Bioplastics continue to receive media exposure as the “greener” alternative to petroleum based plastics. Other studies point out major pitfalls of bioplastics and debunk the theory that it is a more environmentally superior option. If you are a plastic manufacturer exploring the idea of bioplastics, then this article will provide you with a baseline framework on how to begin to think about this issue.
Economics of bioplastics: Manufacturing bioplastics means becoming less dependent on foreign oil, which is both scarce and costly (and rising all the time). However, it also means the cost of agricultural crops to manufacture bioplastics would increase if the demand for it rises in the future. We have seen this with corn prices and ethanol use. It will definitely take time for the industry to mature and efficient production methods to be developed and until then, bioplastic manufacturers must look for innovative ways to overcome the cost barrier. PepsiCo announced that it will be producing 100% plant-based PET bottles by using orange and potato peels among other bio-based feedstock. While these peels may be trash for some, it can serve as valuable raw materials and cost savers for others. Bioplastics’ current lack of economies of scale, relative to petro-based plastics calls for innovative solutions to packaging needs.
Misconceptions about bioplastics: Bio-based plastics are not always biodegradeable while biodegradable plastics are not always manufactured with renewable resources. Many people become swayed over the word “bio” and automatically believe it is a greener option. It’s important to get your facts straight and to communicate your green initiatives clearly to the public in order to avoid greenwashing accusations. Here are some distinctions that you need to keep in mind:
- Bioplastics are a form of plastics derived from renewable biomas sources, such as vegetable oil, corn starch, pea starch or microbiota, rather than fossil fuel plastics which are derived from petroleum.
- Biodegradable plastics are degradable due to the action of micro-organisms and enzymes (such as fungi or bacteria). The mineralisation of organic structures by micro-organisms converts the bioplastics into carbon dioxide, methane, water and biomass.
- Compostable plastics are degradable due to a biological process occurring during composting and are converted into carbon dioxide, water, and biomass. There are no toxic side effects like toxic residue for water, soil, plants or living organisms.
Environmental Impact of bioplastics: While it may be true that manufacturing bioplastics causes less greenhouse gas emissions due to its renewable sources, it is important to recognize that a lot of energy goes into growing bio-base feedstock such as corn. Petro-based plastics have been around for a longer period of time and have reached production efficiency. When comparing the two, you should look at the life cycle of each to determine the true environmental impact. In addition, since current recycling system is not conducive to bioplastics, there is a lot of work to be done to adjust the current system.
While the idea to move away from relying on crude oil to produce plastics is a good idea, the bioplastics industry is at its infancy and has yet to reach efficiency and economies of scale. In the short term, switching to bioplastics may put burden on your current operations and budget. However, as the industry matures through research and development, it has great potential in providing sustainable solutions across various industries.
International Energy Agency (IEA) announced this past Monday that CO2 emission levels for 2010 have broken the record of being the highest yet in history. Growing public concern for climate change, cost of resources as well as tighter governmental regulations are expected to escalate—this calls for businesses to refocus on their CO2 emissions.
Current emission level makes UN’s climate goals highly unattainable
UN climate change talks in Cancun last year set the cap for global temperature to 2°C, which scientists believe would be the “threshold for dangerous climate change.” With recent estimates on carbon emission, this goal seems farfetched. The IEA’s 2010 World Energy Outlook suggested that in order to stay below the 2°C target, carbon emissions in 2020 must not exceed 32 Gt. However, with 1.6 gigatonnes (Gt) increase in emissions last year, it will only take 1.4 more to reach 32 Gt. (Refer to chart below)
In addition, IEA stated that 80% of the future carbon emissions from the power plants for 2020 are already locked-in, with most of the infrastructure newly built or currently under construction. Overall, this is an urgent blinking yellow light, warning us of projected climate change and the serious consequences that are associated with it.
“This is a wakeup call for all of us,” says Andrew Keenan, CMO of Verus, “CO2 emissions will continue to spike even though climate change no longer makes front-page news. This calls for a serious action.” There are opportunities for business owners to think ahead and to take the lead on reducing their carbon footprint. Many pressing factors that make this a time-sensitive matter.
