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Dispelling the 5 Myths Of Sustainability — Is That Metal Straw Really Doing Earth Any Good?

The market for eco-friendly products is enormous and growing. In 2018, the demand for reusable water bottles alone was valued at more than US$8 billion—a 3% increase from 2017. Moving forward, the market value is expected to grow further to US$10.4 billion by 2025.

The numbers are astounding which begs the question: Do we need more water bottles? Or is the quality of bottles becoming so poor that we need to replace them constantly?

When the scale of eco-friendliness exceeds functionality and becomes a fashion trend, naturally, the related recyclable product starts to be marketed not just as a sustainable but an in-trend lifestyle choice to be adopted. One may argue that this is perfectly fine as it is similar to other consumer products, like electronic gadgets. However, the logic of the situation turns ironic when the spotlight is on eco-products, which are intended to minimise environmental footprints and be sustainable.

Out of the array of eco-friendly items available in the booming market, here’s five trending green products and a revisit of their sustainability through a multi-dimensional lens. By no means are we insinuating that the products are ill-intended; however, while companies produce exciting and novel eco-products, we should be discerning and strive to complement these bona fide efforts with the right intention and objective—to reduce our carbon footprint for a better tomorrow.

Myth 1: The cotton recyclable bag is a better sustainable option as compared to a disposable plastic bag.

Fact: Cotton grocery bags—almost everyone owns them; whether we buy or receive them as a gift—are not as eco-friendly as it seems. Being a resource-heavy crop, the hungry cotton plant requires plenty of lands, water, and fertilisers to grow. 

According to a report by Denmark’s Ministry of Environment and Food, a conventional cotton bag needs to be used at least 7,100 times to match the environmental footprint of a single-use plastic bag. Translating this staggering figure into practical terms, this means that a cotton bag needs to be used every single day for 19.5 years. 

Moreover, the type of ink used for printing on the surface should be biodegradable and non-toxic. Otherwise, it further defeats the purpose of a cotton bag being an eco-friendly alternative. Also, the cotton bag cannot be recycled indefinitely as the quality of fibre will weaken to the point of being unusable.

Myth 2: Bamboo Fabric is eco-friendly.

Fact: Bamboo Fabric is the new kid trending in the eco-fashion block. Unlike cotton, bamboo is a relatively low maintenance crop—it grows very quickly and requires little to no fertiliser. Being a plant-based product, my first thought was: how non-eco friendly can it be? After all, it is born and bred from the bowels of the earth. 

However, as we delve deeper into the conversion of plant to fabric, we realise that the manufacturing methods are highly controversial and harmful to the environment.

To reach fruition, the bamboo fabric undergoes two significant steps; mechanical process and rayon process. The rayon process is highly chemical-intensive but is crucial in creating a silky soft texture in the material. 

Furthermore, the chemicals employed are highly toxic, and 50% of the waste from rayon production cannot be reused and goes directly into the environment.

Myth 3: Natural Sea Sponge is commonly advocated as the more eco-friendly option to the artificial sponge foam.

Fact: The artificial sponge option—the ones we get off the shelves from Fairprice—is made of polyurethane foam. Though the foams are an excellent cleaning aid, they are made from ozone-depleting hydrocarbons, used to form the shape of the foam.

Moreover, during its destruction process, polyurethane releases formaldehyde and other irritants, which can create harmful toxin compounds.

Enter the natural sea sponge (our real-life SpongeBob), commonly marketed as a better and more eco-friendly option. Similar to its artificial counterpart, it serves the same purpose, has superb absorption qualities, and is innately soft and durable. Being the natural option, sea sponge do leave lesser carbon footprints on the environment. It seems like the stars have aligned, and this should be the preferred choice. 

However, sea sponge is the primary source of food to the hawksbill sea turtle, which is an endangered species. Adding doom to the gloom, the effects of global warming have caused massive depletion to the sea sponge family. Though overharvesting of sea sponge is not a pertinent problem, continuous harvesting of this finite resource deprives the endangered hawksbill sea turtle of its food source. In the long run, the impact on the ecosystem is adverse and irreversible.

Myth 4: e-Readers are a more eco-friendly alternative than the resource-heavy paperback books.

Fact: With access to over an almost infinite number of books, an e-Reader is a convenient option, and it admittedly sounds more eco-friendly. After all, every ebook read is one less book purchased, therefore lessening the negative repercussions of deforestation

However, this is not necessarily the case when sustainability judgment goes beyond the mere issue of paper pollution. We must review the products’ lifecycle from cradle (production) to grave (destruction), excluding individual usage patterns from the equation due to the varying degrees and to prevent the inequitable application of assumptions. 

The fact is both e-Readers and paperback books produce different types of pollutants. But the primary pollutant of e-Readers lies in the manufacture of battery and screen. Nearly 50 times more fossil fuel is required and four times more carbon dioxide released in the production of the e-Reader as compared to a book made from recycled paper.

The e-Reader, like any other electronic gadget, contains toxic elements, which requires proper disposal. Blatant disregard for appropriate waste methods takes a massive toll on the environment—toxic air, water, and land pollution—which has lasting effects on the ecosystem.

Myth 5: Metal Straw is an eco-friendly alternative to the plastic straw. We can save the turtles!

Fact: The extent of straw waste became apparent to me during a beach-cleaning exercise. We were asked to sort the rubbish collected, and the number of plastic straws collected was staggering.

Although plastic straws ranked as the 7th most collected waste item from the beaches, due to its lightweight, studies have found that plastic straws make up a meagre 0.025% of the total waste.

Despite its negligible negative contribution, the harm to the ecosystem cannot be undermined or understated. When the marine animal feeds on this debris, the plastic debris stays in the body, is passed on and accumulated up the food chain. Also, plastic is made up of some carcinogenic materials and interferes with several body systems.

The intention is noble—companies created metal straws to reduce plastic waste disposal. However, the process of producing a metal straw—which includes metal mining—is highly destructive to the environment as it creates pollutants and causes damage at every stage of production. The manufacturing process releases a lot more carbon dioxide (CO2), which is a greenhouse gas and a factor that exacerbates global warming.

Based on research conducted by Humboldt State University in Arcata, California, the energy required to produce a metal straw is approximately 100 times more than a plastic straw. Besides that, creating a metal straw releases 217g of CO2, while a disposable plastic straw emits a paltry 1.46g of CO2 in the same process. It means that we need to use our metal straws at least 150 times to negate the toll on the environment.

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