 95% of the time, I put it back on the shelf.

So I guess my first tip for you is: move to a different country every year. Or pretend you are 🙂

And my real tips for you are:

I prefered experiences to things. Instead of buying or asking for clothes or stuff, I’d ask for tickets for a show, and I’d make a thoughtful homemade present (like not a crunchy, lame one – one that you know will speak to the person you are offering it to on a very personal level, and is also something they need and will cherish because YOU made it). Another great way to go: used books! They can be beautiful, and they have had a past life, and I love to imagine who they have been inspiring before me.

Not only is it better for the environment, but it also adds a bit of soul to a present you are giving, making it unique and unforgivable.

This thinking has permeated my lifestyle, and now I buy used and second-hand every time I can. This admittedly involved some changes in my habits, but I would not go back to a more convenience-centered consumption lifestyle. I buy clothes, shoes, books, furniture, and accessories second-hand (and sometimes, I even get them for free, through swaps, Facebook groups, or free stores!).

And this goes without saying, but when it’s your turn to get rid of things, make sure you either repurpose, donate to charities, or give them away to friends or strangers!

2. Watch your waste.

Although a zero-waste lifestyle is pretty hard to nail, it should be an inspiration. There are so many ways you can easily curb your waste: you could commit to never wasting food again, downsize your fridge a bit (a huge fridge/freezer does not help staying on top of things) or at least clean it weekly to make sure that perfectly fine bunch of carrots in the back does not get forgotten. You could join (or create) a food-sharing programme. You could never buy/take a plastic bag at the supermarket, and instead always bring a tote bag with you (it takes no time to become a second nature). You could buy your food in bulk, and bring your own containers (Mason jars for instance).

The added benefits of all this? Well, it’s pretty hard to eat processed food in a zero-waste way, so that means you have to cook, or at least prepare food more often. That means you’re in it for a way healthier and cheaper lifestyle.

There are great resources all over the internet to get started on a waste-free life. For instance, I like this blog http://www.trashisfortossers.com/ or this one www.Zerowastehome.com

3. Overhaul your lifestyle!

Sounds scary but it can actually be pretty fun. Buy a second-hand bike and sell your car! Go meatless on Mondays (or all the time)! Stop showering! (jk). There are lots of little deeds you can do on a daily basis that do add up. Preferring public transportation or better yet, biking to driving a car is a great start, and it’s also very fun and ends up saving you time (you really can’t exercise or read a book in a car). Eating less meat is another awesome way to reduce your carbon footprint. Plus, if you come from a culture where vegetarianism is not super popular (like in France), that means you’ll get to have great conversations with the people who will be surprised by your choice, and that’s a good way to raise awareness. Most importantly, keep asking yourself questions: where does this apple/dress/table come from? Is there a way I can get the same thing with a smaller footprint?

When I think back on how I was behaving and consuming 5 years ago (I mean, I thought I was avant-garde because I kinda recycled…), I feel like this journey was pretty impressive, and yet painless. Is that how you feel too? That’s pretty motivating. I hope in 5 years I’ll look back and be amazed by everything I accomplished to make sure my values meet my behaviour.

You’ve Got the Power #2

(Green)wash your hands of… “clean” energy

clean_block_1

I realized when I was writing this article that when it comes to energy, “renewable”, “green” and “clean” don’t necessarily mean the same thing. As a general rule, actually, “clean” is often pretty dirty.

Ask yourself what “clean” and “green” means in context.

Because it could mean a lot of things. It always upsets me when I see a company advertise the ‘greenness’ of their products, while, at the same time, individually wrapping each of them in plastic. I strongly believe that a company that truly cares about its environmental and social impact should have a systemic, comprehensive approach.

When it comes to energy, it’s important to pay attention to the wording. Natural gas and nuclear power are sometimes called ‘clean energy.’ In my opinion, clean means clean, i.e. an energy that does not emit waste, pollution or GHG when extracted, consumed, or after consumption.

Is renewable energy always clean?