Growing public concern for climate change: With 2°C increase in temperature, come serious consequences that will endanger the environment and the livelihoods of people. Heat waves, sea level rise, floods among many other occurrences will disrupt the lives of millions of human beings as well as other life forms on earth. Consumers, activists, stakeholders as well as organizations driven by social missions will be taking an even more fervent stance in promoting green initiatives.
Changing costs and availability of resources: Attempting to reduce global carbon emission means higher energy costs and carbon taxes for businesses. Fuel prices are subjected to increase and it is important for businesses to become more fuel efficient in their operations in order to cope with these changes. As more companies reach higher level of efficiency, they will be able to cut costs and lessen their carbon footprints. In addition, carbon emissions increase is a global issue and therefore, there are cost implications even if you are outsourcing overseas.
Tighter government regulation: Following IEA’s announcement of the 2010’s carbon emission level, global leaders will be stepping up to regulate carbon emissions on a more rigorous level. While businesses across industries will be impacted by such adjustment, heavy-emitters such as those within energy, cement and other industries that burn a lot of fossil fuels.
Businesses should take initiative by reassessing their carbon footprint
Climate change should no longer be on the backburner. The 2010 carbon emission level provides strong evidence that action must be taken now. In order to meet public demand and governmental control and to offset the expected rise in resource costs, businesses should evaluate their current carbon footprints up their supply chain and consider ways to become more efficient and sustainable.
In 2012, EPA will release window stickers for cars to mitigate consumer confusion about fuel economy ratings. This push is due to the increasing supply and demand of electric cars, whether they are plug-in hybrids or all-electric. Automakers have actually supported this plan because of the marketing and increased awareness of electric and hybrid cars, so EPA has churned out two possible sticker designs (click on the images to get a thorough explanation of each sticker).
Label Option 1
The primary tool in this design is the use of letter grades, which are determined based on general classification:
A: Plug-in hybrids
A-: Gas-electric hybrids
B+, B: Fuel-efficient gasoline
B-: Average fuel-efficiency
C+, C: Below-average fuel-efficiency/Pickup trucks
D: Very fuel-inefficient (SUVs)
The sticker also shows the consumer how much money they will save on five years of fuel, based on an average fuel cost of $2,000 a year. The remainder of the statistics, like non-GHG air pollution and carbon emission per mile, are relatively small and are placed at the bottom of the sticker.
Label Option 2
The primary tools here are combined MPG and annual fuel costs. The slider designs are more prominent, and 5-year fuel costs are removed.
For electric cars, both labels mention the range and electricity used per mile. This kind of information is necessary for consumers and has been shown to be some of the biggest obstacles for EV adoption.
Since the letter grades merely represent either the vehicle type or above/below-average fuel economy, the combined mpg and slider should suffice. The five-year savings number seems arbitrary, so we prefer the one-year fuel costs since they are more relatable. The sliding scale graphics give consumers a better idea of what the numbers mean, so we also like that they have more space devoted to them. Overall, we prefer the second design option, but you can let EPA know what you think on their design site.
Last year, EPA announced its mandatory GHG emissions reporting program, but it left out several major industries, including oil, gas, semiconductor and solar cell facilities. The agency has now released rules for said industries, and they must begin reporting their emissions at the beginning of 2011, with a final report due in March of 2012. These new rules and regulations are actually two sets: one for the oil and gas facilities that emit methane and CO2, and one for the industries that emit fluorinated GHG.
Industry interest groups, like the American Petroleum Institute, claim that these new regulations will add hundreds of millions of dollars in technological purchases. EPA has replied that spreadsheet software is the only actual “technology” required to report emissions.
Although we would prefer more action from the legislative branch, this transparency for the oil/gas industry is an excellent next step. EPA has already required the inventorying of about 85% of the nation’s industrial GHG emissions, and these new regulations will increase that value to about 89-90%.
EPA and DOT have called for the first national standards on GHG emissions and fuel efficiency for heavy-duty trucks and buses. The new regulations, which will take effect on vehicles sold in 2014, range from 7-20% reductions in fuel use and CO2 emissions, and current emissions of N2O (nitrous oxide) and CH4 (methane) would be capped forever. HFC (hydrofluorocarbon) leakage from A/C units is also capped at 1.5% of total refrigerant leaked per year. This will ensure the use of low-leakage parts in A/C systems, further reducing GHG emissions.
