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The End of Life Environmental Impact of Bioplastics

In the last installment of EcoSense, we looked at the end of life environmental impact of promotional pens, paying specific attention to plastic and bamboo. We examined how to properly recycle products made from these materials, and gave tips and tricks on ways to reuse plastic and bamboo pens to prolong their lifespan. Today, we’re moving on to bioplastics!

Whilst every step towards sustainability is indeed a positive one, some manufacturers claim the use of seemingly ‘green’ solutions which may not be quite as green as they seem… This can be seen with the increasing use of bioplastics: a plastic-like material fashioned from renewable biomass such as oils, vegetable fats, sawdust, recycled food waste and sometimes from used plastic bottles.

More and more industries are quick to utilise bioplastics in their own manufacturing processes, with the global bioplastic market projected to grow to almost $44 billion by 2022 (1). However, as with most new trends, we need to look to the future to confirm whether or not these new materials are in fact the real deal.

The green attributes…

The true “green” attributes of bioplastics mainly lay in their production, not necessarily in their entire life cycle.

  • Bioplastics manufacturing has a carbon footprint 75% lower than conventional plastics such as PET (plastic drinking bottles) and PS (fast food containers). In fact, substituting fossil-based polyethylene (PE) with bio-based PE would save more than 42 million tonnes of CO2 or 10 million plane flights around the world each year (2).
  • Bioplastics are generally made from plant raw materials such as corn starch instead of petroleum oil (a finite research) and are renewable.

And the not so green …

However, a study conducted by a group at the University of Pittsburgh found that, although bioplastics reduced the carbon footprint during production, they introduced greater amounts of other pollution such as pesticides and fertilisers into the environment (1).

Bioplastics also require extensive land use. In some cases, this land requirement results in deforestation (forest area still absorbs more CO2 than plants such as sugar and maize). A recorruring argument is that the land used for growing bioplastic crops could be put to better use growing food products (3).

When it comes to their end of life process, bioplastics are often championed for their biodegradable nature, with many manufacturers ensuring that products made from bioplastics are fully compostable. However, bioplastics require a specialised high-temperature compost environment in order to fully break down and will not biodegrade in commercial landfills or traditional compost bins. Many people simply do not have access to these facilities and may resort to disposing of their bioplastic waste in standard refuse or recycling points. Worse still, the misleading accolade of ‘fully compostable’ could lead people to discard bioplastic products such as pens directly into the environment, mistakenly believing that they will break down naturally.

Most bioplastics are disposed of in regular bins and will inevitably end up in landfills alongside the 6.3 billion metric tons of plastic waste we have accumulated globally since mass production of commercial plastics began – accounting for 79% of all landfill waste.  If bioplastic products are not disposed of in the correct manner and are placed in general plastic recycling facilities, their presence can contaminate any traditional plastics present and make those plastics unfit for recycling.


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Finding Other Uses for Your End-of-Life Bioplastic Products

Because bioplastics are not easily recycled, we recommend finding alternative uses for products that contain this material once they reach the end of their lifespan. Here’s a few fun and practical ideas to get the most use possible out of your bioplastic products!

Garden Markers – Poke your old, empty bioplastic pens directly into the ground to mark seedlings for a durable garden marker that will hold up in all weathers. As we know, there’s no risk of the pen decomposing in the ground!  

Plant Starter Sticks – Give your seedlings something to cling onto while they grow by removing the refill from your bioplastic pens and placing over the planted seed. Once growing starts, you can remove the pen to reveal strong and sturdy shoots!  

Fishing Lure – This is a great way to save money on costly fishing equipment! Simply empty the pen and add eyes and tail to mimic an insect. Then, watch as the fish jump on the line!  

Beads – Cut up old pens to make individual decorative beads. They can be painted and strung onto a piece of jewellery wire to create necklaces, bracelets and general craft items.  

Sprinkler Head – This is another great tip for our green-fingered readers. Pierce a plastic bottle and slot empty bioplastic pens into the holes, then attach a hose to the mouth of the bottle to distribute water around your garden.

