Paper Or Plastic?

         

Forbes, 24th July 2008

By David M. Ewalt and William Pentland

Everybody wants to save the world. But perhaps the best we can do is not make things worse.

Environmental crises surround us: global warming, hazardous waste, resource depletion, air pollution and many more. But more often than not the so-called "solutions" to these problems simply cause different problems. There are no silver bullets, no panaceas, only Pyrrhic victories.

Consider the Kyoto Protocol, an international agreement between 181 countries designed to reduced the emissions of gases that cause global warming. It took years to negotiate and ratify, received huge amounts of global attention and is now incurring massive costs to governments and businesses around the globe. But, in certain cases, Kyoto has missed the forest for the trees.

In the past six months, flat-screen plasma televisions have accounted for nearly half of all TVs sold around the world. During the manufacturing process, plasma televisions release a gas called nitrogen trifluoride, or NF3, which does approximately 17,000 times more environmental damage than carbon dioxide. But because NF3 was not widely used when the Kyoto protocol was created, it is not classified and controlled as a harmful gas--so even though we've tightened the belt and reduced some emissions, we've missed new ones that are making things far worse.

When an environmental problem does have a solution, it is often counterintuitive. Take one conundrum tackled by consumers every day at markets around the world: Paper bags or plastic?

Paper is natural, plastic artificial, so it might seem that brown bags are better. But paper production consumes massive amounts of fresh water, pollutes the water it doesn't use and is a major generator of hazardous air pollutants. It takes four times as much energy to produce a paper bag than it does plastic, and when they're dumped away in landfills, paper bags don't biodegrade any better than plastic. Best of all, plastic bags are easier to store and reuse.

In a perfect world, shoppers would carry groceries home in reusable cloth sacks, and do away with disposable bags altogether. But it's naive to think that every shopper will always remember--or care enough--to bring his or her own.

Often the better environmental decision is not to choose a natural or organic path, as one would expect, but to go synthetic--like choosing polyester clothes over cotton. Cotton crops require huge amounts of water, and the farms that grow them use lots of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides. Cotton clothing also requires more energy to maintain than polyester, since the synthetic fabric can be washed at a lower temperature, can hang to dry and doesn't need ironing.

Similarly, conservation isn't always the answer. When you're done using your computer, it might seem green to shut it down and not waste electricity. But every time you power up a computer you're doing small amounts of irrevocable damage. Electrons surge through delicate circuits, flash-heating them and causing expansion. Hard drives spin up from a dead stop to thousands of rotations a minute. Shutting off and on several times a day is a good way to quickly wear out your machine --and considering the nasty, ecologically unfriendly PC manufacturing process, the green thing to do is keep the one you have as long as possible. In stand-by mode modern PC's don't consume much power anyway.

This is the age of complexity. Who would have thought that something as abstract as divorce rates would influence global warming? It does, and does so dramatically, according to a 2002 study by researchers at Stanford University published in the journal Nature. It showed that rising divorce rates have accelerated the pace of global warming appreciably because they double the number of households, which in turn doubles the amount of resources consumed, waste produced and land used.

Every action has a consequence, and we can't always know in advance whether a decision will ultimately be good for the environment. For now, we have no choice to but to utilize the tools at hand and try our best to reduce emissions, preserve endangered ecosystems and sustain biodiversity.

But let's remember that today's answers are provisional and could cause tomorrow's problems. The history of science is riddled with unintended consequences. Human life will always leave footprints. The best we can do is tread carefully.





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