Climate Leadership in Bioplastics


July 13, 2021

Climate Leadership in Bioplastics

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The UN World Meteorological Organization this year released a report which said that 2020 was one of the three warmest years on record, the past six years, 2015–2020, were the six warmest on record. The last five-year (2016–2020) and 10-year (2011–2020) averages were also the warmest on record. The same report also discussed the risk of climate-related impacts and how dependent they are on complex interactions between climate-related hazards and the vulnerability, exposure and the adaptive capacity of human and natural systems.

At our current levels of global greenhouse gas emissions, we remain on course to exceed the global agreed temperature thresholds of either 1.5 °C or 2 °C above pre-industrial levels, which would increase the risks of climate change impacts beyond what we have already seen. If you were to check out this clock you would see that we have 6 years and 220 days until we breach the 1.5 °C threshold. 6 years in the scheme of things is a very short window for change, too short in my opinion, however we have seen with Covid 19 how the world’s population can be agile when facing a significant threat. So what is that threat? See below a summary of just some of the things that will happen at 1.5 °C warming.

  1. Temperature Extremes – Most countries will see more hot days, especially in the tropics. At 1.5 °C warming, about 14 percent of Earth’s population will be exposed to severe heatwaves at least once every five years, while at 2 degrees warming that number jumps to 37 percent. Extreme heatwaves will become widespread at 1.5 °C warming. In Earth’s northern latitudes, the coldest nights will be about 4.5°C warmer at 1.5°C of warming, compared to about 6 °C warmer at 2 degrees of warming. Arctic land regions will see cold extremes warm by as much as 5.5 °C at 1.5 °C warming or less, while at warming of 1.5 to 2 degrees Celsius, cold extremes will be up to 8 degrees °C warmer. Cold spells will also be shorter. Really – just a big mess in our current weather patterns.
  2. Droughts – limiting warming to 1.5 °C is expected to significantly reduce the probability of drought and risks related to water availability in some regions, particularly in the Mediterranean (including Southern Europe, Northern Africa and the Near-East), and in Southern Africa, South America and Australia. About 61 million more people in Earth’s urban areas would be exposed to severe drought in a 2 °C warmer world than at 1.5 °C warming.
  3. Water Availability – Between 184 and 270 million people are projected to be exposed to increases in water scarcity at 1.5 °C warming. People in river basins, especially in the Middle and Near East, will be particularly vulnerable, already regions with political instability.
  4. Extreme Precipitation – We will see an increase in heavy rainfall events especially in the Northern Hemisphere high latitudes (Alaska/Western Canada, Eastern Canada/Greenland/Iceland, Northern Europe, Northern Asia); mountainous regions like the Tibetan Plateau; Southeast Asia; and Eastern North America, with higher flooding risks. More of Earth will also be affected by flooding and increased runoff. Heavy rainfall from tropical cyclones is projected to be higher.
  5. Loss of Species and Extinction — At 1.5 °C warming, 6 percent of the insects, 8 percent of the plants and 4 percent of the vertebrates will see their geographical range reduced by half.
  6. Marine Ecosystems — At 1.5 °C warming, the geographic ranges of many marine species will shift to higher latitudes, new ecosystems will appear, and there will be more damage to marine ecosystems. This will have impacts on humans, but some particularly in northern regions may see temporary gains. Fisheries & Aquaculture will be less productive.
  7. Human Impacts – At 1.5 °C warming, the report projects that climate-related risks to human health, livelihoods, food security, human security, water supply and economic growth will all increase. Already vulnerable populations such as indigenous peoples and communities with livelihoods based on agriculture or coastal resources will be at the highest risk. Regions at highest risk include Arctic ecosystems, dryland regions, small-island developing states and the least developed countries. The impacts could be several hundred million people.
  8. Compound issues – With all of the above issues comes compound effects of 1.5 °C warming, famine, war, increased diseases, heart related issues, economic issues and that is only the half of it.

So looking at all of the above issues that will happen at 1.5 °C warming, what can we as individuals do to make a difference – make informed consumer choices which demand the market shift in a way that makes a difference. But how easy is that? Well, it’s getting easier for sure.

Only yesterday I collected my new glasses from Specsavers, the glasses I chose were Timberland glasses, nothing special about how they looked or any particular interesting features except for one, when I was faced with the choice of choosing another well known designer brand or the Timberland ones, there was one feature that swayed me – the Timberland glasses were made from 35% bio-based plastics. Bioplastic simply refers to plastic made from plant or other biological material instead of fossil fuels.

It can either be made by extracting sugar from plants like corn and sugarcane to convert into polylactic acids (PLAs), or it can be made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHAs) engineered from microorganisms. PLA plastic is commonly used in food packaging, while PHA is often used in medical devices like sutures and cardiovascular patches.

Because PLA often comes from the same large industrial facilities making products like ethanol, it’s the cheapest source of bioplastic. It’s the most common type and is also used in plastic bottles, utensils, and textiles.

But what are the benefits of bioplastic? Well reduced carbon footprint for one. 1 kg of standard fossil fuel plastic creates approx. 6 kg of carbon emissions. The world now produces over 380 Million tonnes of plastic, so accounts for approximately 2.28 Billion Tonnes of CO2 emissions. To put that in perspective, about 5.3% of our global emissions come from plastics alone. Over 4 billion people in the world wear glasses, if every glasses manufacturer in the world followed Timberlands lead then the emissions from their products could be up to 35% less (Assuming the bioplastic is produced using renewable energy).

There are other benefits to Bioplastic also which I won’t get into now but really this is a great innovation and many companies are making the best of its characteristics:

  • Tetrapak – Use bioplastic in packaging – check it out on milk cartons from companies such as Aurivo dairies. Lidl no doubt was a driving force behind the switch. Glanbia is even looking to become a producer of Bioplastics from waste dairy products through its Agrichemwhey project.
  • Down2Earth Materials – Are an Irish company supplying biobased packaging solutions in partnership with Vegware to the food service / restaurant / hospitality industry.
  • Bantry Marine Research Centre – are researching making bioplastics from seaweed.
  • Lego – have released its first sustainable Lego bricks back in 2018.

I encourage anyone to take the time to look at the product options you have and see are there alternatives which can be more environmentally friendly – these small changes matter if enough of us make these consumer choices.

Climeaction from Leading Edge Group supports companies of all scales to take Climate Action, we support the development of product and business carbon footprint assessments in line with international standards.

Paul Murphy
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