emissions

Sustainable Beauty

Editor’s Note: During these times of uncertainty, finding ways to proactively care for ourselves and our surroundings can have a grounding effect. However, we must recognize that having this opportunity is a sign of our privilege. I encourage you to take a moment to appreciate the labor of essential workers.

16 Top Ethical and Sustainable Beauty Brands You Should Know [Space Nation Orbit Blog]

Eco-conscious consumerism may seem like an unlikely investment of time during a global pandemic, but quarantine has allowed many of us to slow down and listen to our bodies. Practicing self-care can take many forms and adopting a skincare routine is one. When we discuss personal care products, however, we should also consider the life cycle and environmental impacts of their packaging.

According to a report compiled by Statista, the 2020 United States skincare market has generated $18.1 million and the average consumer has spent $55 on skincare. The bottles, tubes, and containers used annually by the cosmetic industry adds up to 120 billion units of plastics packaging. But how does this hurt our planet?

Of the 120 billion units of plastic packaging used each year, 70% ends up in landfills. Bioplastics do not degrade naturally or within the average human lifespan. They can be composted, but require such an intense degree of heat to break down that they must be returned to an industrial compost site.

Through the dumping of waste in developing nations and irresponsible waste collection practices, plastic ends up in our oceans and breaks down into microplastics. When ingested, plastics and microplastics jeopardize the health of marine life and move in such a way mimic the movements of prey consumed by fish and seabirds. Plastic pollution, which PEW Research Center estimates currently totals up to 8 million pieces of plastic in the ocean, can also become entangled with aquatic life. This has resulted in the strangulation of sea turtles and marine mammals’ necks, and the asphyxiation of aquatic life.

Alternative forms of packaging have been used by companies in response to rapid deforestation and plastic pollution. An increasingly popular material is bioplastic, which is made from the sugars in corn starch, cassava, and sugar cane. Bioplastics are defined by being composed of 20% or more renewable resources, and are free of the hormone-disrupting chemical BPA (bisphenol A). This alternative seems appealing compared to the use of petroleum-based packaging, but the conservation community warns that there are many contingencies to the success of bioplastics. It is often cited that they emit less carbon dioxide than petroleum-based plastic, due in part to the fact that they are not unearthing trapped liquid carbon dioxide. However, a study conducted by the University of Pittsburgh found that extensive land use, as well as fertilizer and pesticide application, lead to more pollutant emissions than traditional plastic. Not only are these agricultural practices harmful to the environment, but they also threaten our hormonal and skin health.

The use of “natural” ingredients in products and packaging disproportionately impact people of color. On the agricultural side, migrant farmworkers in the United States experience routine exposure to pesticides and other environmental hazards associated with industrial farming (such as California’s continued wildfires), heat stress, and contaminated drinking water. These laborers are essential to the $200 billion agricultural industry, yet farmworkers make about 40 cents per bucket of produce picked. On the consumer side, there has also been an uptick in lawsuits based on exposure to toxic ingredients in household brand health and beauty products. A notable example is litigation based on mercury contamination in skin-lightening products. The American Journal of Obstetrics and Gynecology issued an opinion that women of color are disproportionately exposed to unsafe ingredients in beauty products due to the societal pressures they face to conform to Western beauty standards. For these reasons, looking at sustainability through the lens of human rights and racial/social justice is key to the growth of the sustainable skincare/beauty industry.

So where does our beauty waste go?

Our demand for resource-intensive products contributes to the loss of 18 million acres of forest each year. This is because skincare products contain ingredients like soy, palm oil, and sugar cane, which are grown on large-scale farms that consume extensive stretches of land. Not only are the effects of our consumption felt on land, but also seen in the oceans. Alarm has been raised surrounding the ethical implications of agricultural sourcing. By diverting land and energy away from food production, companies are exacerbating food insecurity in many developing countries. Ecovia (formerly Organic Monitor), a market research firm that examines the organic beauty industry, compares the debate over “beauty crops” to that of biofuel. While both are striving to improve sustainability in their markets, advancing technology while failing to address food security ignores the basic human right to food. Developments in the industry, such as the commitment to sustainable palm oil-sourcing (see Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil), have been created to address these concerns. Similar roundtables exist for soybeans and cocoa, all with the intent to responsibly and ethically grow consumer crops.

How can you find sustainable skincare products?

