Environmentalists need to change their consumption patterns if they wish to stay on their high horses. That being said, there are as many varieties of environmentalists as there are models of automobiles. There are the die hard types who chain themselves to forestry equipment and take selfies with smart phones, and there are the ones who quietly move into a secluded area and live off the land. Some realize their own limits, and those of their families, and simply cut back on a few things in their lives. The most balanced and sustainable is this latter group. Sustainability is not something you switch to in the blink of an eye, or do so that all can see and wonder at your greatness.
Look around you where you sit or stand reading this. Chances are there are quite a few plastics within your reach. Many of these plastics will end up in a landfill or in the ocean. As plastics decompose they release harmful chemicals into the environment. These chemicals include BPA, a chemical used in food and beverage containers, be they plastic or metal, as well as other consumer goods. Besides the obvious health concerns of BPA and other chemicals entering our environment, never mind our bodies, there are the effects of the production and recycling of these products.
Recycling = good, right? We’ll see.
First, comes the extraction of the crude oil from the ground. That’s right, plastic is a petroleum product. That crude oil needs to be refined into the various products that are used by our society. The refining process involves heating, which impacts the environment. Once refined into propane, this is further refined into propylene using heat again, followed by the addition of a catalyst in a reactor leading to the creation of polymers. Additives are offered in at this point in a blender.
Do you still think plastic is a good thing, even when recycled? Stay with me, we’re not done. Once the polymers are blended with the additives they are melted yet again, then cooled and cut into pellets, which are then shipped to customers. That is a lot of environmental impact, and it hasn’t even started the production of the finished products, such as that water bottle that you drink from thinking that you’re saving the environment because it became cool to drink water from a pre-packaged bottle rather than from a tap, which delivers treated and safe water on demand at a fraction of the cost.
It is ok though, because you’re going to put that bottle in the recycling bin. Whew, dodged a bullet, a new bottle will not need to be produced, right? I won’t be so long winded, many of the steps are the same. The plastic bottle does not automatically become a new product. It involves transportation again, sometimes large distances to the sorting location where sorting may be manual or automated. Transportation again takes it to the recycling plant where it is shredded, not likely by a human, then melted and eventually returned to pelletized form. Yet more transportation conveys the pellets to another location to be turned into new products.
This whole process can be eliminated by avoiding plastic beverage containers, which quite often are not required anyway. What nutritional value is there in carbonated soft drinks. Water, as I said before, is on demand from your tap, where you can collect it in a glass or ceramic vessel that will be reused many times in your household before your children eventually smash it on the floor. Children happen, plastic does not necessarily need to, so think hard before your next purchase.
I recently traveled across Canada on a move from New Brunswick to Alberta. I saw a sickening sight in Kenora, ON. I have seen clear cut areas before, but these are usually already covered by newly planted saplings and do not appear damaged beyond repair. I saw for the first time a lumber mill with piles upon piles upon piles of logs stacked and waiting for processing. At first I was slightly enraged, but then given the production process described above concerning plastics, the lumber is not so bad. It’s a renewable resource, right? The lumber is, but not all those carbons used in the extraction, transportation, and milling.
After looking up which mill we had passed, I found that it has one purpose: the production of construction grade studs. That’s ok, right? Everyone needs to live somewhere. Before you buy your next $300,000 home, think of the useful space in it. Do you need 2400 sq ft for a young couple or single person who spends their time out of the home?
Do I need to start on the production process of the pulp and paper industry in this “paperless” world where everything is stored on computers? Everything legal, governmental and medical still has to be kept in hard form somewhere in case of computer crashes etc, which we know never happens because technology is perfect.
Then there is the production of specialty wood products like your new kitchen cabinets, which will likely be replaced every 5 to 10 years. The wood involved is one thing, but think also of the chemical finishes, most likely petroleum products, and the electrical tools used to fashion and join the raw boards into the aesthetically pleasing wasted space in your kitchen. How many pots and pans, and fancy do-dads do you really need to feed your family? Twelve bread pans can fit in the oven at a time to make enough bread for the average family to eat over a week. Don’t bother with the fancy electrical mixers and bread makers, which will break within two years because they are mass produced to separate you from your money. But I diverge.
The prevailing demon these days seems to be the oil and gas industry. Everyone wants to switch over to cleaner fuels. They don’t want to eliminate automobiles, no, they want to build new ones with more fancy gadgets because they are electric therefore more environmentally friendly.
You do not need a new vehicle just because yours is two years old and guzzles gasoline. Shall we go into the production process of building a new vehicle, which you don’t need so that that vehicle does not burn so many fossil fuels? My vehicle, singular, is a 1997. I drive my vehicles until they die, because the alternative is that a new vehicle needs to be produced. I try not to buy new.
The switch from carbon fuels may be just as disastrous for the environment as not switching, considering the production processes and costs of the new types of power generation. Do we need to build a whole new power plant instead of that carbon fuel burning plant? Add a few filters to keep the carbon out of the air. Better yet, use less electricity and gasoline.
Think before you buy, and yes, recycle before garbage. More than this: reduce what you consume. Everyone can help the environment, and by extension help their own health, and that of all those around them.