As far as I know, there is no absolutely clean energy yet, at least on a commercial scale. For one, you need equipment to channel renewable energy such as wind and solar energy and to transform it into electricity, and this is not impact-free. It can also have terrible consequences for the environment and populations if done wrong. For instance, making phytosilicon, a necessary component of solar panels, creates hazardous waste that is not always disposed as it should, and can be very toxic for all living things. Deforesting land to grow palm oil to transform it into biomass is not clean, even though it might be renewable. Displacing large amount of populations and destroying ecosystems to build a dam to make hydroelectric power either. Renewable energy methods must be thought out in a sustainable way to be truly efficient and have as little negative consequences as possible.

Renewable energy are also pretty ineffective sources of energy when mismanaged. In this fascinating (and a bit terrifying) article, Gretchen Bakke shows how Venezuela’s electricity crisis is caused, in part, by a lack of electricity diversification, all for the sake of exporting oil to other countries.

Should we trust all kinds of “clean” energies?

If done right, renewable energy can get as close to clean as currently possible. This is not true of nuclear energy, often cited as “clean” because an operating nuclear power plan emits close to no GHG (however, all the activities surrounding it, such as building the plant, bringing uranium to it, and decomissioning it do). However, it produces radioactive waste and has a very high water footprint, because it needs a lot of cooling. On top of that, it’s a very hazardous source of energy.

Same goes with natural gas. You’ll find tons of claims that natural gas is clean, mostly coming from lobby or natural gas companies, yet that’s not true at all. It might be cleaner than oil and coal, but that does not make it clean, since it involves polluting extracting processes, methane leakages, and GHG emissions when consumed. Not to mention, like coal and oil, it is not a renewable source of energy.

Bottom line: the big picture matters more than mere words. I am especially careful when companies use words that I know have a bullshit factor, such as green, clean and carbon neutral, and I make sure to dig a little because I want to know that I am not being taken for a fool.

(Green)wash your hands of… “clean” energy

You’ve got the Power #1

In my opinion, we as consumers have a lot of power, and we tend to underestimate it. I strongly believe that making choices in your everyday life that reflect your beliefs and convictions is a factor of change in the world, but also of well-being. It actually feels pretty good to have a reason, a purpose, to consume in a way that feels right to us, instead of mindlessly buying for instant gratification, and following trends and cravings.

Although it can be hard to find the motivation to change deeply engraved habits that may seem easy and convenient, it gets easier as it turns into a new habit, and eventually, into a second nature. It also helps to have good reasons to get started. That’s the goal of this series: everyone has issues they feel particularly strongly about, and my goal is to show that you can have an impact on these issues by taking easy steps, wherever you feel like you are standing right now on the path of responsible consumption, and whatever you feel ready or able to commit to.

Ready? Let’s start with a strong statement: there is sometimes a direct link between the everyday products you buy and some of this planet’s most tragic human rights abuses and conflicts. If you think I am exaggerating, go to 1. If you have conquered the dungeon of fair trade and want to continue your quest, go to 2. If you struggle with the ultimate boss, go to 3.

1. Be honest with yourself

If you have no idea where to start: just begin by reading labels and educating yourself about such things as fair trade, while always exercising your critical eye. Ask yourself where things come from, and be honest about what it means (i.e. a 4 euro t-shirt made in Bangladesh was probably not made in the best conditions by a fairly compensated worker – chances are, it was actually made by a kid). Lots of cool clothing companies now pledge to work with communities to make sure they get fair working conditions and to enhance their well-being, for instance Everlane. This blog is also a great resource to learn more about human trafficking.

