Tote bags vs. plastic bags, and the overall impact of consumer plastic use

In response to my post on the effects of plastic bag bans (Edit: which addresses various different types of environmental impact, like pollution), reader Veronica Skowronski pointed me at this Atlantic article on whether tote bags are good for the environment (Edit: which is focused on energy consumption in particular).  The article cites various evidence that reusable grocery tote bags often don’t get reused enough to save more resources than they consume — especially the fancier ones that have gotten popular recently.  In fact, tote bags have gotten more ubiquitous, to the point that people are accumulating and even throwing them away, but polls show they’re very rarely used.  And plastic bags do actually have the smallest footprint to produce and distribute — compared to paper or various tote materials — even though they’re slowest to biodegrade.  The article’s conclusion?

So long as their owners don’t throw them away, [tote bags’] negative impact remains minimized, at least—they might yet be used 327 times. Ecologically speaking, the best practice for tote bags might be one of two extremes: use them all the time, or not at all.

I personally don’t ever invest in buying new totes… I carry around a bunch of tote bags in my trunk that I got at conferences, conventions, or other events where they were giving them away free — they were generally not intended for groceries (and say a funny assortment of things like Grace Hopper, NSF, or Sherlock Seattle :) ), but they serve that purpose fine. I realize this is not an option all shoppers will have access to, but it’s a thought for those of you with spare totes sitting around from similar events.

The Atlantic article also points out that this is far from the only case where the desired goal of helping the environment leads people to do things that are actually less effective — or where people analyze only the small picture and not the whole ecosystem:

This low-grade, unfocused mania for averting impending ecological disaster seems to be more harmful than helpful, which is a problem throughout popular environmentalism. Meat eaters decry the water usage demands of almond groves. Conscientiously piled garbage overflows from public trashcans to rot in the street. Studies show that Kenya-grown roses flown to England have a lower carbon footprint than those grown and shipped from Holland, that it’s less ecologically damaging for Americans east of the Mississippi to import wine from France than from California. Biodegradable plastics proliferate as single-use containers and utensils, greenly filling the demand for disposable goods rather than questioning it. Fuel economy and emissions standards for cars and trucks are considered, barely, but not those of oil tankers, container ships, military escapades, which can produce tens of millions of times the amount of carbon.

With that in mind, I wondered whether or not consumer plastic use (including plastic bags) actually constitutes a very large portion of plastic use overall.  Maybe corporate plastic (re)use renders individual actions relatively small impact?

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What do plastic bag bans do?

What do plastic bag bans actually achieve?  There are a couple California ballot initiatives about a potential statewide ban (I’ll be sharing more research on CA ballot initiatives soon), so I have a pressing reason for curiosity.

I don’t want to contribute to the giant plastic island in the ocean or to the amount of plastic in animals’ stomachs.  And I’d love to decrease local litter while reducing energy & pollution usage (which supporters of bans claim come from making plastic bags).  Do plastic bag bans have these effects (as claimed by supporters) without causing worse side effects?

Short answer: plastic bag bans are very good at one of the things they set out to do (dramatically reducing plastic bag litter), and they mostly get replaced not by paper but by either reusable bags or no bag.  There are predicted substantial energy savings from this shift, but from what I can tell there’s not enough data to be sure of that.  And some of the side effects/potential downsides are not as well quantified.

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Link roundup: direct charitable giving, energy efficiency, and TSA opt-outs

I was just trying to help — This American Life and Planet Money recently did an episode about a charity that gives money directly to people.  I haven’t actually had a chance to listen yet, but am looking forward to it and will hopefully post more about it once I do.

Why bad environmentalism is such an easy sell — A recent Freakonomics episode that I did listen to.  It was mostly useful as a reminder that evaluating environmental impact can be more difficult than you think; e.g., increasing the amount of development in cities (which are relatively energy efficient due to factors like shared transit, short distances to travel to get resources, etc.) may be better for the environment than more rural development.  Also, if everyone switched to more fuel efficient cars, and the cost of fuel to travel a given distance goes down, that could potentially cause people to drive a lot more.  The conversation was generally more speculative than data-driven (and Freakonomics has been sloppy about some of their claims in the past), but it made me want to dig into the work of Ed Glaeser — the Harvard economics professor interviewed here — and related work in more detail.

