How sustainable is palm oil?


Sasha, Year 10, looks at the positives and negatives of each stage of palm oil farming and explores how we can minimise the downfalls to combat the climate crisis.

What is palm oil?

Palm oil is a versatile, widely used vegetable oil, and is made from oil palms, grown in countries with a tropical climate, such as Indonesia, under strict agro-ecological conditions only found 10 degrees North and South of the Equator[1].

How is it grown?[2]

  1. To ensure only the best oil palms grow in the farms, there are a team of
    Palm oil
    Photo above (Pixabay): Palm tree seeds

    researchers who analyse the seeds of existing oil palms. They select the healthiest palms and pollinate them with pollen from selected male specimens. The farmers then cover the palms with material to prevent any accidental pollination and to shield the trees from excessive sunlight.

  2. It takes 6 months for the hybrid seeds to be produced, during which time the trees must be fertilised and maintained for maximum results. The fertilisers not only damage the fauna of the immediate environment but can easily leech into the (abundant) surface runoff, thus contaminating the animals’ water sources.
  3. After the seeds are collected, they are transported to warehouses where they are misted to speed up germination. On a positive note, the transport is not as unsustainable as people think – it has to be able to manoeuvre on the unsteady rainforest ground, and therefore cannot be industrial. Other means of transportation include local animals or tractor carts.
  4. The germination process involves a selective stage, where skilled workers sort through the seeds to discard any crooked or diseased seeds. This creates jobs for the local community, and supports the economy of the region, providing universal skills for them in the process.
  5. The seeds are grown outside the warehouses in small bags.
  6. However, when the trees reach maturity 3 years later, they can begin to require much more space for enough fruit production. This is probably the most well-known issue of the palm oil industry, as many companies are prioritising their palm oil production over the rainforest and the ecosystem as a whole, thus they deforest large areas.

The orangutans are most impacted by deforestation, as not only does the noise pollution distress them, it causes them to move further and further away from the centre of the rainforest, into the outskirts, where they may not be able to survive. Not only that, but the cutting (and sometimes burning) of the trees releases tonnes of stored CO2 back into the atmosphere, so much so that Indonesia (the largest world producer of palm oil) surpassed the USA in their greenhouse gas emissions in 2015.

Furthermore, the indigenous people, just like the orangutans and the Sumatran tigers[3], are disregarded and pushed further away from their territories, causing tension between different groups as they are forced to move closer and closer together.

Peatlands in Indonesia
Photo above: Peatlands in Indonesia – deforestation releases tonnes of stored CO2 and increases the risk of flooding, as well as causing disruption to animals and indigenous people.

How is it extracted?

  1. The fruit is processed in a factory – which is powered by biofuel made from the remains of the processed palm oil kernels. This is a sustainable initiative which somewhat balances the emissions produces by the factory as the palm fruit is initially sterilised in steam.
  2. The fruit moves through a grid that separates the actual fruit from the stalks. They are crushed to release crude palm oil and are processed in a centrifuge to remove any impurities, while the kernels move on to be made into palm kernel oil.
Crude palm oil in factory
Photo above (SciencePhotoLibrary): Crude palm oil being processed to remove impurities

What is being done?

  • The RSPO (Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil) certifies and works with major palm oil plantations to reduce the emissions and to protect the needs of the locals, deeming some brands “sustainable”;
  • The University of Reading has come up with a plan to buffer 1-4km around settlements close to oil palm plantations, to protect their farmland;
  • There are some sanctuaries created for the endangered species of the rainforest;
  • Large companies should strive to invest in green energy to power the plantations and factories.

Is it sustainable?

Overall, palm oil is a very controversial product, specifically because of its social, economic and environmental impacts, both local and global, and both positive and negative. As more people become aware of the impact on the environment and different communities, TNCs (Transnational Corporations) will be forced to take action. For now, we must all strive to select, whenever possible, products certified by the RSPO and educate ourselves and others of the vast impacts of the “Golden Crop”. By changing our own personal habits, we can have a collective impact to start the journey to combating climate change.