Greenwashing has frequently become more apparent as brands jump onto the eco-conscious trend. This term refers to the marketing strategy which deceives consumers into believing that the product is better for the environment (i.e. by having a lighter carbon footprint or donating to an environmental organization). Usually, greenwashed products use earth tone colors, have pictures of natural landscapes and/or leaves, and include key words such as “eco-,” “natural,” and “sustainable.” Greenwashing misleads consumers to think they are making decisions that positively impact or vaguely-reference the environment, when in reality, these companies continue to package in plastic and encourage wasteful consumption patterns. Many argue that bioplastics are an example of greenwashing due to inadequate composting infrastructure or consumer understanding of the waste process.

Along with greenwashing, be wary of the word “organic.” The U.S. Department of Agriculture has a certified organic label indicating that the crops “are grown and processed according to federal guidelines addressing… soil quality, animal raising practices, pest and weed control, and use of additives. Organic producers rely on natural substances and physical, mechanical, or biologically based farming methods to the fullest extent possible” (USDA 2012). According to the New York Times, an amendment to the certification allowed 38 synthetic ingredients into organic products. With this in mind, conducting research on specific company policies in regards to ethical and sustainable sourcing is key. Look for Fair Trade Certified and Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil Certified products when possible, and explore package-free products/options! Becoming more environmentally conscious doesn’t happen overnight – and it isn’t always financially sustainable for many people. Mindfulness about our practices and consumerism doesn’t mean we’re doing everything right, but that we’re conscious and working towards change.

Thank you. Gracias.

The IPCC Report: Facing our Future

By Sophie MacDonald and Natalie Roach

This October, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a report that has shaken the global community. The IPCC was invited by the UN to report this year on the effects that we would experience if the global temperature warms 1.5℃ (2.7°F) above pre-industrial levels. They released a full report along with a technical summary and policymaker summary. The report contains scientific, technical, and socio-economic findings and has major ramifications across these disciplines. The contents of this report are grim, but give us a much more concrete vision of our future—something that is vital as the world makes plans to prevent catastrophic climate change.

Since civilization hit the industrial revolution in the mid-1800s, humanity has been dumping carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the air at an exponential rate. This has led to an increasing amount of sunlight and heat being trapped in our atmosphere, and consequently an increase in our planet’s average temperature. Even a slight increase in this global temperature has immense impacts on our climate and in turn the survival of life on Earth, including humans.

The IPCC report begins by defining what exactly the average global temperature was before humanity started to affect it. The IPCC defines pre-industrial levels as the average global temperature over the period of 1850-1900. The report then talks about where we are now. We have already caused a 1℃ rise in the average global temperature compared to pre-industrial levels. Effects from climate change are already happening, and at this point they are inevitable.

However, we still have control over how severe these effects become, and how long they will last. On our current global trajectory, we will reach a 2℃ increase by 2040. With the passage of the Paris Climate Agreement, the world committed itself to changing this trajectory. Countries promised to keep the increase to under 2℃, and to strive to keep the increase near 1.5℃. In reality, the agreement has little binding power. Globally, we are struggling to reach the 2℃ goal, never mind 1.5℃, which is currently categorized as ‘above and beyond.’

The IPCC report focuses on the changes in our climate that will result if we curb the global temperature rise at 1.5℃ as compared to an increase of 2℃. Although any further rise in the global temperature has and will result in devastating changes to our natural and human systems, the difference between 1.5℃ and 2℃ warming is significant. This report makes it clear that 1.5℃ should not be considered as ‘above and beyond,’ but instead as the absolute limit for global temperature rise.

By 2100, the global average sea level rise is projected to be 0.1 meter lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. Sea level rise will continue past 2100, and it is inevitable at this stage. However, sticking to the 1.5℃ goal and slowing the rate of sea level rise will allow more time for adaptation of coastal communities impacted by this rise. Although 0.1 meters may not seem significant, it will make a big difference in giving the world time to prepare for sea level rise.

One of the most poignant symbols of this change in global temperature is the livelihood of the coral reefs. At 2℃, more than 99% of coral reefs will die off due to coral bleaching. At 1.5℃, only 70-90% of current coral reefs are projected to die off. The loss of this incredible phenomenon would be a tragedy. The majority of the ocean’s biodiversity exists in coral reefs, they serve as a buffer that protects coastlines from tropical storms, and they function as important primary producers as well.

