Paper beats plastic? How to rethink environmental folklore


”We have to find ways if we’re actually going to address sustainability … making better choices that result in net environmental gains. What we need to learn is how to do more with less.” – Leyla Acaroglu

Let’s talk about sustainability. It’s a word we like to throw around for sure – but are we aware that we tend to think in too simple terms? In fact, being ‘mindful’ while grocery shopping and going for paper bags or degradable packagings might not even be as big a contribution as we always thought it was.

In her TED talk, award-winning designer and social scientist Leyla Acaroglu busts tightly-held green myths and encourages us to think beyond our daily choices.

What’s more important than thinking about which product is the more natural and sustainable one, is the question how it was produced, transported and where it will end up, says Acaroglu. In the case of biodegradable and paper packaging, contrary to our popular belief, that’s not back in nature. Our waste ends up in landfill, a hot, compact environment that has no oxygen. Natural carbon molecules can’t be broken up in such environments – instead, they release methane. A paper bag is heavier than a same-sized plastic bag and when that paper bag ends up in a landfill, it produces more methane and contribute climate change.

Shocking, right? There’s more.

Our life-saving big boxes, everyone’s favorite: Refrigerators. The fact is: they’re one of our biggest accomplices in producing food waste. As they get bigger every year, in the back of our minds, we have even better excuses to buy more food and store it in our refrigerators. Let’s be honest, a great amount of it is thrown away after a while. Acaroglu backs this common situation with striking numbers. In the U.S., 40 percent of fresh food is wasted each year; U.N. stats show that half of the world’s produced food is wasted. Instead of focusing so much on the size, refrigerators should be designed in a way that helps prevent food waste from the start, she adds.

An even more surprising amount of waste is caused by tea kettles, found in almost every household and used on a daily basis.

These little guys waste so much energy while boiling more water than necessary that the surplus energy from just one day of boiling kettles in the U.K. could power streetlights in London for an entire night. Acaroglu calls this case product-person failure, meaning that we need to rethink our consumer behaviors. Do we need to fill a liter of water every time we want to drink a cup of tea? Not really. Acaroglu’s solution is to develop a smarter product design to avoid overfilled kettles.

Just as with our natural waste, she invites us to think about what happens after we use and throw our phones away.

Last year, there were 6 billion mobile phone subscriptions. Some mobile phone companies report their production rate as being higher that the human birth rate; yet only 11 percent were recycled. The greater problem begins when this kind of device is burnt in open spaces for the gold inside them in communities all over the world. The e-waste produced by burning affects human health when they inhale toxic fumes, as well as from the accumulation of chemicals in soil, water and food These are people’s lives, Acaroglu says, we need to find ways of encouraging disassembly. We need to find smarter solutions if we’re going to live sustainably in this world.

Photo Credits: Pixabay

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