By Robert Lilienfeld
Green Right Now

My New Year’s Resolution

Fifteen years ago, the big environmental issue making headlines was whether to use cloth or disposable diapers. We were supposedly going to be buried by the disposables, as they were filling up our landfills so fast that we would soon run out of places to put our trash. To better understand the problem, my co-author, Dr. William Rathje of The Garbage Project at the University of Arizona, was dispatched by a variety of environmental, government and business groups to study the composition of landfills all across America.

What Bill and his associates found was not at all what people expected them to find. Diapers were actually a rather small part of the typical landfill makeup. Also, when all the data on production, transportation, water and energy usage were factored into the equation, the data indicated that disposable diapers might actually produce less environmental impact than cloth ones.

Bill and I argued that the issue was not the diaper itself, but all of the babies being put into them. The diaper was merely a package that contained a human consumption and waste generation machine. As such, the diaper was really a symptom of the true, underlying environmental malady: unsustainable population growth. To reduce diaper consumption and disposal, the better strategy was not to eliminate disposable diapers, but to reduce the rate at which they were being used.

Today, we have an eerily similar scenario. Rather than cloth vs. disposable diapers, the debate is focused on paper vs. plastic bags, with the latter considered to be the wasteful, landfill-clogging choice. Yet, a look at the hard facts once again shows that like disposable diapers, plastic bags are a small part of landfill composition. Further, scientific studies indicate that paper bags actually create up to five times more waste than their plastic counterparts.

Like diapers, bags exist for one reason – to contain items that are both much bigger and potentially much more environmentally detrimental. In fact, life cycle research indicates that up to 99% of the environmental impact of what we buy is caused by the materials and energy needed to produce, transport and store the products that go into the bags, and not from the bags themselves.

Rather than placing environmental blame on plastic bags (or any bags for that matter), let’s all resolve to be more efficient about what we put in those bags. Start by becoming a more efficient consumer: Shop from a list. Buy in bulk when appropriate. Select concentrates. Choose products that come in lightweight packaging. Combine trips to reduce driving, thus cutting gas consumption and greenhouse gas generation.

So, if you really want to use fewer bags, start by using less stuff.

Bob Lilienfeld is editor of The ULS (Use Less Stuff) Report, a newsletter aimed at helping people conserve resources and reduce waste. He is a regular commentator on NPR’s The Environment Report, and co-author of the book Use Less Stuff: Environmental Solutions for Who We Really Are.

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