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In the latest edition of The Social‘s Going Green series, we’re planting more seeds for a growing conversation about the environment. Part of that is talking about what we can do as consumers, and how we can make smarter choices.

Research scientist Calvin Lakhan dropped by The Social to break down some hot-button environmental issues and what we can do as consumers to make better choices.

STRAWS

The availability of plastic straws in public spaces has made us comfortable with the single-use of plastic, which is extremely problematic. Understanding the environmental impacts of plastic straws is the first step in the acknowledgement of single use plastics problem, the environmental impacts of packaging, and the ability to adopt more sustainable behaviours. However, Calvin says we shouldn’t demonize straws themselves. While some characterize them as an unnecessary product, they’re also often used by vulnerable groups like the elderly and the disabled. Generally speaking, banning a product or material all together poses more problems than solutions.

GROCERY STORE BAGS

Many people are led to believe plastic grocery bags are bad and that they further the damage of single plastic use, but the reality, according to Calvin, is this: studies have shown that the average consumer reuses their plastic bags four to five times prior to disposal. Even though reusable bags (i.e. cloth bags) are a more sustainable method, if we don’t remember to use them consistently, we end up using more energy to create them, than it would to create a plastic one. To accrue the benefits of a reusable paper or cloth bag, you have to reuse it literally hundreds of times. This particular topic highlights there’s very rarely a black and white answer with respect to consuming sustainably.

PRODUCE BAGS

While the plastic used in clear bags is very similar to what is used in a grocery bag, it is much less durable, making reuse more difficult. The dimensions of the bag itself also tend to limit its applications. Luckily, there are numerous alternatives that exist, namely biodegradable plastics made out of an organic resin. While it will ultimately be up to retailers to make that substitution in the store, viable solutions are available.

SINGLE-USE PLASTIC BAN

Though many would likely disagree with him, Calvin believes a decision to ban single-use plastics would be disastrous, both economically and environmentally.

The most practical implication of a potential ban is: Do viable alternatives exist, particularly ones that can mimic the properties of single use plastics? At this juncture, the answer is no. From an economic perspective, what alternatives do exist tend to be significantly more expensive, and if we were to force producers into developing packaging that must be recycled or reused, the cost would be literally in the billions of dollars.

York University conducted a study to attempt to quantify the impact on consumers resulting from increased packaging costs. Ultimately, any increase in the cost of production for producers, is going to be downloaded onto the consumer. The potential impact on packaged good prices can be an increase of more than 10 per cent in some instances. To middle and lower-middle class citizens, a 50 cent increase in the cost of bread is an inconvenience, but for economically vulnerable households, that 50 cents changes the outcome of their purchase. Lower income households don’t have the ability to absorb the increase of packaging costs, which makes the slightest increase even more pronounced.

FOOD PACKAGING

Produce wrapped in plastic such as cucumbers, are necessary to the longevity of the product to avoid spoilage and quadruple its shelf life. If we think about our local organic farmers market, free of pesticides and unnecessary packaging, it seems great… until we find out that produce spoils significantly faster.

In 2019, York University conducted a life cycle study of various plastic food storage products – things like cling wrap, freezer bags, sandwich bags etc. From a waste management perspective, these products are terrible – in most instances, they cannot be recycled or readily diverted. However, when we begin to think about how plastic packaging can be used for food storage, both short and long term, the narrative changes completely.

Whether you are using cling wrap to preserve a half-eaten sandwich, or you are using freezer bags to stockpile chicken that was on sale, two things happen: 1) we avoid food spoilage, which is a massive issue that is placing strain on our landfills, and 2) we achieve source reduction, which means eliminating the need to purchase new food all together.

Why this matters is that the energy and resource intensity of agricultural production is enormous – far more in fact that actually making plastic packaging. As a result, while we may not be able to recycle many of these plastic items, the savings resulting from avoided spoilage and source reduction more than offset whatever we lose from not recycling.

MARGINALIZED COMMUNITIES

Something that we don’t really talk about is whether sustainable action is a right for everyone, or a privilege for those that can afford it. I like to characterize the issue as “environmentalism for the affluent”.

Lower income families are excluded in environmentally conscionable initiatives as significant barriers hinder their participation. In neighbourhoods across the Greater Toronto Area suburbs, the garbage/recycling truck consistently picks up waste on a weekly basis, whereas in multi-residential buildings in lower-income areas, it’s required that residents drop their waste off in specific waste rooms. These rooms are often dirty, under-serviced, relatively inaccessible and in some instances, dangerous. It’s one of the main reasons why the recycling rate in apartment buildings is less than 15 per cent, while single family houses are closer to 65 per cent. Although the desire to participate in environmental initiatives is the same across all income groups, marginalized communities will continue to face barriers to participation.

COMMUNITIES AFFECTED BY CLIMATE CHANGE

Developing counties are more prone to environmental disturbances, but many of us in the first world suffer from NIMBYism (i.e. Not in My Back Yard) as we think they can’t occur in our communities. It’s seen with the placement of landfills, hazardous waste sites and composting facilities. There’s a strong correlation that exits between the proximity of waste hazards to income levels as these facilities tend to be built in lower income areas where individuals don’t necessarily have the ability or resources to say no. For example, indigenous communities in the north face a greater risks of having contaminated soil and groundwater systems, because of their close proximity to environmental hazards. These areas are likely to be hit first when environmental disturbances occur as a result of climate change.

 

So, with all of that information is mind, what makes the most sense for consumers? From an environmental perspective, the best bang for your buck option is to look for items that can be reused. Plastic food storage products such as Tupperware is a great and easy way to both avoid excessive packaging, and avoid food spoilage. As a tangent, consumers should really start to think about “how much do I actually need” with respect to food purchases. Does it make sense to buy a bag of apples, when you are only going to eat half of them? So much of avoidable food waste ends up in landfills every year, largely because consumers buy too much of it. Thinking about what we consume and how much to consume will hopefully lead to behavioural change that is good for the environment.

So, what exactly happens to all those gifts we return?