Thursday, November 19, 2009

Ecology: Local Trends and Issues

From Kairos: The current mindset of the public towards environmental protection is much too simplistic, with most people relying only on two key factors in their consumer choices: recyclability and biodegradability.

Too much faith is placed in recycling as a solution to the increasing mountains of trash being generated. Firstly, not everything is easily recyclable (as in the case of assorted plastics), or is worth recycling (whether from an energy consumption point of view or in terms of the cost factor). Other factors such as concern for hygiene may also deter the reusing of certain items.

For example, in the case of glass bottles, which are totally recyclable, the trend in the industry is to switch to single-use bottles, especially for beverages. This is because the washing and sterilising of used bottles is not exactly a low-energy process, and this does not yet take into account the cost and energy involved in transporting the used bottle from the end user back to the bottling plant. Furthermore, there are liability issues (especially in the litigious West) to be reckoned with when reusing glass containers.

The benefits of a product being “totally biodegradable” are also overrated. In properly managed landfills, nothing ought to decompose or biodegrade as this will produce leachate, which in turn needs to be treated. As such, innovations like biodegradable plastic (and whatever else that is touted as being biodegradable) will not help much in reducing the amount of waste if they are not composted.

The fact is, being biodegradable counts for nothing if the product ends up going to the landfill. On the other hand, biodegradable products or waste (like paper, textiles, leather, garden wastes) are combustible, which suit incinerators just fine.
In deciding what constitutes a “better” material (besides recyclability and biodegradability) for our daily applications, we must appreciate the concept of embedded energy (EE), which means the total sum of energy and other input needed to manufacture a product. For example, if more energy, water and money is required to reuse glass bottles for soft drinks (compared to disposable plastic bottles), then it cannot be said that glass is always an “environmentally friendlier”, or better, choice.

This does not mean that recycling has no place in modern society. Putting aside all economic barriers, the chief hindrance to the success of any recycling programme lies in the attitude of consumers. The fact is, separating all the waste generated in one's home is a cumbersome, if not unappealing, task for many. It takes significant effort to ensure that all the different types of wastes are sorted out properly.

As consumers, we must make wise purchasing decisions. Too often, we buy what is
convenient and cheap without taking into account the product’s durability (which will prevent it from becoming landfill material quickly, thus wasting more precious resources) and its overall long-term impact on the environment.

Christians need to be mindful of how their individual choices affect the environment. In dealing with the growing mound of trash, Christians have another alternative: REFUSE, adding another R to the list. In a lot of instances, this should be our first choice. By consuming less, we avoid the tough question of whether it is better to reuse or recycle, to landfill or incinerate. In the meantime, we should get acquainted with the science, economics and lifecycle of the things we consume, and not be misled by simplistic suggestions on what is better for the environment.

Meng Yew Choong is a journalist with a Malaysian English daily.

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