In a world where we are always looking for the ‘better’ choice for our planet, it can be easy to get in a muddle over what the best option is. Don’t worry, you’re not alone, and there’s good reason behind this.
There are three main avenues in sustainability. Reducing carbon (which causes global warming), reducing pollution from non-biodegradable materials such as plastic (which directly affects ocean life, wildlife, food chains and ecosystems), and improving biodiversity (which is directly affected by the use of artificial fertilizers and pesticides). It might sound simple, but these three avenues often oppose each other, making consumer choices and business decisions a little tricky. Here’s why:
REDUCING OUR EMISSIONS
Our planet is heating up at a rapid rate. It is already 1°C warmer than it was at the turn of the 20th Century, and together we should be doing everything we can to prevent global warming going above 1.5°C to prevent the damage that has already been done from getting even worse. Even if we stopped emitting tomorrow, our past emissions would still create 0.2 degrees of warming per decade for the next 20 years. So the task we face is urgent and making changes is hard because everything we do in day to day life uses energy, from switching on the lights to buying takeaway food. For many years, this energy has come from carbon-based fossil fuels, and the intensive use of these cheap fuels is the sole reason global warming exists. So, the single biggest thing we can do to help halt climate change is to decarbonise our lives. Choose green energy tariffs, look into buying an electric car, and don’t support companies who use fossil fuels. Sounds simple, right?
If only it was that easy. For many years now, we have seen the invention of many amazing products that have revolutionised the way we live. Often these products are lighter, cheaper, take less energy to transport and most of all have a lower carbon footprint. The most famous of these is plastic.
PLASTIC EFFICIENCY AND POLLUTION
If you ignore the issue of plastic pollution, plastic is an excellent product. Take a plastic bottle - it is lightweight yet durable and strong which means that it’s a very effective packaging material, and per unit takes much less energy to manufacture and to transport compared to its rivals like glass. Many plastics are also widely recycled so have a long lifecycle if utilised properly, in theory making it an excellent low-carbon product.
However the amount of plastic we produce is now so huge that recycling plants are unable to cope with the sheer volume, making plastic one of the largest pollutants on Earth (especially when it comes to the ocean). If you’ve watched any of David Attenborough’s recent documentaries, you’ll know what kind of effect it is having on marine wildlife, with creatures not only physically getting tangled in plastic waste, but fish, birds and sea mammals ingesting plastics too.
But what is the other option here? Well many people, including us here at Nc’nean, turn to glass as an alternative as it doesn’t have the same polluting effects as plastic. But the grass isn’t always greener – the carbon intensity of glass is really high, meaning the more glass we manufacture, the more we contribute to global warming. See, we told you it’s not easy! Luckily we are half way to a solution for this problem with our whisky bottles which are made up of 100% recycled glass. This reduces the carbon footprint of each bottle by 40%, a step in the right direction.
If you fancy learning more about glass and its impact on the planet, click here to read our interview on 'the truth about glass’ with head of sustainability Amy.
BIODIVERSITY, ORGANIC FARMING AND CARBON
Now, as if we haven’t made things complex enough so far, here’s the third part to the eco love-triangle – the carbon intensity of organic farming.
To give some context, organic agriculture exists to protect biodiversity. Biodiversity is the amazing variety of life on Earth which allows all parts of the planet to work together to keep it healthy. As an example, we need bees as a species as they are excellent pollinators of plants, and we need plants for food for both animals and humans. If we were to eradicate bees, we might experience widespread food shortages because many fruits and vegetables would not be able to grow without them.
Organic farming protects biodiversity because it doesn’t use any artificial pesticides or fertilizers. These artificial ingredients help to keep pests away so plants can grow ‘healthily’, however many of them also contain harsh chemicals. These harsh chemicals kill insects, weeds, animals and aquatic life all of whom contribute to biodiversity and in turn make the world go round. We can hear you, let’s just ban the use of any pesticides, increase biodiversity and jobs a good’n. Right?
Well, as amazing as organic farming is, it can be more carbon intensive. Typically organic agriculture produces lower yields, so you are using a similar amount of energy to produce less crops. This is because some of the crops don’t survive on the way because they are eaten by our biodiverse friends (slugs, insects, rabbits) and are outgrown by other ‘unwanted’ plants and weeds. Lower yields mean you are using more carbon to produce the same amount of crop.
This sounds rather negative, but there are techniques which can be employed to help organic farming have a lower carbon footprint. Natural fertilizers/pest control and regenerative farming practices to name a few. We won’t go into them today since we’ve filled you with a lot of information, but maybe next time.
WHAT CAN I DO ABOUT ALL OF THIS?
Good question. We’ve just dumped a load of quite complex information on you without explaining how you can help. So, here goes:
Switch to a green tariff with your energy supplier, and if they don’t have one or it’s just too expensive, try a different supplier. We use Bulb, but there are many other awesome companies out there like Octopus energy or Ecotricity.
Reduce all your packaging consumption where you can, and swap for reusable options. As you now know, it’s not as easy as swapping glass for plastic or vice versa, what about not buying that drink in a takeaway cup at all?
Don’t always assume glass is the best option. Look for recycled glass options as it is likely the carbon footprint will be reduced, ask companies if they are open to switching to more recycled content in their packaging and in their production.
Buy organic where possible. It's better for you and for our soils, and while it can be more expensive it helps us to waste less!