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Wild Life

It's Not Easy Being Green

"I had sipped coffee not from a reusable ceramic or metal alloy mug, but from a disposable, chain-brand paper cup. I should have known better."

Sanjayan, Conservancy lead scientist

By Sanjayan

The e-mail left little to the imagination.

It was a rebuke — straightforward and simple — for something I had done on national television. “You should have known better,” it read.

Here was my crime: While appearing on a television show to promote a message of sustainability, I had sipped coffee not from a reusable ceramic or metal alloy mug, but from a disposable, chain-brand paper cup.

I should have known better.

But knowing better can be awfully difficult. The complexity of manufacturing processes, transportation and globalization makes environmental costing and evaluation of trade-offs about as murky as a green pond — even for us scientists.

Transportation Isn’t the Only Factor to Account For

Take what we consume, for example.

Scientists now believe that what you eat and how you prepare the food makes a bigger difference — in terms of resource use and climate change impacts — than transportation:

And then there’s personal transportation…

After a five-year hiatus from owning an automobile, I finally had to buy one. A hybrid getting 50 miles to the gallon was an easy choice.

But had I already owned a car, truck or gas-guzzling SUV, the extra fuel load of my old clunker would still have been preferable to the metal, rubber, plastic, glass, fabric and paint that goes into producing a 2,800-pound hybrid Toyota Prius.

An existing car’s green penance during birth was long-ago paid for, while a brand new one — even a green one — pays today.

Consider Old vs. New

All goods — even clean, green, eco-happy ones — are environmentally costly to produce, market and sell. Sure they save energy in their future use, but making them de novo has tremendous costs in natural resources.

For instance, while lifestyle magazines encourage us to replace older, heavy-flush toilets with low-flow models, none talk about the cost of the embodied energy necessary to produce a new ceramic bowl. And what sort of damage might I instigate when I rip out my toilet, junk it and put in a new one?

Though I can opt to buy electricity from low-emission sources such as a wind farm, the massive amounts of steel that go into producing a modern wind turbine — not to mention the thousands of square kilometers of land needed to site turbines in number — are entirely opaque to me and most other consumers.

Is building a wind turbine better than building a coal-fired plant to meet new energy needs? No doubt. But better still? Not to build anything in the first place.

Quantifying the Environmental Cost

Quantifying this green equivalent of the original sin has prompted supermarket giant Tesco (a U.K. company) to attempt to label each of its 70,000 food lines with a carbon footprint number — akin to the calorie information you see on food stuff.

Marks & Spencer (another British retailer) and Wal-Mart have embarked on similar ideas. It’s a noble quest. But already the complications of life-cycle analysis for items that have multiple ingredients made and shipped from all over the world have bedeviled these corporations.

Just look at the ingredient labels on most things we consume and you’ll get the picture. But doing nothing is unacceptable to me, as it is to a growing number of people worldwide. Instead, we need to learn new habits, such as:

As it turns out, less is always better, because more stuff rather than less-efficient stuff is the real culprit.

Don’t Make the Same Mistake I Did

The chemist Martin Hocking once wrote an academic article on environmental costing. He compared five different types of coffee cups and found that a disposable paper cup was the clear winner — a ceramic mug has to be used for three years almost daily to reach equivalence. Which isn’t surprising, once you account for the 3,000-degree C fire used in ceramics.

But that’s beside the point.

On national television, I looked like I was not even trying — and that’s what I think the angry e-mail was really about.

Next time, when on TV, I will only sip from a reusable mug and I will use a dishwasher to clean it afterwards, which uses far less energy and water than hand-washing.

If it's an energy-efficient dishwasher, that is.

I can see the e-mails already.  

Originally posted in July 2008. At that time, Sanjayan was the Lead Scientist for the Nature Conservancy. He is now executive vice president and senior scientist at Conservation International.

The opinions expressed in "Wild Life" are the author's. They should not be construed as the position of The Nature Conservancy.

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