The frequency of a sea-ice-free Arctic during summer is substantially lower at 1.5℃ than at 2℃. At 1.5℃, an ice-free summer will happen once per century; at 2℃, it will happen at least once per decade.

In addition to the effects mentioned previously, a 2℃ rise instead of 1.5℃ will drive the loss of coastal resources, reduce the productivity of fisheries and aquaculture, and lead to greater species loss and extinction. Vector-borne diseases, such a malaria and dengue fever, are expected to increase and shift geographic regions. A 2℃ rise will lead to larger net reductions of cereal crop yields such as maize, rice, and wheat.

As the global temperature warms, the effects outlined above are expected to lead to increased poverty and disadvantages in vulnerable populations. Limiting the temperature rise to 1.5℃ instead of 2℃ could reduce the number of people who will be susceptible to poverty and facing climate-related risks by up to several hundred million by 2050.

The IPCC states that reaching the 1.5℃ goal and protecting what we can of our world requires “upscaling and acceleration of far-reaching, multi-level and cross-sectoral climate mitigation and by both incremental and transformational adaptation.” While the Paris Climate Agreement was a historical step for humankind, it’s not nearly enough to save us. The agreement was the beginning of this world transformation; true change will require continued, tenacious, collaborative effort.

This information can be overwhelming and disheartening. We at the office understand that, and know that this work requires stubborn positivity. The only way we’re going to get close to reaching the 1.5℃ goal is if we wholeheartedly believe in our mission and in the future of our world. Even if we do not reach our goal of 1.5℃, or even that of 2℃, any change we make now will still have an important effect on generations to come. So get out there and make some change happen. Reduce your carbon footprint. Vote on November 6th. Start improving your community. Collaborate with friends and neighbors. Have meaningful conversations with those around you. We are each just one person, but we still have an important, irreplaceable influence on the world around us.

Link to the IPCC’s Report: http://www.ipcc.ch/report/sr15/

LEED: Minimizing UConn’s Environmental Footprint

by OEP intern Emily McInerney

leedsilverOn March 25, 2008 President Hogan signed the American College and University Presidents Climate Commitment (ACUPCC). This pledge led way for UConn’s Climate Action Plan: a comprehensive outline that strategizes and maps out sustainability initiatives to help UConn reach its goal of carbon neutrality by 2050. Carbon neutrality is defined as proportional amounts of carbon released and carbon sequestered. This can be achieved through carbon offsets such as our Co-gen facility or something as simple as planting a tree. Realistically, however, carbon neutrality does not mean a zero carbon footprint. For UConn, the aim is to have the 2050 carbon emissions 86% below our 2007 levels. One of the very first initiatives implemented at UConn to lower GHG emissions was the adoption of our own Campus Sustainable Design Guidelines. These guidelines apply to both the construction of new buildings as well as the renovation of preexisting buildings.

The Sustainable Design and Construction Policy requires a LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) silver certification as a minimum performance standard for all projects that exceed $5 million. The U.S. Green Building Council developed LEED to act as an international green building certification system. LEED buildings offer savings in water and energy, reduce GHG emissions, improve air quality to promote health safety for occupants, and lower operating costs.

Oak Hall
Oak Hall

Most recently, the construction of two new buildings at UConn, Laurel and Oak Hall, have been completed that fulfill the LEED silver requirement. Oak Hall is set next to Homer Babbidge Library at the site of the former Co-op. Laurel is located where the Pharmacy building was originally constructed. These locations prevented the clearing of forests, wetlands, and other natural environments. There are several sustainable features that are important to note. From the outside, porous pavement reduces storm water runoff and flooding by providing storage and infiltration during storm events and a bio retention basin reduces harmful storm water runoff by collecting and holding storm water. The area is lined with native vegetation that provides habitat and food for local species. To reduce transportation CO2 emissions, biking is encouraged. There are 132 bicycle rack spaces available to facilitate bike transit.

Moving inside the building, the focus is on increased energy and water savings. The bathroom offers dual flush toilets and electric hand dryers to reduce paper waste. The combination of all water efficient features is anticipated to reduce water usage by 48%. The high performance windows both increase natural lighting which reduces energy costs and provide insulation through window glazing which reduce heating and cooling needs. Laurel is expected to have 16% energy savings and Oak is estimated to have 18% energy savings.

