In elementary school, most people think of the three Rs as reading, writing and arithmetic, but a different set of Rs is also ingrained into students’ heads: reduce, reuse and recycle. Sound familiar?
Standard science or social studies curricula emphasize the importance of protecting the environment. This belief, coupled with increasing evidence toward global warming, has directly affected the corporate world and its dedication to the green movement. Though some argue going green will ultimately reduce expenses, the good-steward-of-the-planet motive usually comes into play, as well. But while some conventional beliefs about environmentalism hold up under scrutiny, others may be misguided.
Oil is one of the most vilified substances on the planet, up there with CFCs from aerosols and nuclear waste. After all, petroleum is a non-renewable fossil fuel that releases greenhouse gases when burned.
Automobiles have certainly affected the environment, but the biggest impetus for alternative fuel is more geopolitical than environmental. The United States wants to decrease its dependence on foreign oil, the price of which continues to rise. That’s why some politicians, particularly presidential candidate Barack Obama, have argued for producing and selling more E85 fuel. This biofuel contains little petroleum and mostly ethanol, an alcohol-based fuel source made from corn that burns cleaner than standard unleaded gas.
But what about the manufacturing process for E85 and the effects of growing more crops? The New York Times released a story in February that claims biofuels may do more harm than good. The article cited many universities and research institutions which concluded that, as the demand for biofuels increases, so will the demand for corn and the other crops to make it. Across the globe, particularly in Southeast Asia, South America and the United States, farmers growing more crops will encounter a necessary evil: cutting down trees – a lot of them.
Releasing carbon into the atmosphere is one of the chief causes of global warming. And razing forests and grasslands to make room for more farm lands for biofuel and food production will release 17 to 420 times more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, says scientist Joe Fargione on the Web site of the nonprofit environmental group The Nature Conservancy.
“From a climate change perspective, current biofuels are worse than fossil fuels,” Fargione comments on nature.org. “However, that does not mean we should just stick with fossil fuels. There is no silver bullet that can stop climate change. We will need many strategies to address this issue – all pursued simultaneously. “Among those ideas, he lauds electric – and fuel-cell-powered vehicles which run on wind-, water- and sunlight-generated electricity.
The bioenergy push affects plastics, too. Production and disposal of regular plastic uses fossil fuels, just as driving a car or using electricity does. But bioplastics, seemingly a cleaner alternative, still require the use of fossil fuels, gas for farming equipment, pesticides for the crops and in the factories that manufacture bioplastics.
In a material world, what’s most recyclable?
For decades, people have questioned the efficiency of recycling. Economists argue that if producing goods from recycled materials raises production costs and markups for consumers, then the process is inefficient. These economists favor fiscal factors over environmental ones. They also ignore that reusing and recycling can save production costs for products with expensive virgin materials, and can cut down on incineration and landfill fees.
But the most damning argument against recycling certain materials is that the process can do more environmental harm than good. Researchers at the Cato Institute, a libertarian think tank in Washington, D.C., have argued for decades that recycling doesn’t always make economic sense, but they also make an interesting environmental point: All of the additional factories and trucking required to make recycled goods tend to create the same dangerous output that other factories do. In a sense, they argue the behind-the-scenes recycling industry creates the pollution and carbon it is trying to reduce.
The least efficient product to recycle, many argue, is paper. It’s one thing to print an office e-mail on the back of a used piece of paper. But resources have to be expended to truck the paper off to be mashed and reworked into new paper.
As a product of trees, paper is a renewable resource. Because it contains carbon, some say it’s OK to put it back into the ground. The problem is that paper is often covered with ink made from synthetic chemicals. It’s best to keep those out of landfills and as far away from water tables as possible.
On the other end of the spectrum, many agree that recycling aluminum has the best return. According to the Energy Information Administration, ecycling aluminum cans saves 95 percent of the energy required to produce it. From scratch, making aluminum is an arduous process that requires an immense amount of electricity – and the fossil fuels that produce electricity. Already-used aluminum undergoes a much simpler process, using significantly less power.
The recycling debate may continue indefinitely, and those who feel good about recycling will continue to do so. But how should one feel about an imported recycled product? Do factors such as overseas manufacturing processes and the fuel required to ship products to North America outweigh the environmental benefits of the recycled product?
Though goods manufactured overseas offer a huge profit opportunity, their environmental impact may be another story. For example, the Seattle Times reported that abundant smog produced from Asian factories trickles through the jet stream and settles above the mountains of the Pacific Northwest. Though all domestic companies want to do is import the products, it seems we’re importing the pollution now, as well.
Protecting the environment means more than keeping greenhouse gases out of the sky or keeping carbon in the ground. It also means protecting people, especially children, from ingesting harmful chemicals. Perhaps it’s unfair to pick on the most populous country in the world, which has seen unparalleled industrial expansion lately, but the recent lead scares from China have put everyone who imports extensively on high alert. Here are some quick stats on China’s environmental status:
Though newer landfills are bigger than ones in the past, the number of active ones in the United States decreased from 8,000 in 1988 to 1,754 in 2006, according to the Environmental Protection Agency. In that regard, recycling campaigns have succeeded in what they aimed to do when they became commonplace in the early ’90s.
However, carbon emissions are still growing and nonrenewable resources, such as fossil fuels, are still withering. Space required to build landfills in North America is still plentiful, many experts now agree, citing that the panic from past generations has subsided. However, a landfill’s influence on air quality and drinking water still remain contentious.
Of the three environmental R verbs, the most valuable may be “reduce.” On an individual basis, people who use less electricity, water and gasoline are doing their part to make sure we don’t consume too much energy. But industries that produce products – or rely on this production – are conflicted. To increase profits and sales, somehow they have to increase their supply, which means using energy to make more products. No matter how eco-friendly a company claims to be, it won’t stop producing.
In short, businesses should still strive to find the most efficient, cleanest and safest ways to make their products, but they should acknowledge that a number of catch-22s are inherent in the green initiative. The only certainties are to increase awareness and to lobby for more research, hoping that some of the short-comings of recycling, biofuel and globalization will succumb to creative problem-solving.
This article was written by John Carlisle for Corporate Logo Magazine. Reprinted with permission.