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Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Closer Look at Local Foods and Recycling

Headmistress, in the comments in the latest post regarding environmentalism, asks for our thoughts regarding April's Reader's Digest article on easy ways to go green.

One portion to which Headmistress refers mentions how buying locally grown foods might not be as good for the environment as one might think. Here is what Reader's Digest says about that:

If you want to support local farmers and love fresh food, fine, but don't assume you're helping the planet. Foods from farther away may be grown and shipped so much more efficiently (and cheaply) that they produce fewer greenhouse gases. "There are lots of good reasons to eat local," says David Victor, director of the Program on Energy and Sustainable Development at Stanford University. "But energy savings don't top the list, because local production often requires more trips than mechanized food production."

I would've liked to have seen some numbers, being the science minded person that I am, but this is Reader's Digest, not Popular Science ;)

This revelation is fine with me.
We hardly ever consider buying local foods because of environmental reasons. Why do we grow vegetables in our garden? Because it's fun, rewarding, and convenient.
When we buy local foods, our chief factors include freshness, taste, and price. Supporting the local farmers is also a secondary factor. We hardly ever consider buying local foods because of environmental reasons. Why do we grow vegetables in our garden? Among other things, because it's fun, rewarding, and convenient, although not without its share of disappointments from time to time (goodbye Chinese Giant bell peppers). It's a hobby that provides us with exercise and healthy food. It also gives us reason to re-use vegetable scraps, yard waste, and cardboard as compost.

Something that I've not seen mentioned in articles about local food is the distance that you yourself drive to get these local goods. There is a popular grocery store in the Atlanta area. This store carries lots of organic and/or locally grown produce. This store also has a big parking lot, and lots of cars fill up that parking lot. I'm not one to be too concerned about carbon emissions, but I wonder how much gas the patrons could have saved if they just went to the grocery store closest to them? We, for instance, have a Publix within walking distance, and a Kroger within 5 minutes driving distance. It would take us about 20-25 minutes (without traffic delays) to get to this other grocery store. Luckily for us, we also have at least one big produce stand within a 10 minutes drive.



The article also mentions how certain items might not be worth recycling:
While it can make economic sense to recycle aluminum and paper, towns frequently lose money recycling glass and plastics because they're expensive to collect and aren't worth much. Go ahead and recycle plastic if it gives you pleasure -- you can feel virtuous about the energy savings. But there are easier and cheaper ways to reduce greenhouse emissions.

This is something I've wondered about before. How much more energy does it take to recycle? How much pollution does a recycling plant belch out? Is recycling cost-effective? Maybe we aren't really being as resource-friendly as we thought, since we hardly ever drink soda, and thus hardly ever have aluminum to recycle. Most of our recycling items are paper and plastics. Wikipedia's article on recycling has both advocacy and criticism, as I would expect from an encyclopedic article.

(It is interesting to note that John Tierney, who wrote this Reader's Digest article, also wrote a New York Times article that is cited in the Wikipedia entry above. His 1996 NYT article is titled "Recycling is Garbage." I'm assuming it's the same John Tierney, although I could be wrong.)

I don't know who to trust on this issue. At least with other controversial issues such as canine raw diets, I directly observe the results and evidence that it is beneficial and healthful. With recycling, I think it's hard for an average citizen to observe beneficial or harmful results. I think we'll stick with recycling, although maybe it's government elementary school brainwashing that's controlling me ;)

Again, my chief reasons for recycling do not include "helping the environment." I'd say my chief reason is conserving resources, which I hope it actually does. I hate to see things wasted, which means I halfway freak out whenever we go out to eat. Have you seen how much food people waste??

Related Posts:

8 have poured out their souls in electronic text:

  • Ginny

    Recycling is okay, but I really like not having anything to recycle or throw away, if at all possible. That is my focus. I am not there, yet, but I would love to be to the point where I don't make any garbage to start with...
    :-D

  • Captain Underpants

    I haven't had a chance to read the article yet, but I'm still okay with commenting because I've heard the themes brought up before. Recycling is energy intensive and creates pollution, no doubt. A school mate of my turned in an economics paper talking about how inefficient recycling is, and why Toronto shouldn't do it (at the time, TO was shipping all their waste to the States). And I think Junk Male has it just right when he says it isn't about saving the environment, it's about conserving resources (I hope I paraphrased correctly). The benefits of recycling are many; reducing our need to mine for more raw resources, lengthening the lives of landfills (especially necessary for cities, which will spend millions searching for a new site), and also importantly, the attitude of responsibility that people take on.

    To me, a really large part of the value of recycling and buying local is the idea that people are acknowledging that they can take part in processes meant to do good (in whatever ways), and that they have a stake in its success.

    Behavioural change is a big part of it, and while it is sad that the way we have set up our local food systems is apparently super wasteful, there are many other benefits which make them worthwhile ( I think so, anyway).