[1] (Orinola Gbadebo-Smith – An Investor’s Guide to Palm Oil)

[2] (How it’s made – Palm Oil)

[3] (WWF – 8 Things To Know About Palm Oil)

Can we be a low-carbon school at WHS?

Dr Silke Neumann, Head of Biology at WHS, looks at what we as a school community and as teachers could accomplish to limit our contributions to pollution and climate change.

Looking at the scientific literature, watching TV, just reading the paper often leaves me disheartened these days. For example, last week’s ‘bleak’ UN annual report calls for massive and immediate cuts in carbon output. The report said that to remain within the 2 ⁰C limit, cuts to greenhouse gases must triple compared with current plans over the next 12 years. Cuts would have to increase fivefold to keep warming to 1.5 ⁰C, the level above which damage to human livelihoods and wildlife would rapidly escalate [1].

In ‘Six Degrees’, Mark Lynas outlines what we can expect to happen to our planet at each progressive 1 ⁰C temperature rise and how we will end up with mass extinction, unless we act now [2]. However, being the ‘glass half full person’ that I am, this all leaves me geared up and ready to fight, although picking my battles. It is not my intention to discuss what politicians, government and multinational corporations are or aren’t doing, nor to depress you by reading this blog but to hopefully leaving you rearing for action.

What can we do here at WHS to avoid and or offset carbon emissions?

Estimate your own carbon footprint

Urban areas are, for obvious reasons, the main contributor to our CO2 concentration in the atmosphere [3]. It is a very sobering experience to have a go at the carbon footprint calculator. I suggest you do it a few times, leaving each long distance flight in as you go along so you can see its impact. Try it out on this link:

Add this book [4] to your Christmas wish list or get it from the WHS Library, much carbon friendlier than buying by the way. It is full of astonishing information, such an eye-opener with too much to mention here. But just a few examples, did you know that:

– a text message, a web search and an email all have a carbon footprint;

-watching TV with friends is much more efficient, because one hour of TV per day emits as much CO2 as a 45-mile drive in an average car;

– a heart bypass operation’s CO2 contribution is equivalent to two return flights from London to Madrid;


 Scale down food wastage and eat less meat

The University of St Andrews has reduced using food trays after a think tank conducting research at the university found that students were the worst offenders of any age group when it came to waste at meal times, throwing away on average food worth £273 each year. When food waste ends up in landfill it rots and emits methane, which is more harmful to the climate in the short term than carbon dioxide [5].

According to a University of Oxford study, the environmental impact of different foods varies hugely. Their findings showed that meat and other animal products are responsible for more than half of food-related greenhouse gas emissions, despite providing only a fifth of the calories we eat and drink. Beef and lamb were found to have by far the most damaging effect on the environment [6]. Try the climate change food indicator; another eye-opening experience to see what small changes we can make to have a huge impact.

Scale down single-use plastic

David Attenborough – my absolute hero by the way – has raised our awareness of the impact of plastic pollution so brilliantly with his Blue Planet 2 series. It is so detrimental to life in oceans and this life helps to keep the atmospheric CO2 tolerable by sequestering carbon in ocean sediments which then form carbonate rocks such as chalk or limestone, less oceanic life, less carbon sequestering. I need to say no more. WHS will phase out the use of all single-use-plastic, please do not bring any to school anymore.

Scale down driving or being driven to school

Air quality and carbon emissions go hand in hand. Living within 50 metres of a busy road stunts children’s lung growth by up to 14 per cent, a new report by Kings College London reveals [7]. Transport now accounts for 26 % the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions, compared to 25 % coming from energy supplies [8] and according to a study in 2018, we are not alone: Transport is Europe’s biggest source of CO2, responsible for the emission of over a quarter of all greenhouse gases. The main sources were petrol and diesel cars and trucks. Did you know that an idling vehicle emits 20 times more pollution than one travelling 32 mph [9]?

