How many times have you forgotten your re-usable shopping bag when visiting the supermarket; or don’t have one because you didn’t mean to buy as much as you did? The 5p environmental impact levy on single carrier bag use, in place in England since October 2015, resulted in an 83% drop in use. Similar reductions were seen in the first year of implementation in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland when it was introduced (76%, 71% and 80% respectively).
Elsewhere similar schemes are in place, many voluntary, with equally dramatic statistics. Hong Kong saw a 90% drop in use when a levy was applied. Many developing countries have banned single-use plastic bags.
At the World Oceans Summit in Bali in February this year, Indonesia — the world’s second biggest source of ocean plastic pollution after China — pledged up to $1 billion a year to reduce plastic waste, including single-use shopping bags, as part of the UN’s Clean Seas campaign.
The benefits from reducing carrier bag use are clear: they create unsightly litter and cause harm to wildlife and marine ecosystems. Plastic bags, however, are just one part of the problem of plastic waste, especially single-use products such as soft drink bottles, coffee cups, straws, product containers and other packaging. An estimated 255 million tonnes of plastic waste is produced each year, of which 4.8-12.7 million tonnes enters the oceans, according to a study published in the journal Science in 2015.
By switching to reusable and biodegradable products we reduce energy and greenhouse gas production and conserve natural resources. So do sustainable solutions really work? Can we as consumers really make a difference?
Renewable energy sources
Meeting our energy needs, or at least part of it from renewable sources is a cleaner and more sustainable solution than the use of fossil fuels. Hydropower, wind and solar are all examples of renewable energy sources. About 9.9% of electricity produced in the United States in 2015 was from renewable sources.
Investment in renewable energy is reaching record levels worldwide and was more than double that spent on new coal and gas electricity plants in 2015. Data published by the Renewable Energy Policy Network shows that use of renewables is increasing rapidly: solar PV capacity worldwide rose from 5 gigawatts in 2005 to 227 Gw in 2015. Other renewables have shown similar increases:
All renewables combined, however, only constituted 19.2% of global energy usage — with the major portion solid biofuels in developing countries (mainly fuelwood) — while fossil fuels took a 78.3% share in 2014.
The share of renewables is increasing rapidly, driven by lower costs and increasing efficiency of technology for solar and wind power. Between 1990 and 2014 solar PV grew at an annual rate of 46%, wind power 24% and solar thermal 12%, according to the International Energy Agency.
We are not quite ready to switch over entirely to renewables because there are issues with reliability of supply — we cannot control the weather! It is difficult to generate renewable energy in large quantities and large spaces are required for wind and solar farms.
Reducing energy demand is an important factor in achieving sustainable energy. In 2016, Rentokil Initial achieved:
- 6.4% improvement in vehicle fuel efficiency
- 10.7% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions
Integrated pest management (IPM)
Modern pest control techniques focus on a more -effective environmental friendly approach known as Integrated Pest Management (IPM). This focusses on pest prevention through measures such as monitoring and identification of pests, prevention of infestation by employing techniques such as reducing sources of food for the pest, improving cleaning methods, and physical exclusion.
Identification of the threshold to take action against pests is also important — in some sectors such as food processing or healthcare a zero tolerance must be applied. In other sectors, the presence of one or two insects does not require an immediate response.
Good pest control practice limits the preventative application of pesticides because the risk of pesticide exposure to humans and the environment outweighs the benefits. This is especially so when non-chemical control methods, such as trapping or exclusion, can achieve the same results.
The use of pesticides
Use of pesticides, as part of an Iintegrated Pest Management (IPM) programme, is important and necessary to control pests that can be harmful to humans, destroy crops, cause damage to buildings and cause distress. Legislation ensures they are used responsibly and in a targeted way.
Resistance to pesticides has occurred, although sometimes it is due to poor pest control practices. India’s insecticide resistance crisis is well documented and as a response, there has been a lot of success in using indigenous microorganisms and natural enemies to develop plant protection tools for local farmers. There is a lot of expertise and support for biopesticide use in India.
Local research institutes, NGOs and others have played active roles in promoting and developing these safe and cheap crop protection technologies and a flexible regulatory system has contributed to the success. Indeed it has been Government policy since the mid-1980s to use non-chemical and biological control as a means to overcome resistance in India. More controls have recently been applied, however – possibly in in response to poor quality biopesticide products appearing on the market.
In Europe, the regulatory bodies in the biocide sector are beginning to look at rodenticide resistance mapping as a means of quantifying the issue, develop the sustainable use policy further and ensure pesticides remain effective for longer.
Water is a precious resource that is in short supply in many parts of the world.
Water companies are working hard on sustainability by driving down leakage, promoting use of water-efficient appliances and advising how to save water. For example, turning the tap off while brushing your teeth can save 6 litres per minute and a short shower uses a third of the water used in a bath. The use of water butts and rainwater can help conserve water in the garden, and soapy water from the kitchen sink is perfectly usable on plants.
Sustainable use of batteries
Batteries are the workhorse technology behind all the essential portable technology used in our connected and powered world, ranging from mobile phones, electronic toys and portable lighting to household gadgets such as vacuum cleaners, drills and garden tools. Recently there has been a rapid increase in the use of electric vehicles and renewable energy storage and soon there may be even electric passenger planes.
Single-use batteries remain available, but rechargeable battery technology has been slowly improving since the advent of the lead-acid battery and now the lithium ion battery. Rechargeable batteries are relatively cheap to buy but only last a few years before they need to be replaced, however.
All batteries have toxic elements that need special handling after use, however, especially the highly toxic cadmium in nickel- cadmium batteries. While the rechargeable lithium ion battery is here to stay in the medium term, there is a lot of research going into new battery technologies to increase capacity, reduce recharge time and improve sustainability of the materials used.
Sustainable use of detergents and cleaning products
Many household cleaning products are formulated to enter the drain and into wastewater. As a result, the soap and detergent industry is committed to improve sustainability and encourage consumers to adopt more sustainable ways of cleaning, washing and household maintenance.
For example, there is EU legislation setting minimum levels for degradability of detergents in the environment. Advances in technology have also resulted in more sustainable products, such as soaps that are more concentrated, two products combined and refillable packaging.
These improvements require less energy to manufacture and transport, while refillable re-usuable packs and those that can be recycled minimises environmental impact.
Protecting the planet
Sustainability is an important issue to ensure that our use of the planet does not lead to the long- term decline of biological diversity and the environment. Technology plays a key part in finding economically viable and environmentally sound solutions for protecting public health. Legislation will also play its part but it is quite uplifting to see there is a lot being done on a voluntary basis because most understand the need to support long- term solutions while protecting the planet.