Think you’re saving the earth by switching to metal straws and bottles? Think again.
By now, we’ve had enough alarming news reports to know that we have got to do something about climate change. The sheer impact of every tiny action — multiplied billions of times over — is getting us hot under the collar (pardon the pun.)
As consumers, we have the potential to make a difference, signalling to manufacturers and industries that products and practices harmful to the planet are no longer acceptable. However, making a real change is not as straightforward as simply switching brands or jumping onto whatever fad is in the latest Treehugger post.
We have to take a closer look at the way we consume, lest we ironically make things worse, as can be the case with these five seemingly ecologically friendly practices that may actually be harming the planet.
1. The manufacturing of metal straws and bottles causes mining pollution
Plastic is an extremely problematic pollutant, due to its tendency to stick around in the environment. Reducing the use of plastics overall is a good first step to fighting the problem.
But don’t go thinking that replacing your plastic straws and bottles with their trendy, shiny metal counterparts is all you need to do to save the planet. See, metal mining is horribly destructive to the environment, generating pollutants and causing damage at every stage of the process. Also, for some reason, manufacturers still insist on using virgin materials, even though recycled aluminium and steel are widely available.
This means that the environmental cost of switching to your stainless steel bubble tea straw or aluminium water bottle could be much higher than you think, especially if you keep buying new straws or bottles.
To help walk back some of the negative environmental impact, make it a habit to purchase only products made from 100 per cent recycled metal. Reuse your straws and bottles as much as possible, replace only when necessary, and don’t forget to recycle.
2. Paper bags cost more energy to produce, and have a shorter lifespan than plastic bags
We know that ordering takeout generates an obscene amount of waste, almost all of it plastic. But when our food is delivered in those sturdy, earth-tone, recyclable, brown paper bags, it’s all good, right?
Actually, delivery companies are better off sticking to the same plastic bags that hawker centres and supermarkets use. Why? Because paper bags take up four times as much energy as plastic bags to manufacture. Also, they are made from trees, which could very well be our most effective weapon in the fight against climate change.
But paper bags are meant to be reused, you say. Yes, they are. The problem is 1) how many people actually make it a habit to reuse paper bags and 2) paper bags generally are only useful until they get wet.
Well, at least they break down faster, and don’t choke up landfills like plastic bags, right? Well, only if the conditions are right. If there isn’t enough light or oxygen present (as is often the case in landfills) paper bags can take just as long as plastic bags to break down.
3. Cotton tote bags require lots of resources to produce
Ok, so paper bags aren’t the best alternative carriers. That’s why you only go shopping with your trusty cotton tote bag. It’s unbleached, unprinted and made from 100 per cent organic cotton, which translates to you being eco-conscious AF, right?
Uhm, we hope you really like that organic tote bag, because you’re gonna have to reuse it at least 20,000 times to mitigate the environmental toll of manufacturing, packing and shipping it to you.
The problem here is organic cotton farming, which produces far fewer cotton fibres than conventional methods. This means more land, water and other resources need to be used to produce an equivalent amount of cotton. In contrast, a non-organic cotton bag only needs to be reused 7,100 times to completely balance the impact of its manufacture.
Of course, this doesn’t really mean that we should all stop using cotton tote bags, organic or not. After all, each plastic bag you refuse is one less plastic bag that may end up in the ocean. The key here is to buy better bags (and for that matter, clothes!), buy less often, and find alternatives to simply throwing away what you no longer want.
4. Organic crops have lower yield, and a larger carbon footprint
We’ve long been told to reject pesticide-grown crops in favour of organic vegetables and fruits, citing the absence of chemical fertilisers and pesticides as an inherently healthier farming method, both to our bodies and the environment.
However, recent studies (the latest of which was published in Sep 2018) indicate that organic farming may not be as environmentally friendly as purported. When taking into account land use, water use and soil loss, conventional high-yield farms can produce up to 20 per cent more food per acre, and have less of an impact on the environment. In contrast, on a per unit basis, organic farms may generate more waste, take up more land and cause more loss of topsoil, which is crucial for growing food.
Then, there’s the problem of distribution. The transportation of organic harvests to faraway markets adds to the problem of fossil fuel use. Which means choosing that ‘all-natural’ head of cabbage from some virgin Scottish valley causes much more damage to the environment than going with the ones from Malaysia.
But, oh, you’ll at least be ensuring a healthier body by eating organic right? Well, not really. There’s scant evidence that organic foods lead to better health, say Stanford University and academics from Oxford.
5. Instagramming natural destinations hasten their demise
The social media queue pic.twitter.com/hRj6kBXypS
— Lukas Stefanko (@LukasStefanko) November 25, 2018
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Okay, so you decide that all this harming the plant has ‘gots to stop, girl!’, and what better way to get people to appreciate what we have than by showing them the beauty of the planet?
But hold up. Put away your camera and resist the urge to Instagram that unspoilt tropical beach with the perfect overlook. If you truly love the planet, it’s far better for you to enjoy the secret paradise all by yourself.
Look, we’re outta control. From hour-long queues in New Zealand to create the perfect ‘secluded-on-a-mountain-peak’ shot, to jostling with thousands on a Japanese beach for a shot of a mirror-image sunset, our insatiable mania to reproduce every stunning Instagram shot we come across is ruining the planet’s wild, untouched places.
And because we are in an age of unprecedented access and wealth, more people now have the means to travel. Which means we are wearing out eco-systems and natural habitats much faster than they can recover.
Combine that with the FOMO of the social media generation, and soon, your beloved beach paradise won’t be one any longer.