CHARTS: US carbon emissions are dropping:  Historically, I’ve mostly blogged here about quantifying the effects of individual choices we make in our lives.  But it’s great to get more systemic evidence that our individual actions can add up.   Among the factors that have made a significant impact are household energy reduction and more fuel efficient vehicles.  More people and businesses have been using renewable energy, too. Of course, it’s not all that clear-cut: the biggest factor is the increase in use of natural gas in place of coal — a change which is thanks mostly to fracking.  This American Life and many others have covered some of the potential worries surrounding fracking.  Still, it’s heartening to see some large scale good news, which reduced carbon emissions are.

Scanning the scanners — millimeter wave vs. X-ray TSA scanners: A good comparison of the types of TSA body scanners currently in use.  I’ve been meaning to post for some time about whether opting out of TSA body scans does anything to change the system.  There are personal reasons in terms of personal safety and privacy — and a lack of outside auditing — to consider opting out of scans for at least the X-ray machines (arguably there may be privacy concerns for both).  And there is evidence that the machines are not nearly as effective as one would hope, both missing actual weapons and having high rates of false alarms.

But if one of your primary objectives in opting out is registering a complaint with the government and encouraging systemic changes, is opting out at all effective?  I suspect it probably isn’t very effective, but I don’t have any evidence yet.  I’ll continue to look for evidence as to how effective this and other methods of TSA protest are.   In the meantime, I’d love to hear from people who currently opt-out about why they do so, especially if they opt out of the millimeter wave machines.

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Green cleaning

My bathroom drain is getting a bit slow, and I was wondering whether I could avoid using caustic chemical cleaners such as Drano to unclog it.  My first thought was to wonder whether Seventh Generation or some such “green” brand has a drain cleaner.  And then it occurred to me to wonder just how eco-friendly brands such as Seventh Generation really are.

I’ve been told by friends and cleaning sites alike that one can use baking soda and vinegar for almost all household cleaningwith additional help from kosher salt, lemons, club soda, and other non-harsh products. (NB:  these household cleaners are not as effective as ethanol or some commercial cleaners in tests of rapid disinfectants — so don’t go trying to get rid of polio virus using baking soda and vinegar.)

So far, I’ve preferred to buy an off-the-shelf cleaning product like Seventh Generation (though this is purely a matter of laziness rather than principle).  One of these days, I’ll probably make the switch to using these household items for my cleaning — in the meantime, am I doing harm to the environment, or are allegedly green commercial cleaning products actually eco-friendly?

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link roundup

  • I continue to have a huge blog crush on Do The Math, especially the analyses of how to reduce personal energy use.  While some of his findings are shocking (shrimp are one of the least energy efficient foods?  Say it ain’t so!), many of his methods for measuring and drastically reducing energy use are inspiring.  I’m not currently willing to take some of the steps he does (e.g., solar panels, or completely turning off my heat), but many of his methods can be applied in moderation, and I’m a big fan of his emphasis on starting by measuring where your big expenditures are.
  • Freakonomics had a recent podcast about the effectiveness of herd mentality in persuading people to make changes such as reducing energy consumption or water usage.  Telling someone, “Most of your peers are doing it,” is often one of the best ways to influence people’s behavior.  Conversely (and counterintuitively), telling people, “Please don’t do X, because lots of people are doing X, with terrible consequences,” often encourages people to also do X.
  • Slate asks: what happens to the clothes we donate?   “Most of our donated clothing does not end up in vintage shops, as car-seat stuffing, or as an industrial wiping rag. It is sold over­seas. After the prized vintage is plucked out and the outcasts are sent to the fiber and wiping rag companies, the remaining clothing is sorted, shrink-wrapped, tied up, baled, and sold to used-clothing ven­dors around the world. The secondhand clothing industry has been export-oriented almost since the introduction of mass-produced gar­ments. And by one estimate, used clothing is now the United States’ number one export by volume, with the overwhelming majority sent to ports in sub-Saharan Africa.”

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getting rid of junk mail: tips & call for volunteers

Tired of the hassle and waste of junkmail?  Want to help me test some methods of cleaning up your mailbox?

