How sustainable is palm oil?

Factory

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.


References:

[1] https://www.toptal.com/finance/market-research-analysts/palm-oil-investing?utm_content=palm-oil&utm_source=Quora (Orinola Gbadebo-Smith – An Investor’s Guide to Palm Oil)

[2] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Lf-GiulGlqg (How it’s made – Palm Oil)

[3] https://www.wwf.org.uk/updates/8-things-know-about-palm-oil (WWF – 8 Things To Know About Palm Oil)

Bioplastics – always a good thing?

Plastic bottles

Saskia (Y13) questions whether bioplastics have been misbranded as an eco-friendly material and discusses factors we all should consider as consumers.

In the student leadership team, we have been thinking a lot about connections – within the school, within ourselves, and connections with the wider world. You will be hearing a lot more about the environment this year from Flora, our Environment Rep, but as I have been investigating whether the UK should be investing in bioplastics for my EPQ, I thought I would write about a few of my findings and hopefully encourage all of us to think more about the impact we are having on our world, and how we can work together to connect more with the environment.

Plastic underwater With its many uses – from industrial to home use, packaging, toys and clothes, its durability, light weight and low cost – plastics make economic sense and are in many ways ideal for 21st century living. But we are now all much more aware of the time – up to 1000 years – that plastics take to break down, when put into landfill. An estimated 3 million tonnes of plastic end up in the ocean each year. Alongside the life span factor, the raw material for traditional plastics – commonly from non-renewable sources such as oil – bring questions of sustainability. Acting on this, companies have looked for biomass (wheat, corn, sugar cane, sugar beet, potatoes and other plants) to turn into plastics. Thus, bioplastics have been created. A positive development, we might all agree.

However, straightaway we have to question the energy needed to transport biomass to a manufacturing plant to make bioplastics. We must then consider the energy needed to create them – the energy used in production for any type of plastic is high. Most importantly for the consumer, and what I want to focus on here, is the question of the disposal of bioplastics. It is a misconception to believe that bioplastics are better for the environment than petroleum plastics after life. Bioplastics are not necessarily biodegradable even though they are made from biomass materials. Bioplastics can be made to decompose; however, this is only common in products that have a short life. I am very keen to spread this message!

The Guardian[1] started some months ago wrapping their Saturday magazine supplement in corn starch wrapping. The corn starch wrapping can go into compost bins and decompose – no problems there. However, the new Coca Cola Plantbottle[2] cannot decompose. A plastic bottle, even made from biomass, will on average take 450 years to break down.

Plantbottle What CocaCola want you to do is to recycle your PlantBottle in the correct facility. In keeping the bioplastic of the bottles in use, they are promoting the circular economy that is becoming much more of a consideration for anyone in the manufacturing process. The problem, of course, is the human factor: how can you ensure the correct separation of materials to recycle efficiently and without contamination? If the separation does not work, one type of plastic can easily be mixed into another type and thus contaminate a batch of recycled product. This batch is then not able to be used in certain situations or at all due to the change in properties.

This is just a snapshot of some of the findings from my research. I believe bioplastics are a good alternative to the petrochemical plastics that we have used for so long. I say this with caution though because as I hope I have demonstrated, there are still many downsides to the materials. However, I believe that as our technology improves the impact that bioplastics have will decrease. It is key that we make these changes if bioplastics are ever going to be sustainable especially as the world is developing rapidly.

By focusing on education and minimising the impact humans are having on the environment we will ensure that there is a future for younger generations. It will involve considerable investment; we would need to change the materials we use, spend money clearing up plastic pollution and grow to educate an awareness of the afterlife of all types of plastics, including bioplastics. My main belief is that we need to change the way we use materials. It is just not feasible to continue increasing the amount of plastic packaging that the world is using and thus the most ideal situation is to dramatically decrease the amount of packaging and our dependence on plastics overall. I hope I have inspired you to think; if you have ideas of how we can do this within our WHS community, do let the SLT know.

