Few things elicit more pushback than when someone has the audacity to question any aspect of the Green New Deal. Last week I wrote “First Do No Harm” for the Vail Daily. It was a commentary detailing how the lack the economic resources and infrastructure (solvent banking systems, drivable roads, clean water, adequate sanitation, reliable electricity) in developing nations results in greater dependence on fossil fuels. I emphasized how anything that makes fossil fuels more expensive or scarcer will cause great hardship for those least equipped to deal with it, i.e., the people who actually live in those nations.
Meanwhile we must also acknowledge that viable planetary stewardship occurs only when both the political and economic environments are stable, a fleeting condition in the Third World. Nonetheless, some who blindly subscribe to the GND took great offense at my comments and of course the personal attacks followed. God forbid that someone challenges the GND with facts; so I’ve decided to raise another matter regarding the environment to illustrate why every aspect of the climate debate including learning how to best protect the planet must be viewed from multiple perspectives.
We no longer hear “paper or plastic” at the supermarket checkout counter. Bans on single-use plastic bags have been taking effect across the U.S for sometime. And while most environmentalists laud the move, true stewards of the environment remain wary of unintended consequences. And when discussing how to protect the environment we must consider multiple aspects of the matter, i.e., availability, production, usability, recyclability and disposability.
As an example, while many believe paper bags are environmentally friendlier than plastic bags, that may not be entirely true. The manufacture of paper bags requires far more water and other resources than plastic bags while producing 3.1 times more greenhouse gases. And one reason paper generates more greenhouse gas emissions than plastic is because plastic bags are created from polyethylene, a by-product of refining natural gases (a multi-use resource btw) that would otherwise be burned off and discarded. At the same time, paper bags require significant amounts of wood that can only be obtained by clearing forests.
We’re agreed that plastic bags are unsightly when littered and disposed of irresponsibly, not to mention that they do great harm to wildlife. However when disposed of properly, plastic bags represent a safely reusable resource that can be reproduced from the same materials almost indefinitely, while paper has a limited lifespan.
It should be noted too that the irresponsible disposal of paper bags is also a major contribution to greenhouse gas emissions. Because paper bags are made from biodegradable material many people believe they’re harmless when disposed of in a landfill, but that’s not the case. Biodegradable materials need an environment rich in oxygen to break down properly; and sans oxygen, paper breaks down into methane, one of the most harmful greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
There are also the hidden costs. For example, bags are heavier than plastic making them more costly to transport, e.g., transporting 2 million paper bags requires 7 times as many trucks (along with 7 times the exhaust from those trucks) as 2 million plastic bags.
To truly assess which is preferable we must examine every aspect of the process, from manufacture to disposal. We know that most environmental impact occurs during production, not in a landfill or during recycling. And when viewed from that perspective a clear case cannot be made that either paper or plastic is universally “better or worse” for the environment.
Life cycle assessments generally point to plastic grocery bags as having less impact on the environment than paper, but then that also depends on what environmental issue someone wants to prioritize – litter, climate change, air toxins, marine debris, water consumption, etc., etc. And when all aspects of the matter are considered, (manufacture, use, re-use and disposal) there is no consistent or universal “best one.”
I used this paper/plastic comparison to illustrate that environmental matters are complex, nuanced, and filled with unintended consequences, which means the matter must be thoroughly examined before we make decisions that will affect the planet for years. Something I fear is lacking with the “full speed ahead” attitude of many advocates of the Green New Deal.
Quote of the day: On why he no longer went to Ruggeri’s, a St. Louis restaurant: “Nobody goes there anymore because it’s too crowded.”—Yogi Berra