    I hope that the article makes sure to point out the benefits of these two systems as well, rather than just bursting enviro bubbles people have built up, because of the complex systems nature of people and, well, Nature, there's a lot of good in them yet.

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    To me, this is symbolism over substance:
    To me, a really large part of the value of recycling and buying local is the idea that people are acknowledging that they can take part in processes meant to do good (in whatever ways), and that they have a stake in its success.

    I suspect that what this huge brainwashing we've done in schools has really accomplished is to let an awful lot of people off the hook You say the benefits of recycling includes allowing people to feel good about something- and I say that's what is wrong with much of the environmentalist nonsense- feeling good doesn't change the environment, and it might even be counterproductive- they can feel good about themselves and imagine they are contributing in processes 'meant' to do good *regardless* of whether they are actually effective or not.
    And, if you look into it, I think you will find that in some cases, recyling does NOT reduce the materials in landfills, it creates MORE waste and pollution in the process (depending on whether we're talking about paper or plastics).

    I can't tell you how many discussions I've seen online where people make excuses for themselves and their consumption because they recycle. It's like permission to be wasteful in other areas, and it's truly ironic that recycling those jars and plastics may not even be doing what it's purported to do.

    The RD article isn't the first place I have read that many recycling programs actually use more resources than they save, but I can't give you the other sources it's been so long. I am positive they are out there, however.

    And like JM, there's a lot I don't know about it all- how true it is, what the data is, do we break even on glass but waste time and money on plastics?

    But these unanswered questions are really my point- we talk about living responsibly, but that's a mushy statement that can mean all kinds of things, and is often applied to activities that are fairly meaningless when it comes to being really green. It's just newspeak, SOMA for the mind.

    Given where I live, I personally think that even if I were a greeny, I would NOT be recycling (as in taking my bottles and trash somewhere to be reprocessed) because it would take entirely too much gas and other resources (there's no recycling place in town, we live in the country, and since we have a family of nine, we cannot get by with a four passenger 40 mpg car.

    But... we don't buy much new at all. Our clothes are used, our appliances are used, our furniture is used, our books are used, our knick knacks and doo-dads are used, our linens, vehicles, toys, computers, and more are used.

    We buy groceries in bulk, grains in 50 pounds bags and I re-use the bags for various things. I use jars for drinking glasses, planters, putting up jams, storing grains and spices, and vases.

    We don't eat out much. We don't go to the mall. We are not into conspicuous consumption. We don't recycle, but we buy and use far, far less than most people we know who DO, and we do repurpose a lot of what we buy.

    I look around at websites advocating recycling and most of what they 'feel good' about recycling is stuff I think they don't even need to be buying in the first place.

    And I find the irony just tasty.=)

  • Headmistress, zookeeper


    Mises has a good article
    on the benefits of reducing consumption and reusing what we do buy- and how recycling really is a huge waste of time, money, and resources.

    It makes you feel better while actually doing exactly the opposite of what you thought it was doing.=)

    And this one was so funny that I actually checked the date to make sure it wasn't an April Fool's Joke:
    "Walking does more than driving to cause global warming, a leading environmentalist has calculated.

    Food production is now so energy-intensive that more carbon is emitted providing a person with enough calories to walk to the shops than a car would emit over the same distance. The climate could benefit if people avoided exercise, ate less and became couch potatoes. Provided, of course, they remembered to switch off the TV rather than leaving it on standby.

    The sums were done by Chris Goodall, campaigning author of How to Live a Low-Carbon Life, based on the greenhouse gases created by intensive beef production."


    Really, do read the whole thing, as it precisely highlights my point about how how one man's environmentally friendly action is another man's 'rape the earth' scenario.

    The science minded might find something they can sink their teeth into here:
    "Recycling glass has marginal benefit and if you have to transport it large distances then there is no point. Recycling paper is marginal."

    That's according to Roland Clift, Professor of Environmental technology and a member of a UK commission on recycling.

  • JunkMale

    HM:

    That is a very interesting article, and one that I'd seen somewhere before (and yes, I did read the whole thing). Maybe your blog or the Crunchy ConMan's blog. I actually usually do have those thoughts floating around in the back of my mind whenever we walk to the grocery store.

    That article seems chiefly focused on carbon emissions and global warming, which I'm not really concerned about. This leads us right back to our mantra that we ourselves (through "green" choices) might appear to be trying to reduce global warming, but what we're really trying to reduce are the expenditures.

    Who knows what are the more wasteful options? All this environmentalism is more of a religious debate than science. I guess we'll just do things in moderation over here. We'll throw away half of what we could've recycled ;) But we're still going to walk to the store every now and then, because it saves us money on gas, and helps us get a bit more exercise.