There are also several credit options that manufacturers can pursue. Anyone may use CO2 credits to offset their excess CH4 or N2O emissions, and there are ways to earn more credits, including exceeding the reduction standards for emissions or pursuing advanced vehicle technologies, like hybrid drivetrains, fuel cells, electric vehicles.
Concerning upfront costs, the truck itself can pay for the average technology upgrade within one year of use. The overall savings in the first five years would include 250 million tons of GHG emissions and roughly half a billion barrels of oil. This, plus the societal benefits of reducing GHG emissions, equals about $41 billion in benefits to truckers (societal benefits include reduced time refueling and energy security). Just like the defense of the financial benefits of the Clean Air Act, this new regulation looks like it will save the country billions of dollars while cleaning the air and increasing energy security.
The EPA set a five-year plan with strategic goals on September 30, 2010. Goal number one: “Taking Action on Climate Change and Improving Air Quality”. The key point is that “[w]hile the EPA stands ready to help Congress craft strong, science-based climate legislation , we will assess and develop regulatory tools as warranted under the law using the clean air act.”
Well, it is pretty clear that as we expected, the lack of Congressional action will not stop regulation. The idea of federal regulation under the EPA is not surprising given that they already are asking for reporting. Further, since this is under the five-year plan it tell us that rules are imminent. The plan is for 2011 – 2015. If you have a five-year plan and this is number one, the timing for initial rules that receive feedback would have to be by 2011.
Am I wrong?
Posted by akeenan | Posted in Carbon Footprint, EPA, News | Posted on 28-09-2010
EPA has recently announced the phase-out of their Climate Leaders program, a voluntary program that helps in “developing corporate-wide GHG inventories and setting ambitious reduction goals.” The program was also used to provide initial information on the Mandatory Reporting Rules that large emitters are required to follow as well as “regional GHG emissions trading programs.” EPA felt as if state governments and NGOs are adequate to take care of businesses’ needs with regards to GHG reporting. More importantly, the agency wants to focus its efforts on providing technical information to those that must comply with the GHG mandatory reporting.
The phasing out of Climate Leaders is most likely a response to the mandatory reporting rules and a push providing information to larger emitters. As EPA moves away from voluntary management, they can focus on the few GHG rules that they have in place.
Interestingly, EPA has also announced a new program, the Green Power Community Challenge, a year-long competition between cities and towns to achieve the largest amount of renewable energy as a percentage of total electricity use. The only requirements are a minimum percentage of renewable energy used and the city must actively encourage businesses and residents to produce on-site green power.
This second news item shows that EPA is not shying away from climate change as a prominent issue (as the first might imply). EPA also helps avoid the possible problem of greenwashing; some companies are willing to do little real action to reduce carbon emissions but claim they are associated with volunteer programs like Climate Leaders (for marketing purposes). By changing their focus from corporate programs to those of local governments, EPA can get results while wasting as little resources as possible.
Lisa Jackson, head of the EPA, recently spoke in celebration of the 40th anniversary of the Clean Air Act (CAA). She spent equal time discussing both the environmental and economic impacts that the bill and its amendments have made in its four decades since its signing into law by President Nixon.
The environmental and public health impacts are expectedly positive and fairly straightforward. Many problematic pollutants, including lead, ground-level ozone, and particulate matter, have been reduced nationwide. Through the 1990 CAA amendments, a cap-and-trade system was implemented to dramatically drop sulfur dioxide and acid rain quantities and initiate the phase-out of ozone-depleting chemicals like chlorofluorocarbons (CFC’s) in the US. Looking ahead, new vehicle standards (fully implemented by 2030) will effectively offset about 1 billion tons of CO2 from the air.
But what are the economic costs to all of these effects? Billions of taxpayers’ dollars are used to fund and sustain these regulations, and industries such as electrical utilities and automotive manufacturers must spend money to update their production methods. But there are indirect economic benefits which include averting premature deaths and medical conditions that amount to large medical bills. These include childhood asthma, cardiovascular disease, skin cancer from penetrating UV rays, and lost IQ points due to leaded gasoline. Aside from saving lives, the CAA has saved Americans $2 trillion through these indirect benefits; the CAA has achieved a 40:1 return on money invested.