Visually speaking, LEED buildings are most notable for the recycled content and renewable materials that comprise their exterior paneling and interior walls and floors. Oak Hall uses bamboo for wall panels, recycled copper for the exterior siding and regional bricks. The bamboo is more sustainable than wood because it only take 3-5 years to harvest, the copper is made up of 80-95% recycled content, and the bricks are produced within 500 miles of campus. Approximately 75% of construction waste was diverted from landfills and reused or recycled.

Beyond sustainability, LEED buildings also have health benefits. Indoor environmental quality is improved through green cleaning products that are biodegradable, have low toxicity and low volatile organic compound content (VOC), and have reduced packaging. All plywood is formaldehyde-free and adhesives, sealants and paint have low or no VOC. Both Oak and Laurel are definite eye catchers. These buildings are not only environmentally friendly and cost effective but also aesthetically pleasing.  It is something to appreciate that sustainability can be characterized as modern and hip. For those interested in seeing how these LEED buildings affect UConn’s GHG emissions, the Office of Environmental Policy is planning to upload energy and water saving dashboards online.

Here are some examples of the sustainability features in Oak and Laurel Halls:

Retro-commissioning at UConn

by Alexander Samalot, OEP Intern

The variable frequency drive

UConn is currently undergoing a significant conservation and construction effort that many students may not know about. Currently buildings are becoming drastically more efficient through adjustments in the way energy is handled. I recently sat in on Sebesta’s (an engineering and design service company hired by the school) meeting. They were explaining to the UConn Utility services the changes that have been made across campus followed by a tour of the newest completed building, the Agricultural Biotechnology Laboratory.

What Sebesta has done is a process called retro-commissioning. It involves specifying building occupancy schedules, allowing for certain utilities to be turned down or off when not needed. Previously buildings would run the CO2 and heating/cooling ventilation based on the hours that the building had expected use. This wastes a tremendous amount of energy for unused space. Even small changes in the run time and rate of heaters and chillers and ventilation can have exponential savings.

The pumps controlled by the variable frequency drive

Most of the explanation regarded the changes in the newest retro commissioned building, the agriculture biotech facility. Due to these changes there is supposed to be an annual savings of $112,000. The large number of laboratories in the building needs a significant amount of ventilation for the potentially dangerous chemicals. The laboratory I toured was a Biosafety level two (out of four). It is not a life threatening area; biosafety level two simply means certain biological agents may be used in the lab, which demonstrates the need for lab ventilation.

There are three places which were specifically retro-fitted; one is the lab itself, the fume hood and the biosafety cabinet.  There are new controls using top of the line technology such as infrared and camera controlled zone pressure sensors. This is a very technical way of describing a box which detects if someone is sitting in front of the hood, which automatically turns off the ventilation when not in use. Also there are new valves called VAV’s which open and close using a mechanical arm when not in use and operate at a highly reduced flow. The building itself offers Variable Frequency Drives which are newer computers controlling water and air pump motors that move all of the warm and cool air and water throughout the building. These controllers drastically decrease the energy costs of the building causing very large savings and reduced energy use.

The Retro commissioning project is a great example of how new technology can be successfully implemented to have a large effect on campus. The existing buildings have had their existing infrastructure optimized resulting in notable reductions in energy use and savings for the school. With the construction of so many new buildings on campus focused on sustainability , it’s important to remember that there are buildings on campus that are over sixty years old that have significant room for improvement.

UConn’s Greenhouse Gas Inventory: Taking Stock of our Climate Progress and My Last Two Years

In my two years as a Sustainability Intern with the Office of Environmental Policy, I have been placed in a very interesting role. I have compiled the three greenhouse gas emission inventories for the Storrs campus from 2009 up though last year, 2011. This task has proven to be something I can look back on and be proud of and something that I think the University can also look back on and be proud of.

History and Purpose

The greenhouse gas inventory documents all the sources of emissions from the University that contribute to global warming, such as carbon dioxide, methane, nitrous oxide, and many others. The University has voluntarily tracking this information to some degree since 2003 although thorough inventories did not begin until 2007.

In 2008, then President Michael Hogan made the University a signatory of the American College and University Presidents’ Climate Commitment (PCC) at the request of large student support. The PCC is a pledge by institutions of higher education to reach a goal of climate neutrality by the year 2050. Signatories must have submitted an outline of how they would reduce their emissions to the 2050 target in a document known as a Climate Action Plan in order to become a part of the PCC. Additionally, participating institutions must provide annual greenhouse gas inventories and biannual progress updates.

