What if that brand new Prius is worse for the environment than a 1995 Chevy Suburban, despite getting 38 more miles to the gallon?
What if that sirloin, shipped to the steakhouse from a newly deforested pasture in the Amazon, means less to the global climate than a hill of individually wrapped jellybeans?
What if using that old avocado-green clothes washer turned out to be better for the environment than the brand new Energy Star model?
These are the types of thoughts one thinks after reading two recent reports by Joshuah Stolaroff, who could do far more to turn "going green" on its head than your average faceless bureaucrat.
Stolaroff was at a low enough level at the Environmental Protection Agency when he wrote Opportunities to Reduce Greenhouse Gas Emissions through Materials and Land Management Practices that he can't even "speak for the agency" when discussing it. The Product Policy Institute, which published is next paper, Products, Packaging and Greenhouse Gas Emissions encouraged him to talk, but the only reporters who sat in on his recent press call were writing for publications serving readers in the solid waste industry. (The second paper was like the first, but included a key addition: Consideration of the greenhouse gas emissions embodied in imported goods, not just domestically produced items.)
The reports have the same conclusion: the stuff we buy and the packaging that comes with the stuff we buy represent our biggest contribution to global warming far more so than the amount of electricity our stuff uses, or the amount of fuel our stuff burns on the highway.
As a nation, the products we buy, and the plastic and paper those products are packaged in, account for 44% of our greenhouse gas emissions dwarfing all other sources of pollution. It's all about stuff. Good stuff, bad stuff, fuel-efficient stuff, organic stuff: The problem is too much stuff.
Powering every AC unit, boiler and hot water heater in the United States adds up to less than half the impact of our stuff just 21%. Driving our cars, or why not? Hummers, as the case may be, accounts for just 13%, and food just 12%. Even all our guilt-ridden globe-trotting vacations and every one of those celebrity private jet trips "non-local passenger transport" in the parlance of these reports account for just 9% of all global warming pollution produced by the United States. And, in a note that makes you want to gouge out both eyes with an electric fork, the electricity used to run all our appliances amounts to just 7% of our nation's greenhouse gas emissions.
The papers are written for policy wonks, encouraging such practices as lifecycling responsibility for manufacturers, so that the cell phone you buy today is dismantled and remade by the same company that manufactured it. "There's enough evidence here that we should institute policies around products or materials to control greenhouse gas emissions," Stolaroff said.
Good advice. But what about us?
Even as an expert on the topic, Stolaroff was surprised by the way the report affected him. "In the process of the report I became convinced that recycling is much more important than I thought it really was," he said. "Particularly appliances, cars, electronics and construction and demolition debris those turn out to be pretty important. I never really thought about that. We hear a lot about recycling containers, but we're much less advanced in terms of recycling durable goods, like building debris and furniture. There's lots of potential to prevent greenhouse gas emissions."
Which isn't to say that energy efficiency doesn't matter (or that other studies don't contradict some of these findings) ... but Stolaroff's studies suggest that the types of products we buy and how much stuff we buy in the first place matter most. Choosing to buy products made from recycled materials, that can be repaired or recycled -- or choosing to rent what we don't need to buy ... these amount to some of the most important choices we make for the environment.
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