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Is Palm Oil Bad for the Planet? Here's What You Need to Know

Palm oil can be found in so many products we use. But what is it, exactly—and is palm oil bad for the planet? Here's what you should know.

Written by
Kristine Nguyen

You've probably seen palm oil in a lot of everyday items, from lipsticks to shampoos and even ice cream. If it's such a common ingredient, it can't be that bad, right? Well, it's actually a little more complicated than that.

What Is Palm Oil?

Palm oil, also known as Elaeis guineensis, is an oil that comes from the fruit of the oil palm tree. Because oil palm trees thrive in tropical settings with lots of humidity and rainfall, they're grown in many countries across Southeast Asia, South America, and Africa, with Indonesia and Malaysia producing the most.

Palm oil has become a pretty popular oil source because of its efficiency. According to Our World in Data, it's responsible for about 36 percent of the world's oil while using less than nine percent of croplands dedicated to oil production.

On top of being efficient to produce, palm oil is incredibly versatile. It has a high melting point, is semi-solid at room temperature, and is resistant to oxidation. It's the ingredient that makes peanut butter spreadable, chips crunchy, and keeps your lipsticks from melting. According to the USDA, the world uses more palm oil than any other kind of vegetable oil. But one question remains: Why is it bad for the environment?

Is Palm Oil Bad for the Environment?

You would think that because it's extracted from a tree, it should be a more eco-friendly natural resource. Unfortunately, that isn't the case.

Palm oil has made a huge impact on the tropical forests its taken from. Many of these forests have been cleared to make room for oil palm tree plantations, devastating the habitats of certain endangered animals, like the orangutan and the Sumatran Elephant. This is especially prevalent in Southeast Asia, where more plantations equals more deforestation.

Aside from destroying the homes of these animals, the production of palm oil releases tons of greenhouse gases that are incredibly harmful to the environment. According to a 2018 study published in the journal Nature Communications, the amount of carbon released when just one hectare of forest is cleared to grow oil palm trees is almost equal to the amount of carbon produced by 530 people flying from Geneva, Switzerland, to New York.

Palm oil production even threatens water and soil quality. According to Stanford University, the clearing of land and plantation management can release sediment and other harmful substances into streams.

What You Can Do to Help

It's hard to avoid palm oil when it's in just about every product we use. But, there are a couple ways you can try to reduce your own consumption.

1. Check the Ingredients List

With as common as palm oil is in products, it's nearly impossible to completely steer clear. But the next time you're shopping, try to avoid products that include ingredients with the word "palm" in them. They're usually made with palm oil or are extracted from the oil palm. If you're unsure about a specific ingredient, a quick Google search can give you more information.

2. Look for Certifications

Keep an eye out for ethical labels. The Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) certification, for example, ensures the palm oil used in certified products was produced ethically and responsibly.

3. Make Your Voice Heard

Though it's good to make eco-friendly choices of your own, it's also important to try to hold big companies accountable. Sign petitions and write to corporations that use palm oil in their products voicing the environmental concerns that you have. When many people do something—even as small as writing an email—big changes happen.

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