4.25.2007

Belated Happy Earth Day!

Earth Day was this past Sunday, April 22. I was preoccupied with thoughts of Yom HaZikaron and Yom Ha'atzmaut, though, so I haven't gotten around to writing about it until today.

On Earth Day, I was also busy washing the dishes from my Friday night dinner. I am a fairly adamant user of real "china" (or whatever passes for china in my household, i.e., various parts of various sets of dishes of various vintages) when I'm at home. I'm not so eco-conscious that I'll bring my own real dishes to a potluck meal at shul or something, but I always use real dishes and silverware when I eat at home, unless there are unusual circumstances. I can't even imagine what those circumstances might be, but I know that I have, occasionally, used paper plates and plastic utensils at home, and I don't want to give the impression that I never use them.

So, on Sunday afternoon, I was still doing dishes from Friday night's nine person, three course meal. (By "three course" I mean: appetizer, entree with several sides, and dessert.) I started the dishes after Shabbat ended (my bad, I should have done them Shabbat morning before shul or instead of taking a nap on Shabbat afternoon, since they, um, smelled a bit which impinged other people's oneg Shabbat but not mine since I was at shul and lunch for most of the day). I did a whole bunch on Saturday night. Two shifts. I filled the dish drainer twice. The third and fourth shifts happened on Sunday. So it was a lot of work. And there's nothing I hate as much as work. (Except maybe insomnia or genocide or something. But you know what I'm saying. I'm not the first person to jump up and offer to do the dishes.) But I do it for the Earth, and to do penance for what happened when I was in seventh grade.

What happened in seventh grade? We read this book for our Life Sciences class, and then I went home and told my mother that she was unnecessarily wasteful when she wanted to use paper plates once for a large gathering. So she said that if it bothered me, she would be happy to use china and I could wash it. I demurred. I backed down. I was not really an environmentalist because I wasn't willing to do the dishes.

Here's the thing. There are lots of nice environmental things that you can do without giving anything up, but the real changes, the real impact, won't happen unless and until we're willing to give something up, and, along the way, really change the way we live our lives. To clarify, let me add that I am definitely talking to myself here, really, not just to all of you. I am trying to say something along the lines of what Phelan said about what "green" means to her (here), or what Emme said that "green" means to her(here). Unless and until more people act like my thrifty grandparents, who reuse (and not through fancy products like these, some of which, I must say, are super cute) and reduce ad nauseum ("Waste not, want not," anyone?), all the recycling and the buying green-labeled products won't add up to enough change to stem the tide. Recycling is necessary, but buying is more a part of the problem than a part of the solution.

It has been suggested to me that washing real dishes is worse for the environment than using paper plates, or that washing out and recycling bottles and cans is worse for the environment than tossing them.

It doesn't really make sense to me.

For one thing, unless you're washing toxic chemicals off of your plates, that water is going to go right back into the ecosystem and be none the worse for the wear. There are water shortages in some places, but generally speaking, North America isn't one of them. I also don't believe that it takes an inordinate amount of energy to get water from upstate to New York City, or from the Sierra Nevadas to the coastal cities of California. Gravity does a lot of the work. I don't really know, but somehow, I don't think that per gallon of water, it takes a lot of energy to move water. Not as much as it takes to grow trees, chop down trees, process them into pulp and then paper, which is coated with some sort of wax, and ship them (probably via diesel-burning truck) to a store, where you buy it and bring it home. Said paper plates were probably also bleached with chlorine somewhere along the way, which is not the very worst thing for the world, but isn't great, either. ("It is estimated that one chlorine atom can destroy over 100,000 ozone molecules before it is removed from the stratosphere.")

This paper [PDF], written for a class in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering at the University of British Columbia, has more information although it focuses on the environmental impact of production of porcelain and paper plates, rather than the environmental impact of washing plates vs. disposing of plates. Their important conclusion for my purposes is:
From the life cycle assessment of porcelain plates, the total CO2 and CO emissions are approximately 147.5kg and 0.3kg respectively for 400 plates, which gives approximately 148kg total carbon emission. For paper plates, the total carbon emission is 138kg/yr. Emissions other than carbon are ignored when comparing the global warming impact because they account for insignificant amounts compared to carbon emissions. This assumption is made since environmental impact from different species cannot be comparable if they are not uniform. From direct comparisons, paper plates have less global warming impact than using porcelain plates in the first year. However, assuming an average useful life of two years for each porcelain plate which is considerably conservative, using porcelain plates would still be a better choice in terms of global warming impact.
If your porcelain plates last longer than two years, that is even more true. Note, however, that "Emissions from composting, incineration, and landfilling are not been compared due to the complexity of the problem," and I'm not sure that the environmental impact of washing the dishes was included. If they're using dishwashers, which I think they are, then the water/energy per plate is minimal. I suppose that there are problems associated with detergent use. This paper is admittedly incomplete and may use too many assumptions, but it was the best comparison I could find. Actually, this paper [PDF], also apparently written for a class, looks better. It's conclusion is that "we would need to use a single paper plate ten times to make it comparable to a porcelain plate." The only source I found that even remotely suggested that paper plate and porcelain plates might have comparable environmental impacts was a study sponsored by the U.S. Foodservice and Packaging Institute, i.e., a group of paper-and-plastic-makers. ("The industry’s products consist of single-use cups, plates, bowls, bags, wraps, cutlery, trays, egg packaging, nested dairy and salad containers and other foodservice packaging items.")

The same thing with rinsing out plastic bottles and metal cans. Metal is one of the cheapest and easiest things to recycle because it can be melted down and reformed without releasing a lot of toxins, and one of the more energy-intensive things to produce, since it has to be hauled up out of the earth. In addition,
  • an aluminum beverage can is 100% recyclable into new beverage cans indefinitely [according to this possibly biased source]
  • The aluminum can is the only packaging material that more than covers the cost of collection and re-processing for itself. [same source]
  • recycling aluminum requires 95% less energy than making it from scratch [according to a possibly less biased and more generally reliable source]
Don't even get me started on plastics, which last forever in landfills, are made out of petroleum byproducts, and release toxins into the environment at several stages of their production. (Okay, fine, just one fact: "Plastics contain additives, however, such as colorants, stabilizers and plasticizers, that may include toxic constituents such as lead and cadmium. Plastics contribute 28 percent of all cadmium in municipal solid waste and approximately two percent of all lead.")

If anyone thinks that I'm wrong about any of these things, please let me know. I am always happy to learn more.

While I'm ranting, is it just my perception, or do Orthodox people recycle and reduce less than other Jews? Maybe it's just the Orthodox people I know, or the particularly crunchy non-Orthodox Jews I know?

One final thing and then I'll shut up. Go here and find out what your environmental "footprint" is. It might give you some ideas of things you can do to reduce said footprint. I found it to be very eye-opening. [Hat tip to mama o' the matrices at Breeding Imperfection.] As I said in a comment on m.o.m.'s blog:
Oh, man! I need 12 acres. And here I was, feeling so smug because I work two miles from my home, almost never travel via car (I walk to work a lot; otherwise, bus and subway), only eat meat 1-2 times a week (Shabbat), and live with three other people in a two-bedroom converted to a three-bedroom apartment. But, alas, I get organic spinach from California and red peppers from Mexico and tomatoes from Israel, all of which is really quite terrible for the environment.
In addition to washing dishes on Earth Day, I also spent more than three glorious hours outside with my father, taking photographs of birds in Central Park. I had a nice time, but part of what made it nice was watching little kids get excited about seeing egrets, cormorants, and turtles (you know how those look) in Turtle Pond. Maybe some of them will grow up to be biologists or environmental scientists!

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