We receive many messages daily about going green. At the end of the day, we don’t have a backup planet to live on – so we need to be good stewards of Earth. But, what does that mean? In this article, I explore what it really means to ‘go green’ and that the issue is not as straightforward as it may seem.
I love to be outside. Hiking, swimming, biking, running, walking, taking wildlife photos – I’d rather be out in nature any day.
Add that to my biology background – I have a bachelors and doctoral degree in biology, plus I wrote a book about how we experience biology as part of our daily lives – and perhaps it’s no surprise at all that I live in a household that strongly emphasizes being Earth-friendly. We pick up trash along the roadside, diapered with cloth diapers, buy used products and compost our food waste.
So would you say we’re a “green” household? Probably.
But, when we take a closer look at what it means to be a “green” household, it’s a far more complicated issue than using a refillable water bottle over a disposable plastic one. In this article, I’ll explore some of the intricacies of what it means to go-green.
Banning plastic bags – the good, the bad and the balancing act
Recently, my son and I visited the local grocery store. We needed a few things for dinner – but alas, I had misjudged how many reusable bags to bring in from the car. And found that I was one short.
The store worker asked if I’d like plastic or paper…or to just buy another reusable bag.
I went with paper. But not before doing a quick calculation in my head about what was the most earth friendly option in this case.
Given all the press around plastic bag bans, it seems like I should have bought another reusable bag or paper bag, right? Really, why does the question of which bag I use in the store matter anyway?
We don’t reside in a closed system – every decision we make has repercussions. When you look at the resources that go into making each type of bag in the store – plastic bags use the least amount of resources and produce the least amount of carbon dioxide, a greenhouse gas. Your typical reusable bag, however, uses the most resources to produce and generates the most carbon dioxide. Paper bags are in between plastic bags and reusable bags.
But, the resources necessary isn’t the only part of the equation. Plastic bags can be recycled, but typically are not. Plastic bags are also suffocation hazards and leech microplastics – a growing health concern. Paper bags can be composted or recycle and are easily repurposed, for example, into book coverings or coloring paper.
If you commit to re-using a reusable bag they are the greenest option – but have you found yourself in my situation, either forgetting your bags in the car not bringing enough into the store with you? Studies show that you need to use a reusable bag about 37 times before it becomes greener than a plastic bag.
Going “green” in this case involves a commitment to having only the number of reusable grocery bags needed and using them each time you shop. If this is a step you want to take, what steps can you take to go greener? Can you refuse a bag? Commit to taking plastic bags to a recycling center? Leave reusable bags on the front seat of your car?
Reusable products and social justice
As mentioned in the previous section, reusable bags (and really, any reusable product) require more resources to produce – so their earth friendly-ness is really a factor of how often they get reused.
Perhaps it isn’t surprising then to realize that reusable products also tend to cost more than their disposable counterparts. And, this can cause economic disparities to rise.Let’s look at cloth diapering as an exemplar. Cloth diapering was the standard until disposable diapers hit the scene in 1961.
To use modern cloth diapers, ranging from pocket diapers or all-in-ones that go on like a disposable (nope, people generally aren’t using pins or plastic pants anymore), the total investment is around $250-$500, depending on brand, variety, and if purchased second-hand. Quality cloth diapers can be used on multiple children. US based companies like Thirsties are expanding their sizing for special needs children as well.Cost for disposables? Around $3,000 for one child.
However, disposables might cost less than $50 per week – whereas cloth diapers require a large purchase up front. One that can be unobtainable to many people.
So rather than pay $500 one time on diapers that one can use for all of their children (or beyond…when researching Biology Everywhere, I talked to people who used their childhood diapers on their own children), people will spend thousands per child over time. The costs can get even higher when diapering special needs children or adults.
We see this play out with all reusable products, from water bottles to reusable sandwich bags. A big upfront expense that saves money in the long run…or buying cheap disposable products that end up costing more in the long run. Reusable options can also necessitate more work as well – whether it’s cloth diapers or water bottles, they need to be washed.
What to do? Part of it starts with awareness that many of these reusable options exist. Several family owned stores specialize in providing green-living options to their customers. Other options are to buy used or slowly build up a stash of reusable products. When I first started cloth diapering, I bought a small set of used diapers, and slowly added diapers until I had enough to do laundry every few days rather than every day.
Several charities exist that provide cloth diapers (as well as disposable diapers and menstrual products) to families in need, include Jake’s Diapers and The Cloth Option.
But can’t I just recycle?
When I was in college, I always bought cases of plastic water bottles for my dorm room. In my mind, I recycled the bottles when I was done with them – so it was fine to use disposable, right?
This relates back to a point I made earlier in this article: we’re part of a system. And part of that system is the economy.
Recycling isn’t free, either in terms of resources or money. This comes back to social justice again as well – I am fortunate enough that I can afford to pay the extra $10 per month my garbage company charges to pick up my recycling twice a month; not everyone can. Knowing what and how to recycle can also be complicated. Different municipalities have different rules on what can be recycled, and if recyclables need to be separated first by the consumer. This again adds to the amount of work necessary.
For recycling to be cost effective, there must be a market for the raw recycled material – and there often is not. It ends up being cheaper to make new plastic, rather than recycle what we have. So the properly sorted recyclable plastics end up not being recycled, but destined for the landfill.
What can we do? This is where the “refuse” piece comes in – don’t use plastic, if you can avoid it. Bring your own reusable straws to restaurants. Grab a refillable water bottle on your way to the gym – many public places are offering filtered water at bottle refilling stations. It’s easier than ever to not use plastic water bottles. Ask your waste management service or municipality to provide single source recycling that doesn’t need to be sorted by the consumer, or clearer guidance on what can and cannot be recycled.
Another option is to buy products that are either previously loved or from recycled materials. Companies like Re-play and Green Toys create a market for raw recycled milk jugs for making children’s products. When there is a market for recycled plastic, it gets reused, rather than sent to the landfill.
Perspectives on going green
When you get right down to it, the Earth has finite resources.
At some point, the raw materials are going to be used up…and trash will continue to pile up.
Going back to that systems theme as well – when the environment suffers, we do too. Whether it’s pollution leading to cancer or other diseases, or increasing costs for waste disposal as landfills reach maximum capacity, or lost revenues from eco-tourism or trade.
What bag you use…or diaper…or water bottle…or toy seems like a small decision – but the impact is huge.
It may be easy to think that as an individual, what we choose to do doesn’t matter. I encourage you to consider Hardin’s Tragedy of the Commons. We are all members of a community (all living things on Earth) and share resources. If we each act in our own self-interest, there will eventually no longer be resources to share.
As part of that system, it is important to consider what truly is in best service of our shared natural resources. Things that seem green aren’t always as environmentally friendly as you may think either. So considering what we do and why we do it that way is important for both our benefit, and the benefit of the others (human and non-human) that we share the Earth with.
Going green can feel overwhelming – so I’ll close with an accessible challenge to you. What’s one small change you can make today and commit to? What’s something that is easy for you to make work?
Because small changes add up –even if it’s as simple as buying a collapsible shopping bag that fits inside your purse that you commit to leaving in there and using each time you visit the store.