At this point, if you haven’t heard about the big problems with palm oil, you’ll probably be in the minority. Celebrities, charities and research groups have helped expose the damages that come from unsustainable palm practices, like clear-cut or burnt plots of pristine forest—ranging on a scale from individual farmer’s few acres to corporations’ thousands.
These type of habitats and the species that inhabit them are definitely not accustomed or adapted to withstand such events, causing deeply sad stories like massive orangutan losses in Sumatra and Borneo, and more recent relentless encroachment losses in African habitats.
But public campaigns and private efforts have brought change, forcing some major companies to commit to sustainable practices, which could ironically also achieve the industry’s true potential—as a seriously efficient (and hence sustainable) business. Palm is actually the most efficient oil crop we have—yielding the most energy per unit of land used.
While palm oil is a well-known example of a product that puts wildlife and wild places at risk, there are plenty of other consumer goods that hold similar threats worldwide. Here are three big offenders to get you started.
Plastics are an ideal product when it comes to convenience, versatility, and cost, but these benefits come at a big environmental price. Plastics are built from synthetic compounds derived from petroleum, like the long-chain monomer polypropylene, which the environment simply hasn’t evolved to break down.
That means remnants of shopping bags and takeaway containers can persist in habitats for hundreds, sometimes thousands, of years—if of course they aren’t snatched up by hungry wildlife first. On top of all this, plastic manufacturing sucks up around five percent of the global petroleum budget annually.
But despite all this, and mounting concern over the now ever-present role of plastics in the marine environment, global production and consumption is only on the rise. Even worse is the fact most plastic waste doesn’t even get recycled, or even make it to landfills.
When thinking about ways to switch-up the societal plastic landscape, it’s important to keep in mind we’re not just talking about a few items here. From construction, to packaging, to medicines—plastics have revolutionised nearly every industry in one way or another. That means there’s plenty of heads to cut off the plastic-beast, but also many different ways to cumulatively tackle the environmental monster.
Swearing off plastic bags, or charging for them, is one straightforward option, adopted by quite a few grocery store giants and cities in North America and Europe. Saying no to straws, plastic utensils and dinnerware, buying in bulk, choosing glass over plastic bottles, matches over lighters, and skipping heavily packaged goods like frozen foods can all make a difference. Realising bottled water is predominately a scam doesn’t hurt either. Here’s a more comprehensive list of plastic-defeating options.
The global corn trade
Corn wasn’t always on the global menu, and while its certainly true that humans have been altering with its genetics—as with most crops—more or less since we discovered it, over the last few decades corn has undergone big changes. Today corn is used planet wide as a sweetener, animal feed staple, and even a renewable energy source.
But humans and animals alike have been shown to suffer from this major dietary change, and it turns out corn ethanol isn’t all that green. It would take an unfathomable amount of corn to really make the world go round, and when you balance out the environmental footprint—the Co2 benefits are negligible. That’s not encouraging news considering big countries like Brazil have cut down huge swaths of forest to make way for budding cornfields. To fuel the new massive uptick in demand for corn syrup, countries like the United States have subsided corn crops so heavily they’ve replaced the bulk of other vegetable and cereal crops.
It isn’t easy to avoid corn—found in so many products it would be hard to keep track—but there are ways to decrease your own corn-footprint. First off, note we’re mostly not talking about the corn most of us know and love to eat. The bulk of the corn produced worldwide is never intended for us humans—although big-agro company’s ‘miracle-seeds’, like Monsanto’s Bt brand, are also encroaching on the people-friendly sweet corn market to the concern of many.
It’s also important to recognise sweeteners, namely high-fructose corn syrup, have much more traditional alternatives, like plain old sugar itself. There’s a growing list of products that exclude these additives, from cereals to ketchup. Choosing grain-fed meat and dairy products also helps decrease the global corn-demand, as does decreasing your meat consumption all together. Supporting more genuinely green energy alternatives like solar, wind, biosolids, algae-fuel and hydrogen technologies over resource-guzzling ethanol are also worthy endeavours.
The supplement market is massive these days, and in reality, probably always has been. But some of today’s must-haves are actually rejects from other industries. Shark liver oil, called squalene, was once used as a machinery lubricant, but has long since been replaced by synthetics. Since then, shark liver oil has been declared a miracle-concoction for humans—adored by the natural health industry, but even more so by the cosmetic industry, as an ultrasheer hydrator. We all naturally have the compound but, with ageing, production diminishes.
More than 50 species of shark are hunted for their oil, but deep-water species are most under threat, with livers sometimes accounting for nearly a third of their body weight, and extremely slow growth and reproduction times. Good news is that the same hydrocarbon compound can be extracted in smaller quantities from things we already produce like wheat germ and rice. Companies like Unilever and L’Oreal adopted this switch as far back as 2008, and lots more are seeing the light. But many companies still haven’t been convinced to start using plant alternatives, which can cost up to 30 percent more. Though less pervasive, shark liver products can also be found in a huge variety of goods you might never consider—from pet treats to sunscreen—so as always, reading labels carefully before purchase is likely the first thing to do if you want to encourage producers to back off sharks.
We’d be amiss not to mention another animal oil-industry—one that’s relatively new but has the potential to disrupt entire ecosystems in its wake. Small crustaceans called krill are the foundation of most ocean food webs, consumed on mass by beloved marine animals like whales.
Though they’re not consumed directly, krill are beginning to be harvested in absolutely extraordinary numbers for omega oils and as farmed fish feed. Though krill live in oceans globally, the extremely southern varieties are especially plentiful, making them easier to catch. Commercial scale krill fisheries are already operating in the Antarctic—with potentially and predictably horrible consequences for those up the food chain.
Depleting the world’s krill supply seems particularly selfish, given disappearing ice packs, warming water temperatures, and increasing acidification levels are already predicted to seriously change the tiny crustacean’s lifecycle and abundance.
But there’s still time to shut down this practice before it becomes too established—at least everywhere. The krill industry has received 40 percent of its growth since just 2010. Looking for krill on the ingredients list of supplements is an easy way to reduce your impact, and picking wild-caught sustainable options or vegetarian-fish species is a good idea.
Researchers all over the world have been trying to come up with good fish-feed alternatives or methods, but so far progress has been slow.