The Scrouge of Chemical Pollution

Chemicals have been instrumental in bettering our lives, and their use is ubiquitous. Chemicals are found in fertilisers used in agriculture, household appliances, soaps and detergents, clothes we wear, cars, packaging materials, sports shoes, helmets, hand sanitisers, medicines, computers, undersea cables, aerospace, mobile phones and many more products.

Photo by Stormseeker on Unsplash

While chemicals have benefitted humankind immensely, ey have several harmful effects. Unfortunately, the recent focus on greenhouse gas emissions has obscured the equally important issue of chemical pollution. So, what is chemical pollution? Chemical pollution is the presence or increase in our environment of chemical pollutants that are not naturally present or found in amounts higher than their natural background values. Chemical pollution comes from three primary sources – Persistent Organic Pollutants that come from fertilisers; oil that comes from urban-based runoffs, operational fuel discharge and oil spills; and toxic metals that come from industrial activity and waste dumps

There are many sources of chemical pollution. For example, fertilisers and pesticides used in agriculture can seep into the soil and contaminate it. Ships containing crude oil can cause oil spills and cause chemical pollution. Everyday household cleaner released in water carries several polluting chemicals. In industries, chemical pollution results from human activities like the manufacturing, handling, storing, and disposing of chemicals. Thus, chemical pollution pervades all human activities.

The impact of chemical pollution can be severe. In seas, rivers and lakes, many areas suffer from low levels of oxygen due to chemicals from land running off into the sea. As a result, there is a mass killing of fishes and destruction of water body ecology. As a result, fishing communities are finding it difficult to survive – the boats are getting spoilt, and their catch is reduced. On land, the effects are far-reaching. Fields poisoned by chemicals may become unusable. Crops may contain higher than permissible levels of chemicals. Contaminated water sources add to the problem. Compared to CO2 emissions, toxins in the soil remain for centuries. In humans, chemical pollution causes damage to the liver, kidneys, nervous system, blood, cardiovascular system, immune system, or reproductive system. Certain pollutants can also be carcinogenic.

What can be done? First, we need to create effective regulations with robust monitoring mechanisms. Awareness and education for responsible behaviour are essential. Companies need to take urgent steps. Chemical pollution is a scrouge that needs to be stamped out.

Deep-Sea Mining, Renewables and Sustainability

The ocean bed holds the key to many of the world’s challenges. For example, some of the materials used in clean-energy technology come from the deep sea bed.

The world population is increasing and likely to reach 9.6 billion by 2050. The increased population will have higher energy requirements. The climate crisis that we face leads us to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. Renewable energy sources have to fill the gap left behind by fossil fuels. Renewable energy will require significant amounts of ethically sourced materials.

Deep-sea mining refers to retrieving mineral deposits from the deep sea – the area of the ocean below 200 m which covers about 65% of the Earth’s surface. With terrestrial resources depleting, deep seabed mining has received increasing attention. 

Materials like nickel, copper, manganese and cobalt are found in the deep sea bed and must be mined sustainably. Marine biologists believe that the deep seabed is part of one of the least-understood environments on Earth. It holds the key to the health of the oceans. Oceans are a vital carbon sink. They absorb up to a quarter of all global emissions. Deep seabed mining may reduce the ability of the ocean to act as a carbon sink. Oceans are a living ecosystem, and extraction activity is likely to disturb the ecosystem leading to significant changes in the seabed. Oceans are home to thousands of species of tiny invertebrates fundamental to the ocean food web. Some scientists believe that the mineral nodules may also play a role in the ocean processes.

Apart from disturbing marine ecology, deep-sea mining can also lead to increased pollution, noise and vibrations from mining activity, leaks and spills of fuels and toxic products.

Deep-sea mining stirs up fine sediments on the seafloor consisting of silt, clay and the remains of microorganisms, creating plumes of suspended particles. Depending on how long they take to disperse and resettle on the ocean floor, the impact of mining could be severe.

Thus, deep seabed mining could have long-term and potentially devastating impacts on marine life. To minimise the impact, we need to do the following. 

  1. Baseline studies: Prepare extensive baseline studies to assess the impact of deep-sea mining. 
  2. Environmental impact assessments: Undertake assessments to determine the extent and duration of environmental damage and the impact on marine biodiversity.
  3. Mitigation: Invest in R&D and technology development to produce better ways of extracting these minerals.
  4. Increased regulation: Regulation will ensure that mining is undertaken properly. It will also ensure that measures are taken to minimise environmental impacts. This will also eliminate mining in fragile ecologies. The International Seabed Authority is tasked with organising, regulating and controlling all mineral-related activities.
  5. Circular economy: Enhancing product design to use less or alternative materials can also reduce the demand.

A comprehensive approach to deep-sea mining is critical. While we push for net-zero targets and their achievement, we have to keep in mind the impacts on the oceans covering 71per cent of Earth’s surface. 

Regenerative Agriculture for Fashion

Fashion consumers are increasingly becoming inclined towards sustainable fashion. This trend requires designers, product developers, merchandisers and buyers to decide on sustainable origin materials. Regenerative agriculture provides a solution.