I’m testing out an app called PaperKarma (free for a limited time – requires your address/phone/email). It is supposed to unsubscribe you from much of your junk mail — you just take a photo on your smartphone and it should do the rest.  I started this experiment by collecting all my mail from the last couple months and entering it all in a spreadsheet (43 pieces of mail in May, a quarter of which were bulky circulars from Pennysaver and the like).  PaperKarma actually tracks for you the pieces of mail you’ve entered and when you entered them — but with a spreadsheet I can more easily track how much my mail volume decreases over time (and compare categories of mail).

So far, I’m reasonably impressed with the ease of use of PaperKarma and its recognition abilities.  I took photos from various angles, of mail that was sometimes crumpled.  Sometimes I shot just a portion of the flier/envelope (the address or logo of the company), and sometimes the whole thing (which was sometimes a full-page ad with minimal company-identifying info).  In almost all cases, it dealt with these variations without trouble. However, it doesn’t seem to be able to identify some local businesses (e.g, some dentists who bulk-mailed me) despite my photographing the address very clearly.

There are a number of other methods for reducing junkmail.  I would love some help testing them out.  You don’t need to be as thorough as I am unless you want to.  Most of the methods are, in fact, probably less time consuming than using PaperKarma (even without additionally creating spreadsheets).

  • About to move?  EcoFuture suggests changing your address “temporarily” for less than a year (e.g., 9 months) to stop the USPS from selling your new address to lots of businesses.  (Your mail won’t get forwarded for quite as long, but hopefully long enough for you to identify and contact everyone that you do want to have your new address.)
  • Do a one-stop opt-out: Direct Marketer’s Association Mail Preference Service (US only; UK version here) — I’m especially curious about this one, since it’s an easy step to take, but it’s also voluntary for companies to comply.
  • Get rid of bulk coupons/circulars:  You can do this online at the sites for Valpak, Pennysaver, etc — Wikihow has a collection of links (see Step 6).
  • Tired of credit card offers?  Call1-888-5 OPT OUT and get rid of them for 5 years.
  • Stop getting phone books: See Step 11.
  • Pay for a service like or Private Citizen.
  • Follow some of the other suggestions here or here.

Let me know if you’re trying (or have tried) any of these methods, and how it works!  I’ll probably use multiple methods after I’ve experimented with just using PaperKarma for a while, but it would be great to have more data.  And I’ll let you all know how effective PaperKarma turns out to be.

Update: see follow up post for results.

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fuel efficiency of electric vs. gas cars

I’ve been considering whether to buy an electric car as my next vehicle.  I found this detailed analysis at Do The Math really interesting and useful.  Key points:

On the surface, electric cars are a lot more efficient than gas-powered cars.

The MPG equivalent of [the Volt, Leaf, and Tesla energy consumption] is approximately 80, 110, and 170, respectively. All are much better deals than gasoline cars deliver, primarily because the electrical drive system is far more efficient than the typical 20% gasoline engine.

However, when charging a car like the Leaf, the source of the electricity is important.

Two-thirds of our electricity comes from fossil fuel plants, typically converting 35% of the fossil fuel thermal energy into electricity. Only 90% of this makes it through the transmission system, on average. If your electricity comes from a fossil fuel plant, the 30 kWh delivered to your house took about 95 kWh of fossil fuel energy. The 73 miles the Leaf travels on a full charge now puts it at an energy efficiency of 130 kWh/100-mi. The MPG equivalent number is 28 MPG. From a carbon-dioxide standpoint, you’d be better off burning the fossil fuel directly in your car.

On the other hand, this doesn’t automatically translate to “don’t buy electric”:

I’m not saying that transitioning to electric or hybrid cars is not a good idea. I think it’s animperative, if we want maintain a car culture, given that fossil fuel supplies are going to decline eventually, starting with oil. Obviously, if your power comes from hydroelectric, solar, wind, or even nuclear, you don’t have the same concerns. Also, emissions controls (for things other than CO2) are vastly better for fossil-fuel power plants than for automobiles, so electric cars are less polluting. But if your priority is either reduced resource consumption or climate change and CO2 reduction, let’s focus on getting electricity from carbon-free sources before transforming our fleet of cars to electric—or at least accomplish the two in tandem.

I’ll post more if I find more good resources comparing environmental impact of different car types.  And I suspect I’ll also be sharing more from Do The Math — it looks like my kind of blog.

