Bioplastic, part 1


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

– – –
photo credit: Tecknor Apex

Bioplastic :

The term “bioplastic”  generally refers to plastic made in whole or in part from plant-derived renewable resources and/or compounds that are subject to degradation from microbial action.

The “and/or” is key and this is where the confusion comes in. “Bioplastic” is a catch-all term that refers to several different classes of plastics. For example, some petroleum based plastics (non-renewable resource) can be made in such a way that they biodegrade over time, leaving behind a toxic residue. And some “bioplastics” made from renewable resources will not biodegrade.

While not a very new technology,  bioplastics have only recently begun to take off in the U.S.  There have been many new products hitting the shelves with claims that they are a cleaner and greener option. But not all of these products are interchangable with each other, or with the conventional plastics that they would replace.

To help you sort your plastics, here is the difference between “degradable”, biodegradable”, and “compostable”:

Degradable plastics are essentially meant to address the “lingering” characteristic of traditional plastics that can take decades or longer to break down, persisting as litter or consuming valuable landfill space. Degradable plastics are those that are engineered to break down into fragments, particles or residue more rapidly than conventional plastics, but “degradable” does not itself define what the constituent materials are.

Biodegradable plastics are typically a hybrid of sythetic polymers and biomass or starch-based plastics. Like degradable plastics, they break down to a point, but are not 100% biodegradable unless they are marked “compostable”…

Compostable plastics are able to fully biodegrade without leaving toxic elements behind (made completely without the use of synthetic polymers); however, compostable plastics are not instantly ‘back to nature’.  Although composed of biomass, most compostable plastics break down very slowly and often need the assistance of a commercial composting facility. The unfortunate misconception here is that one can toss a soy-plastic fork in a meadow after a picninc or in the backyard pile, and it will dissolve quickly. “Compostable” plastics can thus lead to litter and perhaps irresponsible consumer behaviors.

In part 2 of this post, I will discuss the recycling and end-of-use considerations of bioplastics.

– – –

What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

Fast-Track Geothermal Project in Nevada

photo credit:

The Las Vegas Sun reports that the federal Bureau of Land Management just approved a fast-track geothermal project in Pershing County, Nevada. The company that proposed the project, Ormat Technologies, plans to build a 30 megawatt plant that covers about 13 square miles.

From the BLM announcement – “The BLM Fast-Track projects are those where the companies involved have demonstrated to the BLM that they have made sufficient progress to formally start the environmental review and public participation process. These projects could potentially be cleared by December 2010, thus making them eligible for economic stimulus funding under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. There are 34 national fast-track projects – 14 solar, 7 wind, 6 geothermal, and 7 transmission lines.”

A list of fast-track renewable energy projects can be found here on the BLM website.

Nevada currently has 11 geothermal plants, 3 of which are on Bureau of Land Management-managed public land.

Anna’s Links – Water and Solar Energy

I recently wrote a post as an overview of the energy-water nexus. Here are a couple articles that highlight the link between solar projects and water.

Armagosa Valley, Nevada (

Last year, the New York Times ran an article about how a promising solar project in Armagosa Valley,  Nevada, by Solar Millenium ran hard up against western worries about water. The two proposed solar farms would require 1.3 billion gallons of water a year, or 20 percent of the local water available.

The Las Vegas Sun reports on the Skyline Solar facility in Nipton, California, that will use concentrating solar photovoltaic (CPV). CPV plants are expected to use much less water than solar thermal plants, which means they may be better candidates for places with lots of sun, but not as much water.

The energy-water nexus generally refers to needing water to produce energy and needing energy to move and filter water; however, it seemed fitting to include a story about using the sun and water to reduce energy use:

 NPR reports that the Camp Lejeune Marine Corps base in North Carolina is becoming one of the largest communities to widely install solar hot water panels. FLS Energy owns and installs the panels and then sells the hot water to the base, which means that there are basically only two main actors and decision-makers needed to install  systems on all 900 homes.  (The base is also planning a LEED Platinum fitness center – more info on the base website.)

San Francisco’s Smart Water Meters

                                                                                          water supply leak, Free

San Francisco began to roll out its new ‘smart’ water meters to city residences this month. The new devices can accurately track water usage in real-time and the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (SFPUC) plans to make personal water use data available to customers online. Other benefits include the streamlining of operations- meters communicate wirelessly, eliminating the need for house-to-house readings- and the early detection of system leaks and unusual usage surges.

The SFPUC will replace over 175,000 meters beginning with 5,000 this spring/summer,with an estimated install completion for the full number by 2012. The expectation is that the new meters will be able to assist individual and system-wide conservation efforts, increase response time for problems, and allow for a more accurate and refined fee structure.

California, as a drought-prone state, can stand to benefit greatly from increased water use data collection. As it stands today, water use is not uniformly tracked in all homes and businesses, nor is there any correlation between regional water scarcity and water service rates. While agriculture, industry and conveyance also play leading roles in the general water picture in the state, having accurate home and commercial usage data is a step forward, and can only be a benefit in creating sound management policies for this precious and scarce resource.

World Energy Consumption Up 49% By 2035?


The U.S. Energy Information Administration issued its “International Energy Outlook 2010” report last month. The report predicts that fossil fuels will continue to provide more than 75% of global energy demand for the next 25 years. It also predicts that world energy consumption will increase 49% over the next 25 years. Developing nations are predicted to account for the huge majority of the increase in global energy demand.

International Energy Outlook 2008 Report Cover.  Need help, contact the National Energy Information Center at 202-586-8800.

The full report can be accessed here. Report highlights can be found here.

Anna’s Links – Smart Meters for Energy and Water

photo credit:

Many of you may have heard about the goings-on around the widespread installation of smart energy meters in California (after all, there have been lawsuits, legislative hearings, and mandated independent meter testing, just for the Pacific Gas and Electric meter installations).

