What is carbon neutral, and how can plastic alternatives help?
So … what’s the deal with carbon neutral?
Being ‘carbon neutral’ means that you are not adding to or detracting from the concentrations of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere.
For those who aren’t aware, Australia must reduce our carbon emissions by 26–28% on 2005 levels by 2030 in accordance with the 2015 international Paris Agreement—and even then, whether that reduction will be enough to deter climate change is debatable. It is important that businesses contribute to the climate effort in any way they can—and one of these ways is often to become carbon neutral.
This is often attempted through using renewable energy sources, such as solar or wind power. However, businesses can take a step further and include the emissions caused by the life cycles of products they use, including plastics.
How does plastic emit CO2?
Plastic is among the most energy-intensive materials.
There are many sources of carbon emissions in the life cycle of, say, a plastic bottle. These sources include transporting raw materials, making the plastic resin, producing the bottle itself, and other variables such as cleaning, filling, storing, and packaging.
The oil (refined petroleum) and natural gas that make up plastic bottles often travel long distances to manufacturers, and this transport produces greenhouse gases. In some cases where travel distances are especially long, the energy required for transporting raw materials can make up 29% of a plastic bottle’s carbon footprint.
The process that creates the highest percentage of a plastic bottle’s footprint is making the plastic resin. Hydrocarbons (molecules made of carbon and hydrogen) in petroleum and gas are heated to very high temperatures, which breaks down these large hydrocarbons into smaller ones. These small hydrocarbons are combined in different ways to make different kinds of plastic. The energy used to produce resin represents about 30% of the total carbon footprint of a 500mL plastic bottle.
To convert the plastic resin into plastic bottles, energy is needed. Plastic resin is melted and injected into a mould, and then heated and formed into bottles. This process makes up about 8% of a bottle’s carbon footprint.
The energy consumed by other, variable stages in the life cycle of a plastic bottle—such as cleaning, filling, storing, packaging, and managing waste—can together create up to 33% of its carbon footprint.
The total oil used to produce one 500mL plastic bottle could fill ¼ of that same bottle. Considering that 1 million plastic bottles are consumed each minute around the world, these emissions quickly add up.
Are plastic alternatives any better?
In one word: yes.
Bioplastics such as PLA or Ingeo are produced from plants which convert CO2 to sugars and store the sugars as starch. The starches are processed to create plastic-like materials which are fully biodegradable. In this way, CO2 is being taken from the air and turned into plastic in what is known as a ‘short carbon cycle’, unlike oil-based plastics which release CO2 that has been trapped underground for millions of years.
These bioplastics are processed at much lower temperatures than conventional plastics, which saves energy. Some energy is needed to process the starch; but unlike other bioplastics, which are made from virgin mate
rials, BioPak uses sugarcane pulp (a waste product of the sugar industry) to reduce their carbon footprint further.
Using bioplastics instead of conventional plastics reduces greenhouse gas emissions by 75%.
So what can you do?
Investigate carbon neutral options! Many organisations promote carbon neutrality and give resources to help you on your way. Look into sustainable plastic alternatives (hint: if you’ve made it this far, why not check out our products here?)
Many businesses are taking climate change into their own hands—why not do the same?
For more info on BioPak products, have a look at their website.
Post by Tallis Baker.
Planet Friendly Packaging acknowledges the traditional custodians of the land on which we work.