An introspection: plastics & artificial plants

Alick Burnett Managing director 🌻
News Research

As a company which takes social, ethical and moral responsibility seriously it is an issue we have given much thought to. How do we feel about selling plastic plants and synthetic flowers?

Artificial spring flower bouquet by Blooming Artificial

Plastics and synthetic (artificially made) materials make up the majority of our products, materials which if discarded carelessly can be a big cause of pollution, in our rivers, seas and on beaches, threatening wildlife and the environment.

As a company which takes social, ethical and moral responsibility seriously it is an issue we have given much thought to. How do we feel about selling plastic plants and synthetic flowers?

Not all plastic is bad

The world’s problem, some would say crisis, with plastic and non-biodegradable synthetics is its use for disposable, low value items such as food packaging, carrier bags, drinks bottles, straws, cutlery, nappies and cotton buds, throw-away or ‘single-use’ items that generate vast amounts of waste.

Water bottles

It is a bi-product of modern living fuelled by a desire for convenience at the lowest price. “Until consumers give up their addiction to convenience and say no to single use plastic, plastic providers will continue to use it” says professor of physical chemistry Anthony Ryan of Sheffield University.

Plastic is not the problem, it’s what people choose to do with it.

Anthony Ryan of Sheffield University.

Plastics are amazingly versatile materials and used wisely support and enrich lives and don’t have to be detrimental to the planet. In fact to the contrary, they can be highly beneficial. Aeroplanes are significantly lighter and use less fuel as a result of using plastic in their construction, affordable syringes for vaccinations in third world countries wouldn’t be possible, neither would replacement heart valves, or low cost pipework for transporting fresh water over long distances, the list could go on.

Long-life products that clearly benefit society such as these are ‘good plastics’ and, although not quite in the same league, we put artificial plants and flowers firmly in the ‘good plastics’ category for the pleasure and sense of well-being they provide, very often to the elderly or infirm who can neither access nature or look after the real thing.

Flower farm

Roses are red, but are they green?

Most lovers and buyers of hand-picked flowers will not be aware that 90% of real flowers sold in the UK have travelled hundreds if not thousands of miles to get here. They are either cultivated in vast heated glasshouses in Holland, or flown from farms in Africa and South America after being treated with ethylene blocking chemicals to delay ripening. The environmental impact as a result of airfreight, artificial light and temperature control is surprising.

In 2007 a study at Cranfield University compared the environmental impact of roses imported to England from Holland compared to those coming from Kenya. The Dutch blooms required energy to heat their greenhouses but had a short flight, while the Kenyan roses had the benefit of natural warmth but had a long flight. Taking into account all greenhouse gases, including methane and nitrous oxide and not just CO2, and adjusting for the fact that aeroplane emissions are especially damaging because they are ejected into the atmosphere at high altitudes, the Dutch flowers had six times the impact on global warming as did the Kenyan roses. Raising 12,000 roses in Kenya created 13,200 pounds of CO2 while the equivalent number in Holland created 77,150 pounds, more than 6 pounds of CO2 per stem! That’s an awful lot for something that is going to wilt within days and be thrown away after a week.

Compare this to the artificial equivalent. Although it travels a long way from a factory in China where it is made, indefinite shelf-life means it can be transported by sea which requires considerably less energy than airfreight. We have not been able to find the data source from the link provided in a 2011 article in Slate magazine but the article states that shipping a one pound bouquet of artificial roses only generates 0.28 pounds of CO2.

Another surprise to many will be the poor health and working conditions of flower farm workers in developing countries such as Colombia, a country that has emerged as the world’s second largest flower exporter with annual sales to the USA alone of US$1.3bn (2012). With mainly women workers on absolute minimum wage (644,000 pesos a month or £175 which only covers 40% of their typical monthly outgoings), and where 16 hour days under strict productivity monitoring isn’t uncommon, it is easy to see why campaign groups believe sales revenues are being bought at the cost of worker’s rights. This isn’t all, as a consequence of the long hours and high productivity many women suffer from permanent wrist injury as a result of cutting so many flowers, and in the fields there have been registered cases of exposure to toxic chemicals during fumigation.

This isn’t good. We don’t like the idea that flowers bought to give someone pleasure are causing other people harm.

Faux roses
Artificial rose and lily bouquet closeup.

What can we learn from this? Firstly, unless fresh flowers are grown in the UK (and only around 10% are) then real flowers are surprisingly bad for the environment. Secondly, artificial flowers are nowhere near as bad as some of us might have thought and are actually greener than the real thing!

The factories we source from in China are carefully selected and annually monitored by our staff for best practice, from an ethical, social and environmental perspective. We are encouraged by their initiatives to comply with the country’s clean air act which has brought about dramatic improvements in air quality in the past few years. They are introducing recycled materials where possible. Competition for skilled workers has driven up wages and working conditions to the extent that factories are now pleasant working environments for the majority, which will only continue to improve as the country prospers.

Renewable energy

What about recycling?

Every plastic is fully recyclable but not all can go into your household recycle bin – including our artificial plants. The problem is that our recycling centres cannot cope with mixed material products and our products generally consist of plastic coated steel wire stems and polyester fabric flowers. At end of life they will sadly be destined to landfill until the recycling industry evolves efficient ways to separate mixed materials. It is the reason why paper coffee cups, coated on the inside with polyethylene, are virtually impossible to recycle – and why their single use in vast numbers has justifiably given them bad press.

It will take a long time for a Blooming Artificial product to warrant disposal but we appreciate that a desire to refresh a display or update the look of a room or space may result in one of our products no longer being wanted. Rather than disposing in these circumstances we encourage customers to apply the very best form of recycling, reuse – give it to someone else, a charity, a church or donate to a good cause, as you might do with clothing or furnishings.

At Blooming Artificial we deal with damaged returns in this way. Repotting, repairing and raffling to staff in aid of local charities, or just giving away to someone for whom it will provide pleasure.

Alick Burnett

It is worth mentioning that recycling, though valuable, is only slightly better than throwing something away - you still have to use energy and water to recycle things and toxic waste is a possible bi-product in the process.

By living our lives whilst remembering the saying “reduce, repair, reuse, recycle” we can all make a positive difference. If we’re keen to help the planet there is plenty we can do, for example:

  • Use reusable cotton bags and take them with you each time you shop

  • Buy fruit and vegetables loose to avoid the extra plastic on pre-packaged items

  • Use long lasting items such as razors and refillable pens rather than disposable options – which will also work out much cheaper in the long run

  • Use refillable bottles and cups for your water and coffee

  • If you break something can it be repaired and reused? Do you really need to buy a new one?

What about ‘bioplastics’ and ‘biodegradable’ plastics?

So called ‘environmentally friendly’ plastic is an interesting topic. Suffice to say it has a long way to go before it can be used for artificial plant manufacture, and caution is needed before these products are labelled as some magic-bullet solution to the plastics problem – which they are not. Read more about bioplastics here.

And as Chris Woodford says at the end of this article, "one day we may have perfect plastics that break down in a trice. Until then, let’s be smarter about how we use plastics and how we get rid of them when we have finished with them.

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