 


References: 

[1] Natasha Hitti, [website], 2019, https://www.dezeen.com/2019/01/14/guardian-biodegradable-wrapping-design/

[2] CocaColaCo, [website], 2015, https://www.coca-colacompany.com/videos/introducing-plant-bottle-ytaevvjxqwaz8

 

Exploring Sri Lanka – 28/09/18

Globe

Serrena in Year 11 discusses the geography and struggles of Sri Lanka that she learnt about and witnessed when she was on a school trip there this summer.

Environmental Geography:

Sri Lanka is a teardrop-shaped island, located in the Indian Ocean with different climatic conditions across this small country. Its coastal areas are around 0–30m above sea level whilst its central highlands are 300–500m above sea level with the highest point in Sri Lanka, Pidurutalagala, at 2524m above sea level. These differing altitudes result in different climates: in the coastal areas there is hotter weather with more convectional rainfall, whereas the central highlands are cooler with more relief rainfall.  The cold, wet weather of the central highlands has resulted in an area called Nuwara Eliya being referred to as “Little England”.

Sri Lanka’s climate is also influenced by monsoons: the northeast monsoon (December to February), and the southwest monsoon (May to September). When the land heats up and low pressure is caused by the rising, hot air, cooler wind from the ocean is drawn in and brings with it heavy rainfall for the country. In Sri Lanka, the rivers naturally flow more towards the southern, wet zone but there has been human intervention to divert the flow of rivers towards the north of the country where there are dams.

The Sinharaja Rainforest:

The Sinharaja Forest Reserve is a national park and a biodiversity hotspot in the southwest of Sri Lanka. It has been designated a Biosphere Reserve and World Heritage Site by UNESCO. There are 211 woody trees and lianas so far identified in the reserve, 66% of which are endemic, 20 of Sri Lanka’s 26 endemic birds are found here as well as half of Sri Lanka’s endemic mammals and butterflies.

Human Impacts:

Lots of plants are cut illegally – the agarwood plant is fragrant and is stolen for use in cosmetics and perfumes, venivel creepers are taken for medicinal uses and the rattan plant is stolen for furniture. Precious gems are also illegally extracted from the site for jewellery. Pesticides left by people trying to grow certain plants to steal them lead to bioaccumulation. Contractors open up routes to facilitate logging operations and, although no felling is permitted within 1.6km of the reserve boundary, this renders the reserve more accessible to illicit timber operations. The planting of Honduran mahogany Swietenia macrophylla along abandoned logging trails as an enrichment species leads to the displacement of natural species, especially as it is a prolific seed producer.

The future of the site:

There are concerns over the future of the conservation of the site and its biodiversity as, despite being a UNESCO world heritage site, many people are illegally damaging it. Additionally, if global warming leads to more erratic and shorter monsoons, the plants will receive less water for photosynthesis which subsequently leads to less respiration and less growth.

Economic Geography:

Sri Lanka’s island status and ports allow it to have good trade relations with other countries. Its main exports are rubber, tea and coconut and its smaller exports are spices as well as minerals and gems.

Tourism:

Jobs in Sri Lanka are becoming increasingly based in the tertiary sector as it develops. There is Chinese investment in Sri Lanka: the government has taken a loan from the Chinese government to build a new harbour airport and highway as well as a new artificial island in Colombo called Port City. This new artificial island will provide jobs for locals as well as bring in lots of tourist revenue as new hotels will be built.

A growing tourist industry in recent years has allowed the country to recover after its development was hindered by a civil war. However, despite a growing tourism industry in Sri Lanka, upon visiting a hotel school on our trip and talking to the young men there who aspire to work in hotels we discovered that the vast majority of them want to work abroad. This may be due to a desire to see how other hotel industries work but Sri Lanka faces a larger issue of skilled workers leaving the country for higher salaries in the West.