Making Progress

In general our largest source of emissions each year has been from on campus stationary sources such as the cogeneration plant (which supplies most of the Storrs campus with electricity and steam), boilers (to produce additional steam for heating), chillers (which produce chilled water for cooling buildings), and generators (for emergency power). In fact, going back to 2001, this source of emissions has never accounted for less than 75% of the total campus emissions.

[/caption]This indicates that decreasing the demand for electricty, steam, and chilled water on campus is worthwhile strategy for reducing the amount of emissions generated each year.

The University of Connecticut has gone to great lengths to make its buildings significantly more energy efficient over the last few years. Some of the energy-saving initiatives have included replacement of lighting fixtures and bulbs, the annual EcoMadness energy conservation competition, and the sustainable design and construction guidelines.

Dot-plot with a moving average showing the amount of energy emissions per student for the years 2001 through 2010.
In 2010, 77% of emissions come from either fuel burnt at the cogeneration plant or from stationary sources like generators and chillers.The above graph shows that over time UConn has been able to produce less greenhouse gas emissions on a per student basis over the years. This is especially amazing considering that the student population at UConn has grown by nearly 40% over that time and campus building space has grown by just over 30%. One key to this success has included the construction of the cogeneration system in the central utility plant, which provides UConn with electricity and steam in a more efficient manner than the grid can. Another has been the University’s policy requiring major construction and renovation projects since 2008 to meet a minimum LEED Silver rating, such as the Burton-Schenkman football training complex.
The University also has small emission contributions from other categories like transportation, fertilizer application, and refrigerants (which are actually incredibly potent greenhouse gases). Some of the emissions are offset by the UConn forest and its new composting operation.

[caption id="" align="aligncenter" width="481"]A dot-plot showing the emissions from 2007 through 2010. A line has been fitted over the past four years’ data to approximate the trend in how UConn’s emissions have been going.

Form 2007 to 2010, the overall emissions dropped by about 6,000 MT eCO2 per year, which is the equivalent of taking about 120 passenger cars off the road each of those years. This is a 3% annual decline.

This is a promising trend considering the fact that the number of full-time students increased 6% over those three years, part-time students by 10%, and summer students by 68%. Although there was a significant drop in building space from 2007 to 2008, building space increased from 2008 to 2010 increased by 3.5%.

Summing It All Up

Working on the greenhouse gas inventory has been immensely rewarding. I personally worked on the greenhouse gas inventories as far back as 2008 and I was the primary intern who worked on the 2009-2011 inventories. Not only am I proud to see my work produce these useful metrics for evaluating our steps towards sustainability, but I am also proud to have been a part of something that connects so much of the University together.

For each inventory I had to contact tens of people for information on a huge variety of sources. I received data from sources involved in generating power on campus as well as sources involved in generating compost (which now includes the agricultural compost facility, the floriculture program, many of the campus dining halls, the Spring Valley Farm living and learning community, and the EcoGarden student group). There is just something incredibly exciting to take bits and pieces from so many staff and faculty members and then have the opportunity to show them how their contribution to campus sustainability fits in at our annual spring Environmental Policy Advisory Council (EPAC) meeting.

I am excited that in less than one month I can honestly tell them that our University has reduced its emissions by 9% in three years, even as campus and the student body grew. And most exciting is that the 2011 inventory is nearing completion and it is so far promising our largest reduction to date.

Even when I felt things were not working in favor of sustainability on campus, I could still look at the inventory and know that the University has made and is still making a great and concerted effort to reducing our environmental footprint — and I would hope everyone can see this as well. (We did after all finish 16th in the Sierra Club Cool Schools survey last year, in part thanks to our third best overall score of 9.5/10 in energy efficiency — so even if we accidentally leave a few lights on, rest assured that we’ve done our best to make them “waste” as little energy as possible.)

So ultimately I would remind everyone, as an outgoing intern and as a graduating senior, that you must not let good be the enemy of perfection; take time to appreciate your progress every so often. But likewise, do not rest on your laurels, especially when you have shown in the past just how much you can accomplish.

Written by…

Chris Berthiaume is a senior in Environmental Engineering and a second year intern with the OEP. His major projects have included the greenhouse gas inventory, updating the website, social media engagement, and the assisting with the 2012 EocHusky 5k.