Can’t do right for doing wrong

9 Nov

Those of you who follow this blog will know I’m quite into my eco-friendliness. I wrote an earlier post about my efforts to reduce plastic waste in my life, by doing things like using natural materials, switching to solid shampoo and carrying a shopping bag in my handbag. However, as with many things, being eco-friendly is much more complicated than it at first appears.

I recently finished reading How Bad Are Bananas? by Mike Berners-Lee. (And at the same time as I was reading it, so was the girl who now happens to live in my old flat – I saw it in the bathroom when a church small group was held at hers. Life is full of such strange coincidences. But I digress.) The book lists the carbon footprint of a dizzying variety of objects and activities.

As it turns out, bananas are not bad at all, as they are shipped rather than flown. Same goes for oranges and apples. But cut flowers, out of season, are very, very bad. This made me sad. On the upside, dishwashers are not only more hygienic than washing by hand, they’re also more environmentally friendly – so we can stop feeling guilty about our laziness.

But the problem that How Bad Are Bananas? threw up is that sometimes the low-carbon option is not the no-plastic option. For example, the author’s lowest-carbon item of clothing is a pair of nylon (if I remember rightly) walking trousers that didn’t take much carbon input to produce, have been washed multiple times, dry very quickly and weigh almost nothing. That compares to lovely organic cotton which has an enormous carbon footprint, largely due to the amount of water needed to grow cotton, and the low yield of organic crops. But of course the cotton won’t be releasing potentially harmful microplastics every time they are washed, which his trousers will. And you can always grow more cotton, but you can’t easily grow more crude oil to make nylon. It’s complicated.

The issue came up again shortly after I’d finished reading the book. I was at an event with the instagrammer Less Waste Laura. (I’m not on Instagram, but you can follow her if you are.) At one point, she asked us what you should do with compostable coffee cups:

  • put them in the ‘normal’ bin
  • put them in the recyclying bin
  • put them in your household compost*

The audience was split pretty evenly among the options, and Laura’s point was that if people don’t know what to do with compostable cups, they’re a problem rather than a solution. Berners-Lee had made a similar point about biodegradable plastic bags being a bit of a con; they make you feel better, but they don’t really solve the problem of plastic waste.

So where does that leave the confused eco warrior? It’s easy to just think “It’s impossible, so I’ll just give up and order veal steaks flown specially from Australia, eat one bite and throw the rest away.” Which would be an extreme reaction. But as Laura was saying, it’s not about being perfect. You’ll probably never achieve zero waste, but you can achieve less waste. Here are some pointers that might be helpful, if you’re not too downhearted to keep trying:

  • Food waste is a major carbon producer. It’s 10% of the UK’s total carbon footprint! So try not to buy too much, buy single bananas and ugly vegetables that others might reject, and use up or give away leftovers.
  • The most environmentally-friendly option is the one you already own. That means, don’t worry about buying a pretty cotton shopping bag until the old plastic one falls to pieces, and the reusable coffee cup you got free at a conference will do just as well as a nice new bamboo one.
  • Meat and dairy are very carbon-intense. Goodness knows I’m not a vegan, but cutting down even a little bit on meat and dairy will help.
  • Buy your clothes second-hand. It’s cheaper, and someone else suffers the existential guilt about their production 😂 Same goes for phones and other tech, furniture, books… You get the idea.
  • Unless it’s a really, really special occasion, don’t buy cut flowers in winter 😔

If you want to look into this further, you can buy or borrow How Bad Are Bananas?, follow Less Waste Laura and read my earlier posts. But if you don’t want to do any of those things, that doesn’t mean this is a game you can’t play. It’s about less waste, less carbon, less consumption – not none. Just because you can’t swim the channel, that’s no reason not to splash in puddles.

*It was a trick question – all the options are wrong. While the cups are compostable, they need much higher temperatures than your household compost bin. The council food waste collection should be ok. But it’s better just to use a reusable cup.


2 Responses to “Can’t do right for doing wrong”

  1. Sustain blog January 5, 2021 at 8:04 pm #

    I would like to read ‘How Bad Are Bananas?’ by Mike Berners-Lee. Good post!

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