Scale up growing perennial plants

Plant trees, donate money to planting trees, join a charity replanting our rainforests around the globe are just some examples locking away CO2 from the atmosphere. Closer to home, a simple hedge around school could halve pollution levels. According to an article published by The Lancet this month, trees in towns substantially increase life expectancy, reducing stress and lowering the risk of death from heart disease, cancer and dementia [10]. The Woodland Trust has just held its UK’s largest mass tree-planting event, you can still join in. Teachers are planning an action research project into the effect plants in classrooms on well-being during next term as a central aim of the school to be more aware of the environment we all live in.

Scale up teaching and learning about human impact on the environment

As teachers, we have an enormous opportunity and responsibility to empower the young people we are educating. An American poll revealed that most teachers do not address climate change as they feel it is not related to their subject. This raises the question, ‘Where does climate change belong in the curriculum’, surely not just STEAM and Geography [11]. Let’s work on this together to find a meaningful way on how to incorporate climate change into our subjects, see below for some examples. We could just share a personal experience, show a Blue Planet clip, assign a novel, a co –curricular project in enrichment, or lead an environmental issues club, I am sure there are many more ideas out there. As for any other context, the most effective teachers are full of enthusiasm, expertise, empathy, have the ability to empower and are enterprising [12].

Nick Sharman, Head of Design and Technology here at WHS, has suggested that we could purchase a plastic recycler [13], besides being of obvious benefit, I can imagine our girls would come up with fabulous ideas on how to make useful products from these recycled plastics. Ms Lindon is organising an eco-poetry competition event and we recently held an environment sing-along with A Cappella in a Friday Jammin’ session to join with other schools in making a stand against pollution. In addition, our classicists have produced an engaging quiz, linking their subject the environment. I encourage us all to unite and channel this great potential we have as a teaching and learning community into looking after our environment, our climate and our carbon foot print together with the young people we teach here at WHS. The school and its leadership team are putting a huge emphasis on tackling climate change – please watch this space –  as it is a big deal, and not all the science is black and white, but we can do something about it. Let’s get to it.



[2] Lynas, M., Sixth Degrees, our future on a hotter planet, London, Harper Perennial, 2008


[4] Berners-Lee, M., How bad are bananas? The carbon footprint of everything, 2010








[12] Bentley-Davies, C., How to be an amazing Teacher, Bancyfelin, Crown House Publishing Ltd, 2010.


WHS and the environment: where next?

Flora (Year 13), Environment Rep, expands on the responsibilities she has at WHS, and what we as a school community are trying to do in the fight against climate change.

The role of Environment Rep

Now, more than ever, the climate emergency has been brought to our attention, mainly thanks to the incredible Greta Thunberg. The 16-year-old activist has brought on climate strikes all over the world, and recently talked at the UN Environmental Summit, speaking passionately and emotionally about the lack of action regarding climate change. When hearing her speak in this way it is always a wakeup call which helps us to evaluate what we can do to help the environment.

Above: Greta Thunberg at the Parliament by the European Parliament 2019, Flickr.

As Environment Rep I have been working with different people, all of whom are passionate about the environment, investigating what WHS can do in our collective fight against climate change. We have identified several areas which we can focus on, including the reducing the amount of single-use plastic in the canteen (in the form of take-away boxes) and reducing the amount of paper we use every day – something which is increasingly happening as we move to digital working practices. It is easy in our everyday lives to forget about such simple and seemingly minor things, but we must be far more aware that our actions do have consequences. When we say, “It’s only one toothbrush” it is almost too easy to forget that almost 7 billion people across the planet will be saying that exact same thing.

Where next for WHS and the environment?

