Monday, May 18, 2009

Getting a drink... such a challenge!

Getting a drink of water is no simple matter these days.  
Instead of coming out of the tap and landing in a glass, we now put our water in a plethora of plastics and metals.  Which is best for the environment?  Which is safest for our health?  And, which is most convenient?  It turns out, most of the answers aren't that straightforward.  

How can we evaluate the best choice for a water bottle?  We need to look at a number of factors that include...

Extraction-- how the materials are harvested and the impact of the harvest (i.e. how much water is used, how mining impacts the environment, what chemicals wind up in our water or air)

Manufacturing-- how the bottle is made, including how much material is used, the manufacturing conditions, and the pollutants the plant produces

Distribution-- the process by which the bottle gets to the consumer, including transportation (shipping, trucking, flying) and storage; even the conditions of the store where the product is sold is a factor and the heating, cooling, ventilation, and lighting of the retail store can have a significant impact as well

Use-- even a reusable bottle has an impact in its use, it can be a positive impact in that the bottle may prevent the use of disposable bottles, but there are negatives as well, for example, the washing of the bottle uses resources

Disposal-- where the bottle goes when we're done with it, if it's disposable it probably makes it to the trash or, better yet, the recycling bin, fairly quickly; if it's a reusable bottle it probably hangs around a good deal longer, but one day you may lose the top, accidentally leave it behind, and it may also wind up in the trash -- if it makes it to a landfill it won't decompose, but all steel can be recycled

What's Most Important?
What's tricky about the above processes, is that our assumptions don't always prove true.  For example, much is made of how far away products come from, but if you live in NYC and buy something from California, the emissions from trucking the item from California are far less than the emissions from shipping the same item from China.  

In thinking about a drinking bottle, the answers are just as complex.  Popular steel bottles involve some 1400 steps in extraction alone.  Each of these has an environmental impact, and in some respects has a greater impact than creating plastics.  For example, the workers in a mine are often exposed to carcinogens.  Similarly, the manufacturing process may involve ores which can make the process more ore less environmentally friendly.  Or, manufacturing can rely in part on recycled materials.  As mentioned above, the policies of the store where your bottle is sold or even the kind of detergent you use in your dishwasher also contribute to the bottle's overall impact.

In the end, your choice is a conglomerate of impact possibilities.  If you are prone to losing things and would go through 5 stainless steel bottles a year, perhaps using a disposable plastic one is, in fact, far better for the environment.  If you are looking for a bottle to use for the rest of your life, you'll probably pick the most durable, long lasting one so that you never have to replace it.  

1. Disposable Plastic -- definitely the most convenient, but can wreak a sizable impact on the environment.  Plastic is created from petroleum, which reflects a severe harvesting process.  Manufacturing, however, is a relatively simple and green process.  Use is short-lived, and disposal is a large factor here.  

2. Steel Reusable Bottle -- steel bottles are durable and long-lasting, but do still have an impact despite the snazzy Sigg logos and 'Kleen Kanteen' name.  The extraction of steel is an intensive process as anytime a mine is opened up the impact on workers and the environment is substantial.  The manufacturing process also involves considerable energy to work the steel into the shape of the bottle.  Hopefully, you'll hang on to your bottle for a long time and disposal won't be an issue.  

3. Plastic Reusable Bottle -- Assuming you've picked a BPA-free bottle, you don't have to worry about the health impacts of your Nalgene.  Which leaves you to think about the process of making a plastic bottle.  Plastic, whether disposable or reusable, comes from petroleum.  And, plastic recycling is a continually downgrading process, meaning that recycled plastics are reborn as a lesser product, and a step closer to the landfill.  

Reusables -- Plastic or Steel?
This is where things get particularly tricky.  The manufacturing, distribution, and use of these products is quite similar, and the real differences are largely in the extraction process (hopefull you won't be disposing of your reusable bottle!).  

Both a reusable plastic and a reusable steel bottle are made through a considerable extraction process, and the details of each is very case dependent.  For example, if the petroleum is extracted from a company working in Nigeria that is systematically extracting resources, destabilizing the government, and avoiding taxation, the cost of that petroleum is considerably higher in my mind.  Similarly, if the steel comes from an open mine in China where workers are exposed to carcinogens, paid poorly, and overworked, the cost of that steel is also heightened. 

So, there isn't a specific answer here.  The answer, rather, is to pick a company that's policies are accessible on their website, and one where you can feel assured that they are manufacturing products with consideration of what is fair and what is green.  

Wednesday, May 13, 2009

Trash, Garbage, Waste, Stuff

An article featuring The Story of Stuff ( was recently atop The New York Times 'most emailed' list.  The 20 minute story is worth a watch.  It details the story of where our stuff comes from, who makes it, how quickly it turns into trash, and where it goes when we're done with it.  It was most interesting to me to learn that it's not just my ipod that's meant to last a finite amount of time.  I'd sort of always figured that electronics had a shelf life before they break.  It turns out that back in the '50s manufacturers were open about creating products that lasted long enough that the consumer would buy another next time, but broke soon enough that the profits of another purchase could be reaped.  The film also mentions that only a very tiny fraction of products (2%) are still in use 6 months after they're purchased!  Crazy.  

It's pretty easy not to think about trash in the US.  It is picked up from our curbs each week and it vanishes.  I have no idea where the trash goes once it leaves my curbside can.  Recently, I spent a few months living in Uganda.  In Uganda, there is no trash collection.  So people's trash often winds up in the waterways, discarded in the slums, and on the streets.  

This all made me think about a few articles I read in the not so distant past.  The first, is about Senegal (, a West African country that is inundated with trash, as I imagine many third world countries are.  The second, is about Naples, Italy (  The situation in Naples came to a hilt in 2007 and I'm not sure of what became of things then, but it's interesting to think that even a developed city could encounter a situation in which it doesn't know what to do with all its trash.  

In fact, I'm surprised we're able to find a spot for all our trash now.  

Getting to Know You

Allow me to introduce myself, I am a 25 year female and I am an eco-conscious, organic-loving, fair-minded biologist.  I am amazed by how much people (myself included) know and care about the environment and, yet, how hard it is to figure out what you're supposed to do to be fair and green in your life.  I aim to sort some of these things out for myself, and to share what I learn with you!

It's my experience that people do the best they can, and that a lot of times the information we get is filtered by dubious sources, making it tough to know which to pick, what to buy, and how to act.  For example, your reusable mug may be worse than a to-go cup.

I studied biology and environmental studies throughout college and will soon be embarking on a graduate program out in California.  As I am now making and spending money, I hope to lead a life that's as green and fair as possible!