In Summary

We’re all for seeking out new product innovations and eco-friendly materials in our quest to reduce our environmental impact. However, we also believe that, as manufacturers and consumers, we have a duty not to take everything we’re told on face value. When a new material enters the market claiming to boast a sustainable nature, we must conduct proper research to make sure those ‘green credentials’ check out.  

As we look in detail at the end of life impact of promotional products, it becomes more and more apparent that the key to establishing true sustainability lies with creating an effective circular economy (read more on this here) and by crafting products that are made to last.  

But how do we do this? 

With conscious product design, ethically sourced materials and regular assessments, we can create products that reject the throwaway culture of today and are instead built with longevity in mind. If and when a product does reach the end of its use, it’s important that the product can be recycled in the least energy-consuming way possible. Only then will we be able to use our natural resources in a continuous way without the worry of irreversibly depleting them.  

Extra Reading 

Interested in learning more about bioplastics and their end of life environmental impact? Here are some great articles which are perfect for brushing up on your knowledge!

What You Need to Know About Plant-Based Plastics

How Can the Environmental Impact of Bioplastics be Assessed?

Are Bioplastics Better for the Environment Than Conventional Plastics?

Bioplastics and Biodegradable Plastics

Bioplastic Recycling

References

  1. https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2017/12/13/the-truth-about-bioplastics/ 
  2. https://www.european-bioplastics.org/faq-items/do-bioplastic-have-a-lower-carbon-footprint-than-fossil-based-plastics-how-is-this-measured/ 
  3. https://phys.org/news/2018-12-bioplastics-necessarily-contribute-climate-mitigation.html

Please note: The EcoSense information series is protected by copyright and may not be reproduced or distributed without prior consent of The Pen Warehouse. To use EcoSense material for your own marketing, please contact marketing@pens.co.uk for permission.

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End of Life Product Cycle: The Environmental Impact of Promotional Products

Promotional products have long been a tried and tested marketing approach, making up a £17.7 billion market in the US and over £1 billion in the UK. However, as an industry with a large plastic consumption rate, there has been serious scrutiny over its environmental impact, particularly when many of the items are single use. Many products have a very limited lifespan, with the average writing instrument being kept for only 6 months before being thrown away (1).

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Here at Pen Warehouse, we’ve been doing some research on the end of life journey of promotional writing instruments, looking at plastic pens and how they compare with the eco alternatives on offer. 

Plastic Pens

Plastic pens make up a large bulk of promotional writing pens, likely due to the material being cheap, easy to print on and simple to produce in almost every requested colour imaginable.

The main material used is ABS (Acrylonitrile Butadiene Styrene) but can also be HIPS (High Impact Polystyrene) or Polypropylene.  In some very expensive plastic pens, high quality acrylic is used. These materials make up the barrel and the main bulk of the pen. 

Refills are normally made from polyethylene, polypropylene or nylon tube.  The tips are normally made from brass. The balls are made from either stainless steel or tungsten carbide.  The inks inside the refill are made to a commercial formula but will comprise of solvent (to make it flow), resin (to make it stick) and pigment (to give it colour).

So what happens to all these materials? A recent study claims that of those asked in London, 15% admitted to throwing their pens straight into the rubbish (1). In reality, this is likely much higher. If we look in more detail, is this really the best way to dispose of them?

In fact, all parts of our plastic pens can be recycled! To make it even easier, there are schemes such as Terracycle (https://www.terracycle.com/en-GB/brigades/bic-uk) who take whole pens and dissassemble them for you! 

But what about eco products?

Bamboo Pens

Many of the materials that make up a bamboo pen are recycled in the same way as a plastic pen. Bamboo pens still use traditional refills and, more often than not, still have plastic or metal clips and tips! The big difference is the barrel. At the pre-manufacturing stage, this makes a significant impact on the eco-friendly nature of a pen. While plastics use oil as a raw material, bamboo is a sustainable resource – but what about their end of life differences?

Composting Bamboo

Many bamboo products claim to be compostable because after all, it’s just wood, right? But how long does it actually take to break down?

Reuse – Creative Bamboo Ideas! 

