Environmental Issues in the Floral Industry
Part 1: Identifying the Problems
Posted July 7, 2020.
I have tried to start this blog post so many time, but I continually struggle with:
What people will actually read?
All the many terrible things you should know about.
We, very understandably, get fatigued with constant bad news. And 2020 has already been a record year in bad news, so I know we are all already tired. But I also know that there is no change without knowledge. So I keep rewriting this post, hoping I strike the right balance
All this is to say, I hope you will not only forgive me when I get long winded, but I also hope you will tell me! My goal is to synthesize the enormous amount of information out there and explain how we can use it to improve floristry as an industry. So if this could be more useful for you, please share! I will include a link to my email at the bottom of every post.
This blog is meant to be for both those in the industry and those with no experience in flowers. Whether you are a long time florist, a couple looking to get married, another type of wedding vendor, or just a curious onlooker who has stumbled here through the winding paths of the internet, welcome.
Let's start with what are the major problems we should look out for. You may think: "it's flowers, how could they possibly be bad for the environment?" But the truth is, not only do the flowers themselves cause huge environmental problems, but also the floral and design industry is not just flowers. It's vases and candles and ribbon and zip ties and fabric and linens and signage and installations mechanics and waste disposal and so much transportation! Once we know what problems we're looking out for, we can see how every piece of the wedding has the potential to harm or help our Earth.
Problem 1: Petroleum-Based Products
Did you know plastic, floral foam, and (usually) candles are a petroleum-based products? And we should care about petroleum-based products for a lot of reasons. It helps to understand how oil and natural gas become a zip tie, a block of floral foam, or a polyester ribbon. But I am going to save that for a separate post because it is a complicated mess that is bad for our planet at every single stage. Here, I'm just going to highlight at a high level the problems caused by petroleum-based products.
1) How we get create the product. An enormous amount of energy is spent in drilling, fracking, distilling the oil/gas, and the chemical processes to turn hydrocarbons into various products. The energy required for these processes isn't using solar powers (wouldn't that be ironic if they were!), so lots CO2 is released in the creation of petroleum products.
2) How we dispose of the product. Petroleum-based products are very often non-recyclable (or just not recycled) and non-biodegradable. As a result, a piece of non-recycled product usually has 4 potential endings — an incinerator, a landfill, a waterway/ocean, or a loose piece of garbage on the ground.
In an incinerator, plastic in particular releases extremely harmful toxic gases and good ole CO2. Modern waste-to-energy plants do have powerful scrubber technology to capture the toxic gases, but burning plastics outside of these situations (like perhaps when our landfill trash is sent to other countries...) is very dangerous.
In a landfill, the primary issue is space (where are we storing all this trash that doesn't biodegrade) and toxic leaching. Depending on the product (like the types of plastics used to make water bottles or floral foam blocks), there can be toxic chemicals or substances that leach into our soil and waterways as these products degrade.
In the water and as loose trash, petroleum products are consumed by wildlife and, increasingly, by us. This issue is worse than we originally imagined because of our relatively new understanding about microplastic...
4) How the product persists. Notice how I said that plastics degrade but they do not biodegrade? This is an important distinction. When a substance biodegrades, microorganisms reduce it to its constituent parts that can then be reabsorbed by plant life. But microorganisms responsible for this process do not eat the synthetic products made from petroleum. The sun and heat will break plastics apart into smaller pieces but not into their base elements (except at very high temperatures in an incinerator). Translation: these products will break into smaller and smaller pieces, but they will not break down back into hydrogen and carbon and whatever other elements have been added. So in situations where plastic is exposed to a lot of sun, like on the side of the road or the top of the ocean, it will eventually break apart into microplastics, pieces of plastic that are so small we cannot see them with the human eye, which will end up in our water sources or in the tiniest of planktons or bugs, which then end up in bigger animals that we eat, and which end up in us.
Problem 2: Unnecessary Landfill Waste
Reduce, reuse, and recycle has become an environmental trope, but it is still a crucial way to limit what we put in our landfill. Though it could be updated to add "compost" to the end. Vases, candles, chicken wire, ribbon, packaging and, most of all, flowers are all items that are thrown into our landfills when they do not need to be. Our landfills take up an enormous amount of space that should instead be fields, forests, wetlands, or anything else other than a pile of trash. And they also create problems because as rain water drains through landfills, it picks up chemicals that can then leach into surround soil and water. This destroys habitats for plants and animals and... us. We put our landfills by the communities with the least amount of power to protest against them, low-income and minority communities.
Problem 3: Greenhouse Gas Emissions
I touched above on how CO2 is also a problem in the processing of petroleum-based products, but that is, unfortunately, only one way in which wedding flowers contribute to the warming of the planet.
1) Transportation. We all know that cars and planes emit CO2 when burning fuel. So the farther your flowers and supplies need to travel, the more CO2 is required to bring them to you. Your flowers have probably come from (in order of most to least likely) South America, the Netherlands (after they were likely flown there first from another country like Kenya, Israel, etc.), California, and then maybe a grower within driving distance of your location. Some specialty flowers and tropical foliages are also coming from Japan, Singapore, and other parts of Asia.
2) Energy consumption. Until we've all switched over to solar or wind power, using energy is also an enormous factor in our consumption of fossil fuels. In the floral industry, I'm not just talking about turning on the lights. Powerful refrigeration used throughout the transportation process is energy-intensive but increasingly necessary as flowers travel farther. And that is only part of the equation. Growing flowers out of season requires mimicking the natural conditions of those flowers life cycle. It's more than just putting flowers in greenhouse. It is constant manipulation of temperature and light to recreate winter, to change the length of days and nights, to trigger germination, and on and on.
3) Methane. That other greenhouse gas. It doesn't get as much press because it's not as prevalent as CO2 and dissipates faster, but while it does exist in the atmosphere, it has 30x the warming effect than the same amount of CO2! The #1 and #3 largest sources of methane in the US are leaks during fossil fuel extraction (which we're contributing to with the demand from the above 2 points + petroleum products) and landfills. The leaks are self-explanatory, but how do landfills create methane? Organic material that could be composted will release methane instead in landfills. This is because the microorganisms that are responsible for biodegradation in your compost need oxygen to survive, but there is very little oxygen in landfills. A different microorganism that survives without oxygen will instead attack all the organic matter in a landfill, and the bi-product of this process is methane.
Problem 4: Toxic Chemicals
I have already touched upon this in relationship to petroleum products, but there's another big category of chemicals used in this industry — pesticides & herbicides. I will admit, I know the least about this problem, but I am reading more all the time. The "cides" will get their own full post as I become more educated, but even in this country methyl bromide is still used despite being a known contributor to the hole in the ozone. It is only supposed to be used for "critical exceptions," but one of those critical exceptions is agriculture, including on our flowers. Outside of the US, there are sometimes even fewer restrictions.
Well that was a massively depressing laundry list of all the ways in which your wedding centerpiece might be hurting the world around you, with a little flavor of social justice problems thrown in, but it is not all bad! There are a thousand solutions out there. It's just that until we know what the problems are, we cannot begin to solve them. Over the next year, I am going to tell you about the solutions I have found, and I would love for you to let me know if there are others you have found.
Also, if you know there are categories of environmental problems that I have missed or just misdescribed, please share! I am working through this process with you and am always looking to learn more.
All the best,