2. Go beyond the label, and the obvious

Okay, so now you master spotting fair trade labels! But did you know that your phone may be financing local militias in Africa? Indeed, some types of metal like tin, gold or tungsten are used in virtually all of our electronics. When these minerals are mined (before being transformed into metals) in mines controlled by local armed groups, the income generated may be used by these groups to finance a conflict, by buying weapons for instance. Not to mention the exactions that are committed by local militias in certain African countries, such as sexual violence against women. Yes, that really sucks. Although I won’t ask you to stop using your computer (I might ask you to pay attention to how you use it though), there are some cool initiatives happening, my favorite being Fairphone – you should definitely check them out. That’s just an example on how everyday items can have negative consequences in faraway countries, even in conflicts you’d never heard of. Bottom-line: never underestimate your power as a consumer, it’s very real. And do you research, educate yourself, ask questions.

3. Remember that we live in a complex world

So basically, I just told you that everything you do has a potential negative impact. Sorry about that. It may seem super confusing and disheartening, but the good news is, being educated about this kind of things makes a real difference. The other good news is: there are plenty of really cool companies that make beautiful, functional products, while still caring about the communities they rely on and their employees’ well-being and safety. So what is left to do? The next level is to think broader. Of course, good working conditions, conflict-free minerals and educated choices are a great start. But in the end, a lot of things have indirect consequences on a population’s welfare, such as pollution, climate change, general living conditions, etc. From rising waters that swallow entire islands and force populations to emigrate, to wars in the Middle East, the consequences of climate change on populations and peace are broad, unexpected, and unpredictable. The world is a complex place, and you watching your carbon footprint actually has consequences that go far beyond you, even though it might seem like a drop in the ocean.

You’ve got the Power #1

(Green)wash your Hands of… Carbon Neutrality

Greenwashing is still a thing. And maybe we got slightly better at spotting it over the years, but as climate change and environmental threats are becoming more and more common, companies capitalize on the marketing boon that looking “green”, “clean” or “carbon neutral” represents.

Here are a few questions that I have researched lately.

What does “carbon neutral” mean?

Carbon neutrality means offsetting the GHG emissions produced by sequestrating an equivalent amount of carbon, or buying carbon credits. A lot of companies, even cities, claim that they are carbon neutral (Google, for instance).

If you’d like to read more about how carbon emissions can be offset, see here and here.

Is carbon neutrality a good strategy?
It sounds like a good idea, but a lot of people don’t believe it’s an effective strategy for all kinds of reasons (most importantly: carbon offsets and credits don’t help cut emissions, carbon sequestration projects can lead to population displacements and human rights violations, a lot of fraud has been happening, and they don’t contribute to finding a sustainable long-term solution to climate change – see here and here).

Another major criticism is that striving to be carbon neutral does not necessarily address the reason why greenhouse gases are being released. If being carbon neutral is part of a bigger plan to transition into being completely “clean” (as far as this is possible), then why not. That’s what Google advertises it is doing, pretty much. The biggest source of their carbon emissions comes from the electricity used in their data centers, and they are also working to eventually be powered at 100% by renewable energies.

However, when nothing else is done to address the structural impact created by a company, then it sounds more like a marketing strategy to greenwash their products. Nespresso, for instance, committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2020. They also have set a goal to collect 100% of used aluminium pods by then, which is very different from actually recycling 100% of them (they currently don’t publish the actual recycling rate of their products). So it’s better than nothing, but in the end, it does not make Nespresso’s pods or business model sustainable, and being carbon neutral does not address in any way the fact that legions of aluminium pods are somewhere in a landfill waiting a couple hundred years to decompose.

More importantly, it gives consumers the green light to believe that what they are doing – in this case buying Nespresso pods, drinking coffee, and putting their pods in a bin so they can (maybe) be recycled – is good, that they are part of the solution, when they are actually still part of the problem. It encourages consumers to believe that this is a sustainable part of their lifestyle, even though it isn’t.

Carbon neutrality is most effective when it is used as a means, not as an end in itself. So when you see this touted on a company website, or if you decide to offset your own carbon emissions, ask yourself: is carbon neutrality used as a tool to soften a structural shift towards a more sustainable path, or is it just used to partially compensate for the consequences of a business model that is inherently unsustainable? If it’s the latter, then I’d consider it greenwashing.

(Green)wash your Hands of… Carbon Neutrality