When the Student Leadership Team sat down together in the first term after Easter, one thing we thought was important was to emphasise to all our peers that being conscious of the environment is something that we should be doing all throughout the year. It is for this reason that we have decided not to have a week or day celebrating just this, but to make this a regular feature throughout this academic year. It was great to have a Friday Jammin’ a few weeks back focused on raising our voices to help make a change, with the school community singing songs about climate change to help raise awareness and make a change.

Regarding more specific objectives we have for this year, there are a number of areas that I hope we can focus on. These will help us to make small changes to have a big impact on the environment as a whole community

1.      Single-use Plastic

Above: Photo by Magda Ehlers from Pexels

We are all guilty of using single-use plastics in our busy, day-to-day lives. Single-use plastics have detrimental effects on the planet, with a significant amount of it being made from fossil fuels. Two-thirds of all plastic ever made (8.2 billion metric tonnes in 2015) has been disposed of into the environment and is still there; it takes hundreds of years to decompose. Knowing this, we have been trying to reduce the single-use plastic in our canteen, which comes in the form of plastic bottles and other packaged goods, and our end goal is for it to be eliminated completely. While this would be a big step for the school’s fight to reduce its impact, it is also important for individual habits to change. If everyone brought in reusable water bottles, and single-use bottles were to become taboo, that would be a huge step in the right direction. You can also help by using a reusable container for your lunch if you wish to take your lunch away from the canteen.

2.      Environment Summit

We have some exciting news coming up! We will be holding a school-wide environment summit for all students, staff and parents. Before this, all the environment reps will be meeting to discuss the agenda for this summit, coming up with a list of points to discuss with the school. At the summit, we shall hopefully draw up a list of criteria that we, as a school, want to implement and stick to. If this all goes to plan, something that we would love to do would be to host a GDST wide summit, so we can share these criteria with many other schools.

The future

We clearly have a very busy year ahead of us, and I hope everyone is as excited about it as I am. I am very honoured to be your environment rep this year, especially in such an important time in regards to environmental awareness. All of these ideas I have mentioned will hopefully have a big impact to our community this year; however, the most significant way to make a change is to be aware of your personal responsibility for the environment, and what you can do to make small changes in your normal routines. If we all did this, the impact would be significant.

Is it too late to save our oceans?

Plastic straws wasted

Isabella, Year 9, discusses the impact that plastic has on our oceans, on humans, and what we can do to make a difference.
Plastic pollution is debilitating the Earth’s ecosystems and is a controversial topic being discussed worldwide. It is a material that is in nearly everything we use, despite it being commonly known that it is not a biodegradable substance. In fact, it can take up to 1000 years for a single plastic bag to decompose!

PlasticThe image on the left shows how much plastic enters the oceans every half second. Now imagine how much plastic there is in the ocean. Nearly 400 million tons of plastic were produced last year, and it is estimated that there is more microplastic in the ocean than there are stars in the milky way. All this could remain there for the next 1000 years, and with the current rate of usage of plastic, this number will only increase. This is a dire situation, with catastrophic effects and something has to be done about it.

How does plastic impact the environment?

Recently, my family and I went on holiday to Brazil, where we stumbled upon an organisation called Projeto TAMAR. Its purpose is to rescue turtles from Turtle covered in plastic the sea that are either injured or in need of help and nurture them back to health. We were lucky enough to witness one of the turtles being released back into the ocean. This particular turtle had been found in extremely poor health, with a lot of plastic in its stomach, including a whole plastic bottle. This isn’t a rare occurrence – in fact, over 50% of turtles have consumed plastic since they cannot differentiate it from food (such as jellyfish). However, turtles are not the only sea creatures to ingest plastic. 100,000 marine mammals and 1 million sea birds are killed by marine plastic pollution annually. It has been predicted that by 2050, the mass of plastic in the ocean will exceed the mass of fish.

Is it only the sea creatures that suffer from plastic?