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Link roundup

Trying something different from the normal, more extensively researched style.  Should link roundups become a regular feature?  Do you have any suggested links?

Greener Choices – A site from the publishers of Consumer Reports which is chock-full of information about environmentally friendly purchases and habits.  They’re very focused on quantifying impact and offer useful side-by-side comparisons and calculators.

Guide to food labels – What do food labels really mean?  Which ones are regulated?  Greener Choices also offers an Eco-labels center addressing overlapping issues.

Khan Academy and education reform – the online math-focused education website, Khan Academy, is radically changing the way some classes are taught and some students are learning.  Can this technology revolutionize education?  When, how, and for whom?

A Lever Long Enough covered innovative and effective ways to spread e-books and literacy across the world.

Charity rating systems still coming up short – I’ve written previously about problems with rating charities.  A recent scandal demonstrates how different rating methods currently used remain insufficient.

How to stop solicitations by mail – giving anonymously is not the only solution.

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buying local vs. eating less meat

Lots of my friends are “locavores” — people who try to buy their food from somewhere nearby, rather than importing it from far away.  One reason they cite is environmental friendliness — transporting food takes energy, which mean releasing greenhouse gasses.  Eating local is one way to reduce your carbon footprint.

A recent analysis, however, summarized by Andrew Winston of the Harvard Business Review, points out that far more energy goes into growing food for the average U.S. household than transporting it:

  • 83% of the average U.S. household’s carbon footprint for food comes from growing and producing it. Transportation is only 11%.
  • Different foods have vastly different greenhouse gas (GHG) intensity, with meat requiring far more energy to produce, and red meat being particularly egregious, requiring 150% more energy than even chicken.

So the journal article adds this up to an obvious conclusion: if you want to reduce your food’s carbon footprint, eat less meat. In short, “Shifting less than one day per week’s worth of calories from red meat and dairy products to chicken, fish, eggs, or a vegetable-based diet achieves more GHG reduction than buying all locally sourced food.”

Also of note: lamb is far worse for the environment than beef, which is far worse than other common meat products.  The same graph compares the energy used to produce a number of foods.

Of course, there’s no reason not to do both things to help the environment — buy more produce from local sources and eat less meat and dairy.  But if you find yourself weighing the costs and benefits in order to decide when and whether to buy local or eat red meat in a given case, keep in mind the relative contributions to your carbon footprint.

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garbage disposals vs. garbage bins

There are many problems with landfills — even the biodegradable trash that ends up there produces a harmful greenhouse gas, methane, as it breaks down.  Fortunately, many cities now have recycling programs and even composting programs to help reduce landfill waste.  But household composting is still far from ubiquitous.  In the absence of having a compost bin, is it better to put food waste down the garbage disposal or in the trash?

Putting food down the garbage disposal keeps it out of the landfill, but putting it into the water treatment system is not necessarily a good thing.  Grease and fats cause lots of problems, including burst pipes and sewage leaks.  Non-greasy food waste particles can also end up in freshwater and harm aquatic life.  Water treatment to remove food waste requires chemicals, and the process releases methane (rather than the CO2 that would be released during composting).  However, some water treatment plants make use of the methane and/or solid waste for green purposes.  So the best answer depends on your local circumstances.  However, there are a few consistent rules to follow:

The research is unambiguous about one point, though: Under normal circumstances, you should always compost if you can. Otherwise, go ahead and use your garbage disposal if the following conditions are met: First, make sure that your community isn’t running low on water. (To check your local status, click here.) Don’t put anything that is greasy or fatty in the disposal. And find out whether your local water-treatment plant captures methane to produce energy. If it doesn’t—and your local landfill does—you may be better off tossing those mashed potatoes in the trash.

If you live in Cambridge, MA, someone has already done your legwork for you, and explains how to do this research in your own region:

The MWRA [Massachusetts Water Resource Authority] focuses on green methods. The methane is used and the solid waste is used. The water is treated, de-chlorinated and diffused into the water system. The only things that go to the landfill are large non-organic items that weren’t supposed to make it into the water system….

Here’s the final count [for Cambridge, MA]:
Best option
: Compost
Next best
: Sink disposal
: Trash/Landfill

Also, if your city doesn’t offer compost, but does give you yard waste bins, you can give them a call to find out if they’ll accept fruit and vegetable waste as well.

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