1.2 million Sri Lankans work abroad and send money back home, whilst economic issues can also force women to work abroad. Women in rural areas who struggle to support their families have far fewer opportunities for employment in Sri Lanka compared to areas such as the Middle East. For example, there are 1.5 million Asian domestic workers in Saudi Arabia.

Social Geography:

Education:

Education is free in Sri Lanka and subsequently there is a 94% literacy rate. In Sri Lanka there are only spaces for around 10% of students to go to university. This lack of universities and increased competition for spaces in higher education leads to many parents feeling forced to send their children to tuition to give them the best chance possible of getting into university. This issue is exacerbated by the fact that school finishes at around lunchtime in Sri Lanka and children are unoccupied in the afternoon, a time when many school teachers will run their own private tuition. This leaves bright children, in a country where the average wage is USD $12,768, whose parents cannot afford to send them to tuition at a disadvantage compared to students whose parents have a larger disposable income. As parents feel compelled to allocate part of their income to their child’s tuition, they face an opportunity cost of giving their children a better chance of getting into university or having the financial means to afford a better quality of life for their family.

Culture:

There are people of many different religions in Sri Lanka who peacefully co – exist. As religious studies is a compulsory subject up until 16 in the Sri Lankan schooling system, the religious tensions of the civil war are unlikely to resurface and students are more tolerant.

Polwathatha Eco lodge:

This Eco lodge encourages ecotourism.

  • It produces its own tea and coffee
  • It has a community produce section and employs many locals to give them a source of income
  • They collect polyethylene plastic and give it to a place in Digana where the plastic is recycled
  • They give kitchen waste to the wild pigs which uses up the kitchen waste while maintaining biodiversity
  • To maintain local culture and show tourists a non – westernised and authentic Sri Lankan experience they provide homestays for visitors

During our community stay in Digana local women have small plots of land where they can plant crops and sell them to gain a source of income and become independent, furthering the emancipation of women in rural areas of Sri Lanka.

When we visited a roadside rural restaurant, we realised that many people in rural areas lead sustainable lifestyles and their low income means they aim to have minimal waste. For example, coconuts are fully grated inside to provide food for the restaurant whilst the husk is used for building thatched rooves.

Evaluation

I found this trip visiting rural areas to be a humbling experience for someone who lives in a busy city like me for a few reasons:

  1. The resourcefulness of Sri Lankans makes up for their lack of technological advancements in comparison to Western, developed nations;
  2. The resilience of the people we met in the face of adversity; the absence of a social benefit system after tsunamis have caused vast devastation in Sri Lanka in the past two decades and a civil war that lasted 25 years disrupted the lives of thousands of Sri Lankans, displacing an estimated 800,000 people;
  3. The incomparable hospitality of our host families, drivers and everybody we met. There is a huge sense of community in rural Sri Lanka that left a lasting impact on my outlook in life.

An environmental education: more than ‘saving the world’?

Globe

Nicola Higgs, Head of Geography, investigates the importance of an environmental education and challenges us to think about the concept in a more complex way.

Environmental education is not simply about ‘saving the whale’ or indeed ‘saving the world’. It is equally about the development of an appreciation of the wonders and beauty of the world, and a sense of wanting to save it – in short, the development of ecological thinking or of an environmental ethic (Palmer, 1998, p. 267).

Environmental education as described by Joy Palmer above is a relatively young, but increasingly significant, area of study. The importance of developing means to live more sustainably, conserving natural resources, and preserving the Earth for its future inhabitants are at the heart of environmental education. However, it does not always hold the priority in education systems that this urgency advocates, and it seems to constantly be battling for its position against the “intricacies and demands of education in general rather than be a core element of it” (Palmer, 1998, p. ix).

The 1968 UNESCO Conference called for all education systems at all levels to provide space and resources in the curriculum to learn about the environment and to create a global awareness of environmental problems. The definition of environmental education was agreed by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN)/UNESCO in 1970:

…the process of recognising values and clarifying concepts in order to develop skills and attitudes necessary to understand and appreciate the inter-relatedness among man, his culture, his biophysical surroundings. Environmental education also entails practice in decision-making and self-formulation of a code of behaviour about issues concerning environmental quality (IUCN, 1970).