It is not only the aquatic species that eat plastic. As a result of humans eating fish, there is a strong chance that we are consuming plastic too. A study showed that seafood eaters ingest up to 11,000 tiny pieces of plastic every year. Furthermore, chemicals such as oil, mercury, pesticides, lead and other heavy metals can now be found in the ocean due to plastic pollution. These can all result in dangerous health problems; hormonal issues, reproductive problems, and damage to our nervous systems and kidneys. Mercury is absorbed by plankton, and exposure to this can cause Parkinson’s disease, Alzheimer’s and heart disease.

What can we do?

Firstly, we can support non-governmental organisations like ‘Projecto TAMAR’ which make a huge difference in saving aquatic species. Secondly, we need to start recycling more – the average citizen in London buys 3 plastic water bottles a week – that’s 175 plastic water bottles each year – but on average they only recycle a quarter of them. If the usage of plastic was to decrease (and the amount recycled increase) it would significantly benefit the planet.

How can an individual limit the use of plastic?

We can all do our own bit to help, including:

  • Recycling
  • Use reusable materials
  • Avoid the use of plastic straws and disposable cutlery
  • Buy milk in a glass jar rather than a plastic carton
  • Carry a reusable shopping bag rather than buying one every time

How is climate change impacting the planet?

Abhini, Year 10, looks at some of the issues surrounding climate change, and the potential impacts this will have on our lives.

During the Easter holidays, London and other parts of the UK witnessed a significant protest against the government with over 1,000 people being arrested for blocking streets. The wave of protest began with Swedish born 16-year-old Greta Thunberg who, every Friday, would sit outside government buildings in September, accusing her country of not following the Paris Climate Agreement.

What are the concerns?

So what is it that everyone is worried about in terms of climate change? The world is seeing more extreme temperatures being recorded increasingly across the globe. The 21st century has seen records broken with increased temperatures all through the season and the rise in temperatures also has an impact on the Arctic and melting ice caps. 2016 was the hottest year on record since 1880, with average temperatures measuring 0.99 degrees Celsius warmer than the mid-20th century mean. Since the 1950s, every continent has warmed substantially.

New Scientist graph on global temperature change

An additional impact that climate change is having on the earth is on sea levels, as they are rising at their fastest rate in 2000 years and currently changing at a rate of 3.4 mm per year, causing major impacts such as increased flooding. If sea levels continue to rise, countries like Bangladesh will cease to exist, leading to a refugee crisis, as an average of 21.5 million people have already been forcibly displaced since 2008 due to climate change-related weather hazards. Not only are our water levels increasing, but the ocean is now 26% more acidic than before the Industrial Revolution. This also means that the waters are now more acidic than at any other point in the last 300,000 years.

NASA data on sea rise change from 1880-present

Another shocking fact that is due to climate change, is the damage of two-thirds of the Great Barrier Reef. In April 2017, it was revealed that two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef has been severely damaged by coral bleaching, usually a result of water temperatures being too high. However, there are many more important and recent events due to climate change such as last week’s cyclone attack in Mozambique and the wildfires that took place in California late last year. The pictures below show these significant, global events.

Is climate change real?

What about the people who deny climate change? A large proportion of the public in Western democracies deny the existence of climate change[1]. Some climate change denial groups say that because CO2 is only a trace gas in the atmosphere, it can only have a minor effect on the climate. Climate denial groups also argue that global warming stopped recently, or that global temperatures are actually decreasing. However, these arguments have been made clear to be false and are only based on short term alternates. Climate change deniers are often those who are economically making a financial interest in it and, in some cases, their generation is not necessarily going to be impacted by it.

We all know about ‘being green’ by walking to school or unplugging electronics when we are not using them. However, it is not enough anymore to just switch our light off as times now call for drastic change. The energy sources in our home need to be renewable, gas must go, and people should start investing in an electric or hybrid vehicle rather than using petrol or diesel.

climate change

We cannot sit and wait on the government to change. Change is in the hands of the people. We need to force the government’s hand and can only do so if we unite to try and save a world which we are currently destroying. Change occurs when we take action.


[1] See