Envirohogwash

The truth about garbage bags, deodorant, and diapers

Mr. Kopel is the research director for the Independence Institute

National Review Online, February 16, 2001 11:40 a.m. More by Kopel on environmental policy regarding waste.

Since most Americans consider themselves environmentalists, and American consumers have so much purchasing power, why isn't the environment in better shape? One reason is that Americans are fed a steady diet of environmental misinformation by people selling products with a pro-environment label. Well-intentioned consumers make buying decisions that are supposed to help the environment, but really don't. Here are some of the myths to watch out for when making your own purchasing — and political — decisions.

A "biodegradable" label on a product like a plastic trash bag makes it seem nature friendly. And indeed it is — if you dump your garbage bags in wilderness areas and other places where biodegradation takes place. But most household garbage bags end up in a landfill or an incinerator. Landfills are designed to allow no interaction of water or light with the garbage, so biodegradation is impossible. And because not much microbial activity takes place inside an incinerator, the "biodegradable" trash bag is irrelevant to environmental health.

"Ozone friendly" is probably an accurate label on your deodorant spray can, but it's also meaningless. Chlorofluorocarbons — the chemicals that cause ozone destruction — have been banned from almost all American consumer products since 1978. The "ozone friendly" is simply the producers' attempt to make consumers realize what the situation has been for over two decades.

One way that families inflict a great deal on unnecessary inconvenience on themselves, in the mistaken belief that they're helping the environment, is by using cloth diapers rather than disposables. An Oregon legislator even introduced a bill several years ago to make possession of disposable diapers a criminal offense. It's hardly clear, however, if the plastic, disposable diaper is environmentally inferior to its cloth, reusable counterpart. The disposable diaper, being disposable, does generate far more solid waste. But cloth diapers create much heavier strains on the local water system, since, when they are cleaned, the human waste is usually treated and then disposed into water.

In places like Brooklyn, cloth diapers might be preferable, since landfills are scarce and water is plentiful. But in the arid West, disposable diapers could be environmentally superior.

Disposables, being much more absorbent, are also better at preventing diaper rash at night, when the baby sleeps for many hours (ideally) without being changed. Disposables are also less prone to leaking, and therefore much more sanitary for use in group situations like day care centers. Consumer Reports magazine explained that while studies on the environmental impact of disposable vs. cloth are mixed, "one thing is clear: Consumers won't make a big contribution to the environment by choosing one type of diaper over another."

Just as cotton diapers are wrongly claimed to be always better than plastic/paper disposable diapers, paper grocery bags are asserted to be better than plastic ones. Actually, the plastic bags require less energy to produce, cause less pollution when being produced, and create far less solid waste than do paper bags. The fact that the paper bag is "natural" has little to do with its environmental impact. In deciding between paper and plastic, the practical environmental should choose the bag that his family is more likely to reuse. Reusable cloth grocery bags are a good choice too — if one makes sure to wash them once in a while to kill bacteria.

The notion that paper is always better than plastic is reflected in other misdirected environmental efforts. Although several cities have banned polystyrene food containers and coffee cups, these items are actually environmentally superior to the most common alternative: coated paperboard. While the polystyrene containers do create more solid waste (because of their bulk), they require less energy and chemical inputs to manufacture, and cause less water and air pollution while being manufactured. Moreover, polystyrene can be readily recycled, if the food vendor encourages customers to put polystyrene trash in a separate disposal can.

So a person who thinks that he is a good environmentalist because he drinks from coated paper cups instead of polystyrene is missing the boat. As with shopping bags, the best solution has nothing to do with the false "paper good, plastic bad" dichotomy. The most environmentally-friendly coffee cups are washable ceramic mugs, just as the best grocery bags are reusable cloth bags.

Closely related to the mistaken idea that paper is environmentally superior to plastic is the notion that heavily packaged products are environmentally bad. In a study written for the Dallas-based National Center for Policy Analysis, Lynn Scarlet points out that in many situations, packaged products may create less solid waste.

For example, in Mexico — where packaging and refrigeration are rarer than in the U.S. — the average household throws away 40% more total refuse than the average U.S. household. It's not that the Mexican household has a higher standard of living; it's just that high-tech packaging and other advances make U.S. consumption more efficient. In Mexico City, households that drink orange juice usually buy fresh oranges, squeeze them, and throw away the peels — about ten and a half ounces of peels per week. Most American households make their orange juice from frozen concentrate, which comes in a package. The American household, making the same amount of orange juice, throws out a two-ounce cardboard or aluminum container. Thus, the American household creates more than 80% less solid waste.

In the packing-oriented American system, orange juice factories save the peels and sell them for animal feed and other products. Because the orange-juice factory centralizes the orange-peel removal process, the factory can use economies of scale to collect large numbers of orange peels for re-use. In contrast, the Mexico City household can't afford the time to cart 10 ounces of orange peels off to a farm someplace. So, thanks to packaging, the American peels get re-used, and the Mexico City peels end up in a garbage dump.

In addition, the Mexico City household must use 25% more oranges to produce the same amount of orange juice found in the packaged American concentrate. That means the fresh, non-packaged Mexico City method needs 25% more agricultural input, such as fertilizer and water, to make the oranges for the juice. The orange juice example isn't unusual. Thanks to America's heavy reliance on packaging, our nation wastes less food than any other part of the world. (Except for Africa, where malnourished people may find that rotten food is the only food that can be obtained.)

The root of much environmental misinformation is a sort of neo-Rousseauian principle that the more natural and the less man-made an item is, the better for the environment it must be. But quite frequently, just the opposite is true. Buy "natural" or pseudo-natural if it satisfies your aesthetic, but don't confuse an aesthetic preference with environmentalism.

 

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