“Seven Billion Dreams. One Planet. Consume with Care“: The United Nation’s theme for World Environment Day this year. Which is fitting, in a world where our current consumption patterns are steering our natural resources to irreversible tipping points and where we often don’t exactly know what natural resources are used to make our goods. According to Worldwatch Institute, calculations show that the planet has available 1.9 hectares of land per person to supply us resources and absorb our wastes, yet the average American uses 9.7 hectares worth (while the average Mozambican uses 0.47 hectares). As the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) designates World Environment Day (which took place on Friday, June 5th this year) as a day to “stimulate worldwide awareness of environmental issues and encourage political action”, we wish to do our part in bringing public awareness, so that we can better conceptualize exactly where our goods are coming from, and thus take this information into consideration when we buy or dispose of things. Check out the environmental footprint of five goods we may use in our lives:
Beverage cans & other aluminum cans.
Aluminum cans and other materials made of aluminum come from an ore called bauxite, which is mined in various countries including Australia, China, Jamaica, and Guinea. The aluminum extraction and production process, like other mining processes, is an energy and resource-intensive process, involving open-pit mining that removes all native vegetation and results in loss of local wildlife habitat, as well as significant soil erosion; water contamination by toxins used in excavation; and air pollution and greenhouse gas emissions from the smelting process. In Jamaica, bauxite mining has resulted in water wells with high levels of sodium and pH, poor water retention capability in the soil, and degradation of coral reef, as a result of alumina spilling during ship loading. Aluminum can be continuously recycled, like other types of metals. And they should be recycled: Recycling aluminum requires only 5% of the energy and produces only 5% of the CO2 emissions of aluminum’s original production. Besides recycling and reusing your aluminum cans, use reusable beverage containers or look for glass ones, and substitute out your canned foods with items from bulk bins— you will also be doing your health some justice!
As we are getting ready to hit the trails or the gym, we rarely think about the natural resources used to make our tennis shoes. Yet athletic shoes are composed of 65 different parts, coming from various resources and requiring different manufacturing processes. These inputs include rubber, cotton, polyester, and nylon. Although most athletic shoes have outsoles made of synthetic rubber (made in a lab from petroleum-based products), natural rubber (made from latex of the rubber tree) actually has a smaller environmental impact when collected without harming the wild rubber trees. The production of synthetic rubber is an industrial process that results in more waste than product while also releasing volatile organic compounds (VOCs) (hazardous air pollutants that often also contribute to climate change). Polyester and nylon are also petroleum-based synthetic products used in making shoes; they are not biodegradable and require large amounts of water and energy to be produced. Nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas 298 times more potent than CO2, is emitted when producing nylon. Cotton is a water and energy-intensive crop that requires great amounts of pesticide and insecticide use that can end up in local water sources. In terms of GHG emissions, according to researchers at MIT, a typical pair of running shoes generates 30 pounds of CO2 emissions, equivalent to keeping a 100-watt light bulb on for one week. The majority of these emissions surprisingly come from the manufacturing process, (foaming and injection molding of parts of a sneaker’s sole) specifically from powering coal-powered manufacturing plants in China. The production of athletic shoes are also known to involve horrendous labor conditions for workers. While these companies are trying to clean-up their supply chains, the impact of our athletic shoes is probably greater than we’d like to think. Think twice before you buy those new pair of shoes. When you think you have out-run those old pair of tennis shoes, donate them. Initiatives like Nike’s Reuse-a-Shoe takes all types of athletic shoes and grinds them down to then make new products or to make track surfaces, gym floors, and playground surfaces.
Paper and e-Books.
According to the Green Press Initiative, approximately 30 million trees are used to make paper books sold in the United States each year, while 153 gallons of water are consumed annually by the U.S. book and newspaper industry. As a Greenpeace campaign in the early 2000s revealed, illegal logging of ancient forests in Finland and Canada was often a result of our demand for paper, including our demand for books. Enter the e-reader and e-books and we have a way to read that does not leave as detrimental of an impact on the environment, right? Although e-readers do have the ability to reduce deforestation and GHG emissions (the lifetime carbon footprint of one Amazon Kindle is said to be 370 lb of CO2e, or equivalent to 42 paperback books), there are various factors including supply chain (mining, shipping, and manufacturing) and energy consumption that actually prevent the e-reader to be the “hands-down” substitute to paper books. Digital books are also stored on data centers often connected to the electricity grid, which in the U.S. are usually powered by dirty fuel sources. Avid readers that are likely to read over 60 or 70 books on their e-readers (over the lifetime of the e-reader) can probably rest assured that they are offsetting the environmental and social impacts involved in producing the e-reader, as well as the CO2 involved in paper book production. Not planning on reading that much? Look for books that are printed on 100% post-consumer waste recycled paper, Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper, or publishers that signed the Book Industry Treatise on Environmentally Responsible Publishing. Better yet, renew your library card or start a book-sharing club with friends.
Precious metals often have the worst environmental report cards. Gold mining in Peru in particular has had devastating impacts on the Peruvian Amazon, where thousands of subsistence farmers have turned into gold miners, trying to take advantage of the recent high price in gold. Current gold mining techniques in Peru involve stripping away plants and the first layer of soil, and using mercury to collect the gold, which then drains into local waterways when mixed with mud. Gold mining also uses cyanide, which can be toxic to humans and animals, and generates large amounts of toxic waste.
Before you buy gold, try to do some research to get an idea of where it comes from. Earthworks’ No Dirty Gold campaign educates consumers on the impacts of irresponsible gold mining and has worked with retailers to get them to endorse its Golden Rules criteria for more responsible metals sourcing. Eco-friendly and transparent jewelry vendors also do exist. Brilliant Earth provides conflict-free diamonds and only uses recycled gold and platinum, while Green ORO sells 100% recycled gold jewelry. Consider vintage jewelry as well!
One of the major environmental impacts involved in producing TVs is the mining and processing of rare earth minerals that make up the circuit boards inside. This process, as well as the actual TV manufacturing process, are energy intensive. In addition, the disposal of TVs as well as other electronics requires careful measures, so that lead, zinc, silver, cadmium, copper and other toxic residuals from e-waste do not contaminate our air and water. The production of flat-screen TVs are also known to emit nitrogen trifluoride (NF3) and sulfur hexafluoride (SF6), greenhouse gases thousands of times more potent than CO2, yet not acknowledged as GHG until the Kyoto Protocol’s second commitment period, which started in January 2013. Nordic Ecolabel is the first consumer group to demand reduction of NF3 in TV and computer screen production, and hopefully we will soon see more of this by consumer groups in the rest of the world.
If you prefer to watch your shows and news from a TV over a laptop, use your TV for its entire lifetime (LCD televisions typically have a lifespan of 10 to 20 years). With new technology coming out every six months, it is tempting to want to go out and obtain the TV with the highest resolution or newest technology. Yet the longer you keep the same TV set, the more likely the greatest environmental footprint will come from home energy use, rather than supply chain and manufacturing. LED LCD and Energy Star certified TVs also ensure energy efficiency. When you decide to retire your TV, make sure you bring it back to your local electronics store or electronic recycling services, so it can be recycled and disposed of safely.
The companies producing our athletic shoes, TVs and books do listen to to consumer preferences. Their job is to supply what its consumers want. Thus it is important to signal to these companies that we want our goods to be come from sustainable supply chains, even if it may be at a premium. Yet it is also important to reflect and think about where our goods come from before purchasing more. All our goods come from the natural world and have an environmental impact– as the UNEP’s World Environment Day theme this year eloquently suggests, let’s consume less, we are only one planet.