We all feel a little chuffed with ourselves when we do something good to help the environment. We’ve gone out of our way to do something good for the world without being forced to do it by anyone. That makes us pretty f*cking amazing human beings, don’t you think?!
Unfortunately, despite our best intentions, sometimes our efforts to help nature actually do more harm than good. I was reminded of this over Christmas when we were hosting our ‘low waste’ lunch. I was on the hunt for the most eco-friendly, re-usable napkins when I came across some worrying stats. To make the re-usable napkin option better than single-use napkins, I had to consider many factors. I had to make sure I was not only buying the most eco-friendly material, that they were locally sourced and that production of them didn’t cause too much environmental harm, but also that I wasn’t going to wash them too often and that I used them hundreds of times. It was a lot to weigh up!
It’s not just napkins either. To outweigh the environmental cost of producing re-usable shopping bags that you buy at the supermarket, you need to use them over 104 times (Verghese 2009). Sounds easy, right? But how many times have you forgotten your re-usable bags when you’ve gone to the shops and have had to buy more of them? Will you use all of the re-usable bags you own over 104 times? That’s every week for two years.
Every re-usable item has the same potential issues – just because it is re-usable does not automatically make it better for the environment. Sometimes it might be better to still use single-use items. That might be hard for some people to hear given that, as part of the zero waste movement, so many people have been conditioned to believe that re-usable is always better than single use.
So, knowing that the eco-friendly options aren’t necessarily always the best, does it mean that we should all stop bothering to help the environment? That all of our efforts are a waste of time? Hell no! The environment needs us! We just need to be mindful of the negative impacts of whatever it is we buy – whether they are labelled as eco-friendly or not. (And that we need to re-use the shit out of our re-usables.)
Things to think about when considering the environmental cost of a product are:
The amount of energy that has gone into that product;
How much water was required to produce the product;
How much land was harmed to produce the product;
What chemicals have gone into the production process;
Whether the material in the product are natural or synthetic;
How far the product had to travel to get to you;
The life of the product;
Whether the product can be recycled;
How the product needs to be disposed of; and
How much impact will the product have on the environment if it is not disposed of properly?
Reducing our environmental impact entirely, is hard. Often, when we reduce our impact on one aspect of the environment, we cause more harm on another. For example, if we wanted to reduce water usage, we would choose items that don’t need to be washed so often. But the items that don’t need to be washed so often might have terrible chemicals in them, they might not be biodegradable, or they might have required the deforestation of pristine orangutan habitat to create them.
As someone who has worked in environmental management for a long time, this juggling act is all too familiar. It requires us to place more value on one aspect of the environment than another, when really, we should be valuing all aspects equally.
I always come back to my Seven Golden Rules when trying to help the environment. They are:
Whatever you are using, use less of it
If it’s not 100% natural, it’s not going to be good for the environment
Vegetation is key to a healthy environment
Nature manages itself better than we ever will
Harnessing renewable energy is the only way of the future
We don’t have the right to be here more than any other living creature
The Earth supplies us with every single thing we need to survive – we need to give it the respect it deserves
Have you found yourself causing more damage to the environment with eco-friendly products lately? What happened?
Verghese, K., Lewis, H., Fitzpatrick, L., Hayes, G.M. and Hedditch, B., 2009. Environmental impacts of shopping bags. Report for Woolworths Limited, Ref. number: SPA1039WOW-01, pp.1-36.