April 18, 2008
By Laura E. Huggins
With Earth Day approaching, 12-step checklists to becoming green are popping up everywhere. Steps that I have seen include "Feng Shui the Eco-way" and "Be a Local Yocal."
Though I want what's best for Mother Nature, and 12-step programs have proved their worth, it takes more than buying local, recycling everything, and banning plastic bags to become a true shade of green.
Consider the overpowering push to "eat local." Next time you go to buy place-based food, ask yourself which products are really best for the environment. When it comes to calculating the carbon cost of your plate, several factors should be included in the equation, such as the means of transportation. Richard Pirog with the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture notes that sea freight emissions are less than half of those associated with airplanes; trains are cleaner than trucks; and tractors are often cleaner than pickups. Potatoes shipped by rail from Idaho to New York, for example, might be less polluting than Maine potatoes delivered by a semi truck.
How food is grown and harvested is also critical. Author and eat-local advocate James McWilliams publicizes a popular study showing lamb raised in New Zealand and shipped by boat to Britain produces about 1,520 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions per ton, whereas British lamb produces 6,280 pounds of carbon dioxide per ton.
New Zealand lamb requires a quarter of the energy required to produce and ship British lamb because of New Zealand's balmy climate and extensive pastures. Turns out it is more energy efficient for Londoners to buy lamb from the other side of the world than to buy it from their own backyard.
Similar findings apply to dairy products and fruit. Moreover, as Mr. McWilliams points out, it is impossible for the world to feed itself a healthy diet through exclusively local food production. Given these problems, wouldn't it make more sense to focus on strengthening comparative geographic advantages?
What about recycling? Before you drop a bottle or can in a blue or green bin, ask yourself if recycling really saves resources? Research shows curbside recycling requires a larger fleet of trucks to pick up the same amount of waste, meaning more iron ore and coal mining, more steel and rubber manufacturing, more petroleum for fuel, and more air pollution.
We also need to consider the downstream recycling process of any given product. Recycling is a manufacturing process and therefore has an environmental impact. Daniel Benjamin, author of "The Eight Great Myths of Recycling," notes it is often unclear whether secondary manufacturing (such as recycling) produces less pollution than the primary manufacturing process.
The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, examined both virgin paper processing and recycled paper processing for toxic substances. Twelve toxic substances were found. Of those 12, all but one were present in higher levels in the recycling process.
Informed voluntary recycling efforts can indeed conserve resources, but misinformation about the costs and benefits of recycling can induce people to engage in wasteful activity. Therefore, don't lose your sense of perspective when it comes to rubbish.
Perhaps avoiding plastic bags altogether is the solution, for it is claimed that plastic bags kill millions of seabirds and thousands of animals every year. Scientists and marine experts, however, have repeatedly attacked the campaign to ban the bags, saying there is no evidence showing bags are a direct threat to animals.
Even Greenpeace biologist David Santillo says, "It's very unlikely that many animals are killed by plastic bags. The evidence shows just the opposite. We are not going to solve the problem of waste by focusing on plastic bags."
Despite that, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown recently announced he would institute a policy requiring supermarkets to charge customers for plastic bags. Some British groups wonder if the ban on bags will cost more than the environmental benefits.
Lord Dick Taverne, chairman of the Association of Sense about Science, claims: "This is one of many examples where you get bad science leading to bad decisions, which are counterproductive. Attacking plastic bags makes people feel good but it doesn't achieve anything." We are not promoting plastic bags but suggesting there may be higher priorities and that there are trade-offs that, as concerned consumers and environmentalists, we must be prepared to seriously entertain.
To really become green, the first step is admitting it will not be easy. The next step is to wade through the materials carefully before hopping on the green bandwagon to Earth Day.
Laura E. Huggins is a research fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution and director of publications at the Property and Environment Research Center (PERC). She is the author, along with Terry L. Anderson of "Greener Than Thou" (spring 2008, Hoover Institution Press).