So why go through all that to install smart energy meters? Because they hold huge promise for helping consumers reduce their energy use and for adding flexibility and reliability to how the grid is managed.

What you may not have heard as much about is that smart water meters are also being installed – more than half of California water utilities have some smart meters in their districts (via the New York Times). Ideally, smart water meters would provide real-time (or near real-time) feedback on water use to both the water utility and the consumer.

Also, Oracle has apparently developed an interest in smart water meters as a potential future market, as they already sell software systems to water (and power) utilities (via GreenTechmedia).

The Cycle of Insanity: The Real Story of Water


Today’s video is a short film from the Surfrider Foundation that outlines some of the radical changes to our water cycle that have happened due to increased population, urban development, and irrigation practices. The animated video is about 20 minutes long.

You can also see the video here.

As with many water issues, the end recommendation is integrated water management, with detailed examples.

Environmental Impacts of the World Cup

 Infographic by EU Infrastructure

As far as major international sporting events go, short of the Olympics, it doesn’t get much bigger than the World Cup. Massive international travel, infrastructure upgrades to accommodate the influx of visitors, building or renovation of stadiums, and the large amounts of waste generated by spectators are all part of the preparation and running of such a massive event.

This got us thinking, just how big is the carbon footprint of something like the World Cup? And what sorts of mitigation strategies are already in practice?

The answer to the carbon footprint question is: BIG. According to a pre-event study estimate by the South African Department of Environmental Affairs and Tourism in conjunction with the area Norwegian embassy, the carbon footprint for the event is 2.8 million tons. To quote Mike Berners-Lee, posting on the UK Guardian’s Green Living blog, “(that) is roughly equivalent to 6,000 space shuttle fights, three quiet years for Mount Etna, or 20 cheeseburgers for every man, woman and child in the UK.”

Levity aside, it is important to note that estimates of the impact vary widely, and what is important is to look at the overall pattern. Without question, the lion’s share of emissions are associated with athlete and spectator travel. This can make it hard for a more remote locale such as South Africa to remain competitively “green” compared to an event such as Germany’s 2006  World Cup event, which drew many of its participants via Europe’s centralized rail systems.

To the second question we posed, what are the best practices already in place for mega sporting events?

It is heartening to note that the problem of lessening impacts of major international sporting events is being taken seriously as a factor in weighing bids to host events. The bar was set by the the Local Organizing Committee (LOC) for the Lillehammer winter Olympic games in 1994, which incorporated sustainability dimensions in its planning. Incorporating sustainability concerns was then supported formally the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and has been a consideration of LOC’s at all subsequent Olympic games (Sebake & Gibberd, 2007). The bar was raised for the World Cup event by Germany’s 2006 LOC in partnership with the World Wildlife Fund and the Oko-Institut, who together developed a “Green Goal Initiative”.

Read More

World Cup 2010 Fun Fact:

SABMiller and Crown developed a full aperture beer can for the event that allows the patron to fully remove the lid and use the can as a drinking cup. This will cut down on the waste from plastic concession cups.

Finding Data – The Greendex


photo link

For the third year running National Geographic has teamed up with Globe Scan to provide the Greendex, an annual survey designed “to develop an international research approach to measure and monitor consumer progress towards environmentally sustainable consumption.”  Specifically, the Greendex is a tool to help consumers worldwide to both understand their consumption patterns and to be able to view them within context to others.

The Greendex survey questions were designed to capture the participant’s knowledge, behavior and views on environmental issues and consumer habits ranging from transportation to food choices. The study is based on a sample of 17,000 individuals in 17 countries (14 in 2008). So, while perhaps not a truly  “definitive” study on a global scale, the Greendex survey countries represent the heaviest hitters in terms of resource consumption, and the Greendex 2010 Report provides some interesting insights.

Some notables from the study:

– Respondents from 10 of the 17 countries polled showed an increase in “environmentally friendly consumer behavior” between this year and last.

– Consumers with the highest rankings for “green” choices are in developing nations. Top scores go to India, Brazil and China (in that order).

– Uh-oh USA … we’re showing slight improvement relative to ourselves last year, but we’re still at the bottom of the heap.

– The strongest changes in personal behavior that made positive impacts were in the Housing category (home energy efficiency).

Read the highlights report here.

Calculate your own personal “Greendex” here.

And finally, how reliable are self-reported behavior surveys anyway? Separate the fact from fiction with the Market Basket report.

The Energy-Water Nexus


This post is part of our definitions series on “eco-lingo” and technical terms.

– – –

We have been hearing with increasing frequency about “the energy-water nexus” in California as we face potential changes to our climate and our water supply. But what is it?

Basically, water and energy supplies are fundamentally linked together. Producing energy requires a huge volume of water (even for renewables). Treating and distributing water requires a consistent supply of energy. Therefore, serious challenges to the supply of one threatens the reliability of the other.

According to Sandia National Laboratory, producing electricity from just fossil fuels and nuclear energy requires 190 billion gallons of water each day, which accounts for 39% of all U.S. freshwater use. Each kWh generated from coal necessitates 25 gallons of water (source here). Also, since the energy needed to treat and distribute water can account for up to 80% of the water’s final cost, a reduction in the amount of available, inexpensive energy will have a direct impact on the cost and supply of water.

– – –

What exactly does “sustainability” mean? How about “green”, “eco” or “environmentally friendly”? The truth is that these terms are just vague enough to mean many different things to many different people. With the staggering array of “green” products, ‘lifestyles’ and concepts being promoted by marketers and environmentalists alike (as well as the necessary coining of new terms to match new ideas) our definition series aims to make sense of the rising tide of “eco-lingo” and technical terms.