The results of the CAA challenge the long-standing belief in the dichotomy between economic growth and environmental cleanliness. Just as the Clean Air Act was passed with strong bipartisan support 40 years ago, the achievements of the bill today should convince those of all political agendas that “cleaning up” does not mean cutting profits. Through mechanisms like cap-and-trade (for sulfur dioxide reductions), technology, competition, and innovation always seem to be underestimated with regards to environmental action.
The Coalition for Responsible Regulations, Inc. has petitioned for a partial stay of EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations. The group sites that the EPA’s regulations will cost companies hundreds of millions of dollars. They also site the “uncertainty” surrounding EPA greenhouse gas regulations “discourage” capital investment. The EPA fired back that the “doomsday predictions” are often false and exaggerated.
We haven’t talked to any company that wants the EPA to regulate their greenhouse gas emissions. We also agree that uncertainty has been disastrous to capital investment, especially to the renewable energy industry in the United States. So what’s the solution?
All that really matters is that we reduce our greenhouse gas emissions quickly. Will the EPA do an effective job at enforcing reductions? Probably. Will it have an adverse effect on the economy? Possibly, in the short term. Are there better solutions? Definitely.
It’s obvious that we can’t go on with “business as usual” hoping that things will fix themselves. At the risk of sounding like a broken record: We need an economic solution to the problem. And the best economic solution is a cap-and-trade system. But it needs to be a pure cap and trade and not loaded with allowances that the government “sells” or “gives” to various industries. In other words, let U.S. companies do what they do best—compete.
If companies need help with reductions they can still support offset projects, which, by the way, will act as incubators for renewable energy, fuel switching and energy efficiency—all things that were starting to thrive when oil went over $100 a barrel and offset prices hit $7.50 a metric ton on the Chicago Climate Exchange.
You can’t win a war when your opponent is the environment–it’s a lose-lose scenario.
The USGBC (United States Green Building Council) is arguably the most recognizable green building organization in the U.S. But a recent survey of industry leaders, composed of architects, engineers, and planners, recognized Architecture 2030 as equally effective as USGBC in terms of advancing green building design and construction.1
Architecture 2030 is a non-profit organization founded by Edward Mazria, author of the The Passive Solar Energy Book and founding member of architectural firm Mazria, Inc. Architecture 2030’s goals are based around two ideas: one problem and one opportunity. The problem is that the US building sector is responsible for as much CO2 emissions as the industrial and transportation sectors combined. In other terms, buildings consume ¾ of the nation’s electricity use, a vast majority of which comes from the burning of fossil fuels.2 The opportunity is that 75% of all buildings in 2035 are expected to be either newly constructed or renovated.3 By utilizing green design and a combination of on-site and off-site renewable power generation, Architecture 2030 strives to achieve carbon-neutral newly constructed and renovated buildings by… the year 2030.4
Architecture 2030 accomplishes this objective by focusing on governments, architects, and schools. The organization provides governments with a guide on how to implement the 2030 Challenge with new building codes that can be easily integrated into current ones. With regard to architects and engineers, there is a strong bottom-up approach by having over 20 of the 30 largest architectural firms adopt the 2030 Challenge and carry out the objectives themselves.1 At a more upstream level, Architecture 2030 pursues design schools by altering the academic curriculum as well as achieving a physically carbon-neutral campus.
I had a chance to hear Mazria speak at the Chautauqua Institution in New York a few months ago. He presented a brilliant plan that would help the economy, reduce energy use and not put a long-term burden on taxpayers. Focusing on commercial properties, Mazria said that if the federal government supplied funding for energy-efficiency improvements today, the construction industry would be put back to work retrofitting older buildings and constructing super-efficient new buildings.
Mazria’s plan would result in a dramatic reduction in energy use, saving businesses billions of dollars. It get’s better. Because energy-efficient buildings are less expensive to operate they have a higher real estate value. The plan includes a provision whereas when the buildings are eventually sold, the business pays back the loan to the federal government. Meanwhile, the government grows its tax base by putting people back to work and businesses become more profitable.
- “Architecture 2030 Ranked at Top” http://architecture2030.org/enews/news_071410.html
- “Architecture 2030 Will Change the Way You Look at Buildings” http://architecture2030.org/the_problem/buildings_problem_why
- “A Historic Opportunity” http://architecture2030.org/the_solution/buildings_solution_how
- “The 2030 Challenge” http://architecture2030.org/2030_challenge/the_2030_challenge