If you fancy doing something different with your bamboo pen after it’s been used, there are of course other more creative options!

  1. Garden Markers (https://www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/340866265519094744/?lp=true)
  2. Bamboo Mirror (https://www.blinds.com/blog/10-things-make-old-bamboo-blinds)
  3. Bamboo Pen Holder (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=DzlJnSbv9cw)

Recycled Paper Pens

These pens have been around for decades, made from recycled paper with a plastic refill. Once again, the plastic refill can be recycled in the same way as a plastic pen refill. 

As for the barrel, simply put it into your normal paper recycling waste!

Summary

We all have a duty of care to our fellow humans, to future generations and indeed to the planet itself when it comes to sustainability.

That’s why we recommend giving serious consideration to the end of life impact of your products, examining what the main culprits are and how their overall impact can be lessened. Our advice to manufacturers is to take one of two approaches:

Either: Craft products with longevity in mind, using durable materials and high-quality production processes that allow your customers to use the product for years to come. Remember, it’s always better to reuse than recycle, so try to create products which facilitate this. 

Or: Where possible, create products which are easily biodegradable using sustainable materials such as bamboo, wood, glass and cork. Try to incorporate materials which are easily recycled into your products, like aluminium which is a closed-loop recycling process (no new materials are introduced during recycling). If the products you create cannot last forever, then look for ways to make them easily reabsorbed by the environment with as little impact as possible.   

As we are learning, designing products for eventual recycling is simply not enough in terms of commitment to sustainability and overall effectiveness. We need to work towards creating a circular economy (read more on this subject here) in order to truly eliminate waste, environmental impact and the depletion of our natural resources.  

This can be achieved through conscious design and manufacture, shifting our focus from the recycling of products to the production of well made, long lasting or easily biodegradable products right from inception. This, along with consistent assessments of the environmental risks and benefits of new product designs and identifying the best opportunities for product innovation and improvement, will help manufacturers to better understand the environmental impact of the products they are manufacturing.

To learn more about the environmental impact of end of life products and how to carry out your own product lifestyle assessment, visit these interesting websites: 

How to Undertake a Life Cycle Assessment of Your Products and Services

Product Life Cycle Assessment Shows True Environmental Impact

Finding A Greener ‘End Of Life’ For Wood

Environmental Impacts & Benefits of the End-of-Life of Building Materials

References

(1)https://www.fuelmerchandise.com/staying-power-of-promotional-products-cpi/

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Conscious Cleaning This Spring

We are IN! A new factory and a blank slate. As we put together policy and practice for our new HQ, it is now time for us to explore and adopt what we have learned so far in our sustainability journey – and this extends to our housekeeping. Some of these ideas we have adopted, some of them you can use at home and others we will aspire to use in the future. 

Before we impart our tips, research shows that cleaning can: 

  • Strengthen the immune system by reducing dust, mildew, mould and pet hair around the home   
  • Reduce stress and promote relaxation 
  • Increase productivity and help improve focus and mental clarity  
  • Encourage you to organise other aspects of your life and adopt good habits 

When adopted, a clean working environment will make for happier and more productive employees! 

Cleaning Products: Their Impact

Most commercial cleaning products are packed full of toxins like phosphorus and ammonia, which the Environmental Protection Agency deems as “volatile organic compounds.” These compounds often end up being washed down the drain or toilet and inevitably end up in our natural waterways, building up over time and having a detrimental effect on aquatic wildlife. Naturally, solvents are used during our production and cleaning process, and any waste or excess solvent is processed through our in-house distillation unit (see image below). This unit separates the solvents we use and other waste in a process similar to the one used to produce whiskey! This means we can re-use it again and again, reducing the impact of solvents on the environment through their production and transportation. We have scheduled a future EcoSense piece on this where we will show you the process in full.

Another drawback when it comes to the eco credentials of cleaning products is the cost (both financial and environmental) of transporting the products. Large-scale transportation methods like ships and trucks use vast amounts of fossil fuels, the combustion of which produces harmful gasses like nitrogen oxide which eventually leads to climate change.