Source: Gaertringen/Pixabay

Regenerative agriculture is a system of farming principles and practices that seeks to rehabilitate and enhance the farm’s entire ecosystem by placing a heavy premium on soil health, with attention also paid to water management, fertilizer use, and more.

 You may wonder how is this different from organic farming? Organic farming is a prescriptive standard for agricultural production. On the other hand, Regenerative agriculture is about principles, not practices. Regenerative agriculture is output driven. In addition to omitting chemicals, regenerative agriculture replenishes and strengthens the plants, the soil, and the nature around it.

While one sees rows upon rows of a single crop in a typical farm, in a regenerative farm, one would see multiple corps planted strategically next to each other, helping each other grow and nourish. For example, on a cotton farm, one may find snap peas planted as a cover crop that provides more shade and helps retain water and grow more microbiomes. Regenerative farms also implement pollinator strips of crops to attract bees and butterflies. In addition, farmers add trap crops to divert pests, reducing the need for chemical pesticides. Regenerative farms mimic nature.

Regenerative agriculture helps meet emerging industry guidance – Greenhouse Gas Protocol, the Science-Based Targets, Net Zero Standard and Convention for Biological diversity. Regenerative farms if implemented the world over has the capability to sink all the carbon in our atmosphere. With regenerative agriculture, the fashion industry can help revive the earth through the process of making clothes. Recently, brands like Kering ( owner of Gucci, Saint Laurent and other brands) and J Crew have pushed for regenerative agriculture. Patagonia is also supporting regenerative cotton farmers with a pilot program in India. Merino company, Allbirds, Icebreaker and Smartwool have joined hands to create a platform for regenerative wool. The fashion industry is moving towards a fundamentally new economic paradigm and reconfiguring its business model. An acceleration of the change is of the essence.

War and ESG

The Russia-Ukraine war has thrown up several issues around ESG. Given that the EU is neighbour to the warring parties, the impact of war is direct. But the war also has ramifications around the world. So let us look at some implications for ESG.

Source: Pixabay/Pexels

Emissions: The recent IPCC report highlighted the urgency to reduce GHG emissions stating that the window is “brief and rapidly closing.” The war has made this harder to achieve – all the munitions going off add to GHG emissions significantly. This will make the task of GHG reductions more challenging.

Investments: ESG investments have grown rapidly in the past couple of years. The war has led to a spike in oil prices and windfall gains to many oil companies, and consequently, oil stock has done well. However, with high inflation and investor expectations of higher returns, the lack of oil stocks puts fund managers, particularly growth funds, in a tight spot. This is exacerbated by the need to reduce holdings of Russian stocks in the portfolio.

Energy sourcing: While the EU has been a climate champion, the war has shown some kinks. The high dependence of EU countries on gas is of concern. There are no easy substitutes. While it is easy to say that they should shift to renewables – it requires massive investments and time. The shift is necessary.

Another worrying line of thought is emerging that the European countries might slow on climate change while rejigging their energy sources.

While the impact of war is more direct on the environment, there are implications for social and governance aspects. For example, take the refugee crisis. The refugees will need employment and housing. And, when the war is over, rebuilding will present opportunities and challenges.

Companies will have to deal with high inflation, constrained supply chains, and recovering from pandemic economic consequences on the governance front. As a result, the need to focus on net-zero will become even sharper.

Recycling Cosmetics

Photo by Jhong Pascua from Pexels

Every household has a cabinet in the bathroom that is overflowing with cosmetics. Earlier cosmetics were the preserve of women. However, increasingly men are taking to cosmetics leading to competition for the space in that cabinet. 

The global cosmetics market was valued at $380.2 billion in 2019 and is projected to reach $463.5 billion by 2027. A staggering 51 billion pieces of cosmetic packaging is produced each year. 

There has been a lot of debate about the harmful chemicals used in cosmetics. While those issues are getting addressed, there are still multiple issues with cosmetics:

  1. Packaging: This is the most widely known problem. Cosmetic packaging consists of plastic, steel, glass, etc. Discarded packing often contains remnants of the products – dried and unused materials. These are difficult to separate and are not easily recyclable.
  2. Discontinued products: These are returned by stores and sent to landfills.
  3. Product waste: Testers, unsold products and returned products. All these again go to the landfill.
  4. Chemicals: The chemicals used in cosmetics can be harmful when incinerated or added the soil in landfills.  

The industry is now moving towards sustainable actions. L’Oréal has pledged to make 100 per cent of its packaging recyclable or bio-based by 2030. Unilever, Coty and Beiersdorf have pledged to make sure plastic packaging is recycled, reusable, recyclable, or compostable by 2025.

Much of the work on recycling has centred around cosmetic companies that have tied up with Terracycle to recycle packaging. However, an interesting innovation is by an American beauty company, Izzy. Izzy sells beauty products that are zero waste. It provides beauty products that are reusable and recyclable. Izzy beauty products come with no outer packaging and are shipped in reusable mailers manufactured from upcycled materials. Its stainless steel tubes are designed to be cleaned and refilled. The company sends a reminder every 90 days for a refill, and the refill is shipped in a reusable shipper. Thus, this eliminates waste and promotes reuse.

The cosmetic industry can do a lot to reduce environmental degradation. Therefore, an increased focus on recycling and becoming circular becomes critical.