And in 1975 the UN founded the International Environmental Education Programme, which had 3 clear objectives:

  1. Foster clear awareness of and concern about economic, social, political, and ecological inter-dependence in urban and rural areas
  2. Provide every person with opportunities to acquire the knowledge, values, attitudes, commitment and skills needed to protect and improve the environment
  3. Create new patterns of behaviour of individual, groups and society as a whole towards the environment

This strong international focus on environmental issues and environmental education reflected increasing public interest on the environment. Fast-forward to 2018 and environmental education has, in many ways, been deprioritised within national and international school curriculums across the world, due to competing tensions between the significance of the environment compared to economic and social development (Tippins, Mueller, van Eijck, & Adams, 2010).

The folly in this is that in order that people and societies can continue to function and develop we must look to find balance in the human-environment relationship. As educators we have a duty to ensure that students are equipped to handle the 21st century world which they will inherit. Understanding the way in which space-place-environment operates as a conceptual and procedural nexus, each inseparable from the other, will be crucial in achieving the sustainable development ideal. Teaching ‘about the environment’ is no longer enough, teaching ‘for sustainability’ has the potential to engage and reinforce the tools with which our girls will enter the world and lead the change we need to see (Corney & Middleton, 1996).

An approach that we have adopted in the Geography Department at Wimbledon High School is to ensure schemes of learning at all key stages build on the concept of sustainable development, that is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs (Brundtland Report, 1987). We expose our students to a variety of real-world scenarios in which they could have an impact in the future.

For example, Year 8 have recently debated the construction of a wind energy farm having first designed and built a prototype wind turbine in the STEAM room, Year 9 will evaluate options for development of the low-income country Zambia in the face of an increasingly interconnected world. Year 10 and 11 explore the tensions between our quickly urbanising global population and the growing size of ecological footprints beyond the boundary of the city, whilst proposing sustainable solutions to issues of water stress and water scarcity in the UK, which, as Londoners, will be critically important to them.

As a Geographer I feel a sense of duty to ensure that my students have as full an appreciation and understanding of environmental issues as I am able to help them discover. The complexity of environmental problems, opinions and solutions is vast, and our programmes of education at WHS aim to inform, empower and inspire:

Our task as environmental educators in the 21st century is to recognise this complexity of experience, and to assist the overall process – by striving to implement programmes of education that inform our students about the complexities of the environment in which they are growing up; empower them to address environment and development issues in their own lives; and provide them with opportunities to be inspired by the joys, wonder and mysteries of the natural world and human achievement (Palmer, 1998, p. 277).

Environmental education is vital for our future, it could well be the most important thing we teach our young people. Subjects and disciplines change and evolve, as societies and politics and belief systems and ideologies change and evolve, and priorities for people and countries change.  The future belongs to these young people; they have a right to be able to fully engage in it, and above all to be well informed about it.

Follow @Geography_WHS on Twitter.

References and further reading:

Corney, G., & Middleton, N. (1996). Teaching environmental issues in schools and higher education. In E. Rawling & R. Daugherty (Eds.), Geography into the twenty-first century (pp. 323–338). Chichester: Wiley.

Palmer, J. A. (1998). Environmental education in the 21st century: theory, practice, progress and promise. London: Routledge.

Tippins, D. J., Mueller, M. P., van Eijck, M., & Adams, J. D. (Eds.). (2010). Cultural studies and Environmentalism. The Confluence of EcoJustic, Place-based (Science) Education, and Indigenous Knowledge Systems. New York: Springer.

Ted Talk – ‘Let the Environment Guide our Development (Johan Rockstrom) https://www.ted.com/talks/johan_rockstrom_let_the_environment_guide_our_development