And what about all that plastic packaging? Cleaning products are often sold in recyclable yet non-biodegradable packaging (read more about circular economy in our previous post here), which uses energy and creates harmful pollutants when recycled. When not recycled, the plastic simply builds up in landfills where it takes around 1,000 years to decompose – releasing toxic chemicals and affecting the environment all the while. We have written to all our suppliers requesting that packaging used can now be recycled, and this will be a requirement going forward for our supply chain.

So, what steps can you take to ensure conscious cleaning? 

Paper towels are a household staple, having been used in the kitchen since 1931 and in bathrooms since 1922, but the environmental impact of using them is huge! One study suggests that, to produce a tonne of paper towels, 17 trees are cut down and ~91,000 litres of water are consumed (2). We suggest scrapping those disposable towels (which are often non-recyclable) and picking up some reusable cloths or, better still, make your own from old towels or clothes.

Next, why not try making your own cleaning products from natural or non-toxic substances? This blog post from Friends of the Earth shows you how to make cleaning products from things like vinegar, essential oils, baking soda and lemon juice for different purposes – meaning you don’t have to spend excessive amounts on store-bought cleaners and you know exactly what you’re putting back into the environment. You may also find that switching to natural cleaning products helps your own health, as traditional chemical-laden products are known to exacerbate allergies and cause irritation to the skin and eyes. In fact, a study by the Environmental Working Group revealed that more than 50% of the 2,000 cleaning products it studied contained ingredients that irritate the lungs (1). Check out #diycleaningproducts on Instagram for more inspiration and some before and after photos!

Making your own cleaners also reduces the need to transport products via large shipment methods, which in turn reduces the use of fossil fuels and dangerous gas emissions. You can also reuse the same containers over and over again  – effectively slashing your use of plastic and reducing the amount of plastic which requires recycling or ends up in landfill.

What Are We Doing To Ensure Sustainable Spring Cleaning?

We’ve made a number of changes to improve the sustainability of our housekeeping:

  • We are getting our employees involved! A sustainability committee has been formed and everyone has a say – from our practices to our products.  We will share our objectives for this year when finalised later this month;
  • All individual bins have been replaced with communal bins that are separated into paper, plastic and general waste ready for recycling;
  • Goods-in boxes either package outgoing products or are used to archive, cutting down on waste and reducing the need to use energy to recycle;
  • Employees either have two screens or larger screens, which has cut down on printing paper when proofing;
  • Paper towels have been replaced with dual airblade dryers throughout all washrooms;
  • Stock that does not meet our quality control standards either makes its way to local schools and charities or the stationery cupboard. This means less mess for us and a purpose for products which would otherwise be disposed of;
  • Cardboard that cannot be reused is shredded and used as padding;
  • Our next step will be to work with a local zero waste shop for products, for now we use the Method cleaning range.  You can reuse all their bottles and buy bulk replacements liquids. 

Because the EcoSense series is all about sharing best practice to promote sustainability in a practical way, we’d love to hear your suggestions on how we can keep a clean and tidy workspace using eco-conscious methods. Please feel free to email your tips to ecosense@pens.co.uk

In Summary 

We hope we’ve given you some inspiration for sustainable spring cleaning which doesn’t require unnecessary chemicals or excessive use of non-renewable materials. It’s little steps like this which, when taken by everyone, make a big difference to sustainability and the preservation of our planet. To read more on eco cleaning, browse the further reading and take on the new year with a clean (and conscious!) slate.

Further Reading 

Want to learn more about eco-friendly cleaning? Take a look at these great blogs for top tips on spotless sustainability! 

10 Eco Friendly Spring Cleaning Ideas

Tips & Tricks To Make Spring Cleaning More Eco Friendly

Clean Greener This Spring

Environmental Impacts: Non-Biodegradable & Toxic Chemicals

Eco Friendly Ideas For Spring Cleaning

Method Eco-Friendly Cleaning Products

References 

  1. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/06/realestate/do-diy-cleaners-really-work.html
  2. https://www.drgreene.com/perspectives/13-facts-about-home-paper-products-that-may-inspire-you-to-hug-a-tree