Five eco-crimes we commit every day by Dave. S. Reay

1/12/2009 New Scientist Magazine issue 2736.For similar stories, visit the Food and Drink and Energy and Fuels Topic Guides
WHEN the UN Climate Change Conference opens in Copenhagen next month, all eyes will be on the delegates’ efforts to broker a deal that will prevent catastrophic global warming. Yet amid all the talk of caps, targets and trading, it is easy to forget who is ultimately responsible for the mess we find ourselves in. I have long argued that climate change begins at home. Each of us in the developed world has played our part in creating this problem and, while there is no doubt that coordinated global action is needed to tackle it, we can each be part of the solution.

So, ask yourself this: how green am I really? You might think you are doing your bit for the environment, but even if you shun bottled water, buy local produce and reuse your plastic bags, chances are that you have some habits that are far more environmentally damaging than you realise. What’s more, if everyone else is doing these things too, their detrimental effects really add up.

1 Coffee
Take coffee. Its vendors are in the vanguard of those promoting more “sustainable” products, with organic and fair trade options now widely available. Starbucks even boasts a programme it calls Shared PlanetTM programme - the irony of that trademark appears to be lost on them - which has the declared aim of minimising the company’s environmental impact and increasing involvement with local communities.

That’s no bad thing, as far as it goes: fair trade can help to stop the exploitation of farmers, and buying organic may ensure more sustainable production techniques. But the average cup of black filter coffee is still responsible for 125 grams of CO2 emissions. Of this, two-thirds comes from production and most of the rest from brewing.

Opting for the more prosaic joys of instant coffee reduces that figure to around 80 grams. Yet that still means a six-a-day caffeine habit clocks up more than 175 kilograms of CO2 each year. That’s the equivalent of a flight across Europe - from London to Rome, say. Add milk, and the methane belched by dairy cows means you increase your coffee’s climate-changing emissions by more than a third.

175 kilograms The annual CO2 emission of a six-a-day coffee habit. Equivalent to a single flight between London and Rome
It doesn’t end there, though. The environmental group WWF has calculated that it takes 200 litres of water to produce the coffee, milk, sugar and cup for just one regular takeout latte. So if everyone ditched their pre-work coffee fix that would do wonders for the planet.

2 Toilet paper
Then there’s toilet paper. Like coffee companies, loo paper manufacturers have long provided options for environmentally conscious consumers. Top of the list is 100 per cent recycled paper, which avoids much of the energy use and emissions associated with harvesting and processing new wood. Every kilogram of recycled tissue saves some 30 litres of water and between 3 and 4 kilowatt-hours of electricity. Since 1 kilowatt-hour of grid electricity is responsible for around 500 grams of CO2, that means a saving of 1.5 to 2 tonnes of CO2 per tonne of tissue.

Recycled toilet tissue is most widely used in Europe and Latin America, but even there it still only accounts for 1 in 5 rolls. In the US it remains very much a niche product. The average American gets through 23 toilet rolls each year, adding up to more than 7 billion rolls for the country in total. Of these, just 1 in 50 are from 100 per cent recycled fibres. As Greenpeace pointed out earlier this year, this not only wastes energy and water, it also puts additional logging pressure on old-growth forest in North America, forests which play a vital role in supporting native biodiversity.

The reason toilet roll made from new wood is preferred is quite simple: its long fibres produce the softest and fluffiest paper. Every time paper is recycled, the fibres become shorter, making for an increasingly rough bathroom experience. Recycled paper can’t compete on softness so some use of new wood by the toilet paper industry may be inevitable. Sourcing Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) approved toilet tissue will help to ensure that any new wood fibres that are added to the mix have come from sustainable forestry projects that protect, rather than threaten, old-growth forest ecosystems.

3 Fast fashion
Next on my list of everyday decadence is fast fashion. In 1990, global textile production stood at 40 million tonnes. By 2005 that figure had risen to around 60 million tonnes. This surge in manufacture and consumption has been helped by fast-moving fashion trends and sweatshop price tags. As a result, much of the clothing we buy ends up being discarded long before it has worn out. In the UK, where the average item is worn for less than a third of its useful lifespan, more than a million tonnes of clothing are thrown away each year. The bulk of it ends up buried like woolly lasagne sheets in landfill sites or being used as multicoloured incinerator fodder.

Even the global economic crisis appears to have had little impact on our love affair with fast fashion; UK clothing sales this summer were up 11 per cent on the same time last year. If we can’t entirely kick the habit, we can at least dispose of the evidence in a greener way.

At present, in the UK and US, only around a quarter of unwanted textiles are reused or recycled. Recycled textiles have many uses, from mattress fillings and upholstery to bags and shoes, but the truly green alternative is reuse. The energy required to collect, process and sell a reused item of clothing is only 2 per cent of the energy required to manufacture a new garment. Every kilogram of virgin cotton preserved by reusing second-hand clothing saves 65 kilowatt-hours of energy, equivalent to about 32.5 kilograms of CO2. For polyester, the savings rise to 90 kilowatt-hours per kilogram.

The clothing and textile sector in the UK alone is responsible for more than 3 million tonnes of CO2 emissions each year. Switching to second-hand alternatives could therefore yield some big energy savings and cuts in greenhouse gas emissions.

