People tend to prefer simple solutions, including to complex problems. When they make decisions, they often rely on an intuitive framework rather than on well-considered and calculated analyses of available alternatives. When environmental decisions are to be taken, such intuitive framework is called “environmental folklore”. Solely relying on intuition can, however, play tricks on us if we really want to make the right decision to contribute to reducing the harmful effects on the natural environment. We briefly outline how this works.
Environmental folklore plays tricks on us?
When people have to make complex choices, they quickly fall back on simple solutions. This is what we want to hear: do this or don’t do that, and then everything will be fine. That was already the case when we were a child. If the solution is too complex, we will groan and see all sorts of reasons why it will not work and in the end, we fall despondently.
Rather than investing a lot of time and energy in extensively studying a complex problem and the available alternative solutions, we rely on a kind of intuitive framework. It is that little voice in your head that tells you that you are doing well. Applied to complex environmental problems, this leads to environmental folklore. That intuitive framework is based on experiences, on what we have heard, on fragmentary knowledge, on what we (want to) believe ourselves to be correct, etc. It is usually not really scientifically substantiated.
Being aware of environmental folklore is important, because we all want to do good for the environment, don’t we? How do we know if our actions as individuals, as a community, actually contribute to reducing the harmful effects on the natural environment? If we really want to go for more sustainability, we will have to find better ways to deal with complexity.
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)
Science is trying to accommodate us with life cycle assessments. They look at the environmental impact of a product at the various stages from raw material extraction through production, distribution, use to end-of-life. Every stage has a distinct impact on the environment, which scientists try to map as well as possible. That provides fascinating insights and invalidates some stubborn myths.
An example: the electric kettle. Manufacturers are launching super-efficient models that bring water to the boil with (relatively) little energy. But what does a British study show? 65% of Britons fill the entire kettle for only one cup of tea. So a lot of water is constantly being unnecessarily boiled. According to calculations, one day of unnecessary energy use by electric kettles in England is sufficient to keep all street lighting on for one night. However, everyone who has bought a super-efficient kettle thought that he did well for the environment.
Another example: the cucumber with a “jacket”. The vast majority of people agree: the plastic foil around a cucumbre is the archetype of a totally unnecessary packaging. Ecologically disastrous! Is that so ? At least 95% of a cucumber consists of water and tends to lose moisture quickly. This makes the cucumber flabby and its texture somewhat rubbery. Nobody buys a flabby cucumber. These must be disposed of as waste by the supermarket. Even at home, half the cucumber in the fridge is thrown away when it has become flabby. That is a huge waste of food. In addition, une must not only look at the environmental impact of that waste, but also realize that all the environmental impact in the previous stages has proved to be completely unnecessary. Viewed in this way, the foil surrounding a cucumber is ecologically a fantastic solution: the “lifespan” of a cucumber is extended by 2 weeks. So less food waste.
A final example: plastic or paper bags. Today everyone says: “Get rid of plastic! Paper is better for the environment! Or better yet: reusable cotton! ”However, LCAs say: paper and cotton are worse for the environment. For paper, reference is then made to the high water and energy consumption during production and to the high impact on logistics. That has to do with the fact that you have to make a paper bag 4 to 10 times as heavy to have the same functionality as a plastic bag. For cotton it is pointed out that the cultivation requires a high water consumption (up to 11,000 litres for 1 kg of cotton) and a high pesticide use (up to 25% of all pesticides produced in the world is destined for cotton growing). Moreover, cotton products are usually made in sweatshops with very poor working conditions and sometimes even child labour. Prof. Kim Ragaert from University of Ghent says: “to have the same environmental impact as a single-use plastic bag, a bag made of 100% recycled paper must be reused at least 4 times and a cotton bag at least 173 times!” Check out her TED talk, right here.
“When you’re in a traffic jam because someone has parked his car in the middle of the road, are we going to get mad at the car or the idiot who puts his car there?” Professor Kim Ragaert
By the way, the problem of plastic in litter is not a problem of the material, but of inappropriate human behaviour. As Professor Kim Ragaert herself says: “When you are in a traffic jam because someone has parked his car in the middle of the road, are we going to get angry with the car or the idiot who puts his car there? One to think about, isn’t it?
Is it sufficient, then, to look at an LCA to see the light? Not quite. This technique is certainly more objective and more substantiated than pure gut feeling. But to a certain extent, it remains a simplification of a complex problem. The technique is also brimming with assumptions and generalizations, which are sometimes far from reality. And the calculations are made on the basis of generalized meta-data that does not always capture the specific situation.
The message is: an LCA is better than environmental folklore, but always take a critical look at it. Questions to ask are: does the LCA really cover all stages of the life cycle? Are the assumptions about what happens at each stage realistic and complete? Which data was used in the calculations and how representative are they? And very importantly, who prepared the LCA? Quite a lot of LCAs are drawn up for the purpose in hand.
Sorry, there is no simple answer to the complex environmental issues that we are confronted with. But it is certainly worth the effort to get away from the obvious environmental folklore and to look further than the end of your nose. Good luck !