4 Laundry
Fast fashion has created textile mountains in many homes, yet the environmental cost of this excessive consumption has an even less conspicuous twin: the energy used to launder it all. Cleanliness has become a touchstone of domestic life since advertisers convinced us that our shirts must always be “whiter than white”, our sheets should forever smell of spring flowers, and that to be dressed in freshly laundered clothes at all times is a badge of success. We live in a “wear once and wash” culture. In fact, only about 7.5 per cent of the average laundry load in the UK is thought to be heavily soiled. Much of the rest is made up of items that are stuffed into the washing machine simply because they are on the floor instead of in the wardrobe (Sustainable Fashion and Textiles by Kate Fletcher, Earthscan, 2008). This habit is shockingly wasteful in terms of water, detergents and energy.

One study found that over 80 per cent of the CO2 emissions produced during the life cycle of a single polyester blouse arose from cleaning and drying it. The percentage can be even higher for items made of cotton, as they tend to require far more energy-hungry drying.

It is easy to see how these emissions stack up. A full load in a washing machine uses around 1.2 kilowatt-hours of electricity per cycle and tumble drying clocks up a further 3.5 kilowatt-hours, resulting in over 2 kilograms of CO2 emissions per wash. With four or five loads per household per week, the total annual emissions from each home can easily pass the half-tonne mark. That’s a significant proportion of the 10-tonne annual emissions of the average European. Line drying, washing at lower temperatures and ensuring full rather than partial loads will all help to reduce laundry emissions. For the largest cuts, simply washing less frequently is the way to go.

5 Food wastage
Of all the facets of overconsumption that plague both human society and the global environment, food wastage is the most shocking. US households throw away around 30 per cent of their food, worth $48 billion every year. Similar levels of wastage are seen in Europe. In the UK, some 6.7 million tonnes of food is binned annually. Most of this joins the layers of unwanted clothing in landfill sites, where it decomposes, emitting the powerful greenhouse gas methane. Potatoes top the pile, with 359,000 tonnes going uneaten each year. Bread and apples are not far behind. Meat and fish are next, accounting for over 160,000 tonnes, followed by 78,000 tonnes of cooked rice and pasta. A staggering 4.8 billion grapes go the same way, as do 480 million yogurts and 200 million rashers of bacon. The annual cost to UK consumers of all this waste is £10 billion and the cost to the environment is the equivalent of an extra 15 million tonnes of CO2 (The Food We Waste, WRAP, 2008;

£10 billion The annual cost to UK consumers of wasted food
The cost of food wastage reverberates down the supply chain, increasing requirements for storage, transport and packaging. But the biggest impact by far comes in food production. For almost all the food we buy, the bulk of its greenhouse gas emissions arise here. This is especially true for meat and dairy produce. For example, 40,200 tonnes of milk are wasted each year in the UK, adding up to the equivalent of 40,000 tonnes of CO2. This is comparable to the annual CO2 emissions of 10,000 cars, or of flying 30,000 people from London to New York and back.

In their 2008 report, WRAP, the UK’s Waste & Resources Action Programme, examined just why people throw so much food away. The most common reasons were that the food had been left on plates after a meal, was out of date, or simply “looked bad”. WRAP is now running a campaign to reduce food wastage. It aims to promote better management of food at home by encouraging people to prepare the right amount of food, keep an eye on use-by dates, and store food in appropriate conditions. As consumers we should also think more carefully before we shop. Check what you have already got, make a shopping list and, most importantly, don’t do the weekly shop when you are hungry.

This list is far from complete and you may disagree with my choices. Perhaps you would include air conditioning, flushing toilets or popular science magazines on your list. Maybe you consider soft toilet roll or your morning latte as non-negotiable. If so, join the debate in the comments below. What’s not in doubt, though, is that the cumulative effects of our everyday decisions can make a big difference to the global environment. Knowing just how damaging they are today may help us to make better choices tomorrow.

Gas-guzzling gadgets
Widescreen TVs

Last year, consumer electronics became the biggest user of electricity in UK homes. TV sets have led the regime change. As prices have fallen, size and energy demands have risen. Some plasma TV screens now measure more than 150 centimetres and, assuming average use, cause the emission of almost a tonne of CO2 each year. In 2005, TV sets used 8 per cent of the electricity consumed in the UK and this is predicted to almost double by 2020 (The Ampere Strikes Back, UK Energy Saving Trust; This will mean an increase from just over 5 million tonnes of CO2 annually to more than 8.5 million tonnes. In the US, emissions attributable to TV use now top 30 million tonnes a year.

Plug-in air fresheners

Compared to watching TV on screens so large that they need a reinforced wall to hang on, the energy used by a plug-in air freshener seems positively spartan. At about 1 watt each their electricity demand is tiny, but they are busy wafting their approximation of apple and cinnamon odours around our homes 24/7. For a plug-in fanatic, half a dozen of them chugging away all year will emit the equivalent of 28 kilograms of CO2 - another tiny addition to the less fragrant outpourings of our power stations.

Patio heaters

The must-have garden accessory of a few years ago, the patio heater remains the domestic antithesis of climate change mitigation. The little useful heat that does manage to redden the foreheads of those clustered nearby comes at a cost of around 10 kilograms of CO2 for just four hours’ use.

In-car gizmos

Instead of I-spy and guess-the-colour-of-the-next-car, in-car entertainment is now more likely to feature a plug-in games console or a passenger TV screen. Meanwhile, the badly folded map book has given way to intermittent commentary from a dashboard-mounted satnav. The extra energy demands of such devices, together with ever more powerful aircon systems, can result in fuel efficiency plummeting by more than 20 per cent.

Dave S. Reay is at the University of Edinburgh, UK. His new children’s book on climate change is called Your Planet Needs You! and is published by Macmillan Children’s Books

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