  • Thehotrod5

    I find all this very interesting. I had never really thought of it before. We live in a small town, and in the country of that small town to boot. Recycling is not even offered for us "country folk" lol. We burn some trash (every now and then) and then we also have a free trash pick up day on Mondays that you have to drive about 15 minutes to. However, my sister lives inside the city limits and they are more or less required to recycle. They have to use specific trash bags that cost .75 a piece *gasp* but they also have "free" curbside recycling. I agree with taking care of what we have, God has blessed us with this earth and a "temporary" place to live, but I am not worried that we are going to destroy it:) That has been reserved for someone much more powerful than me lol.

    As for buying local...I do try to buy local as much as I can, but environmental reasons would be waaaaaaay down on the list of reasons why. We have a Farmers Market for about 8 months out of the year that is only 15 mintues away. I do usually go buy my fresh fruits and veggies from there because:

    1. The taste is always so much better

    2. As I said we live in the country, many times there are older retired farmers just out there having fun wanting to sell their produce.

    3. It is as close for me to go there as it is for me to go to wal mart.

    4. Many families in our homeschool group also sell. We also have one family that sells homemade organic soaps and such. I like to support people that I know would directly benefit from my purchase.

    I am very much looking forward to getting my own garden back in gear this year. Last year the lack of rain was just horrible and my garden didn't produce the way I would of liked :(

    Oh and...thanks for catching my blasphemous mistake JM! On my way to correct it now LOL

  • Captain Underpants

    My response got lost!! My response this time will be shorter, but hopefuly contain the same ideas :-)

    Headmistress, I wanted to address you response, in particular this: "You say the benefits of recycling includes allowing people to feel good about something". What I meant by people having a stake and feeling responsible is not about feeling good, as we know that recycling is nowhere near what needs to happen to reach peak efficiency. It was the connection I was speaking of, the idea that it's not just big corporations and government that can make change, but individuals have a lot of sway too. Individually and collectively. Recycling at this point is less about efficiency than a baby step for those who fear change. Recycling (and their associated sites) are working towards convincing people who have not thought about these issue to think about it, and participate in a use friendly, socially acceptable activity which is hopefully a gateway activity to more environmentally (or financially or whatever) sensible behaviour.

    I did read the funny article you posted (I guess so much for short response!) and it seemed like a typical newspaper piece to me. Focussing on beef is easy, because it's about the most inefficient food you can eat (water, waste, grain to protein ratio etc) but of course we have to talk about methane.It's funny, but not really the issue.

    I guess I could go on, but my point is that these articles do a disservice to readers because they approach a complex systems issue from one angle..plastic is better than paper because of manufacturing, sure but the lifecycle of plastic is way far reaching. Plus, we all know that plastic and paper are inferior to organic cotton, so it's a moot point right?! :-)

    Thanks for finding those articles, it's interesting to see what you find!
    Marianne

    You mentioned a long list of the things you do that are environmental (though not necessarily for that reason) like getting lots of goods used and your food in bulk where possible. I think all that s fantastic, an as a staunch enviro who is fully behind the idea of human-based climate change, there is nothing I could want more than for individuals to think about it as much as you have and make the decisions that suit them best. I actually don't care if people don't recycle, because because thought about it and it doesn't make sense for them. I care a lot more when people don't even think about it at all, and still make decisions which affect our atmosphere or water or whatever.

  • Headmistress, zookeeper

    Marianne, you say, " What I meant by people having a stake and feeling responsible is not about feeling good, as we know that recycling is nowhere near what needs to happen to reach peak efficiency. It was the connection I was speaking of, the idea that it's not just big corporations and government that can make change, but individuals have a lot of sway too."

    But they aren't. The very things that can make people feel good about changing things for the better are very likely MORE wasteful in terms of resources. In addition to the information in the links provided here and on my blog, just think how much water gets wasted washing out jars and other containers and removing labels.

    I do not think that's a good thing. I think it's actually kind of a silly thing.

    "Individually and collectively. Recycling at this point is less about efficiency than a baby step for those who fear change."

    In other words, paternalistic symbolism over substance. There isn't really any evidence that we need to change, for one thing. And going back to my primary point, there is zero consensus on what constitutes useful change.

    "Recycling (and their associated sites) are working towards convincing people who have not thought about these issue to think about it, and participate in a use friendly, socially acceptable activity which is hopefully a gateway activity to more environmentally (or financially or whatever) sensible behaviour."

    More paternalism (we know what's best, and we're going to help you not too bright children do the right thing whether you want to or not."). And again, there is zero consensus on what is more responsible and sensible behavior.
    It also varies from place to place, so what is financially and environmentally sound in my wetlands country home will NOT be the best financial or environmental behaviour in somebody else's urban dessert dwelling.


    I think you missed the points in the articles I shared, and no, we do not all know that plastic and paper are inferior to organic cotton, it depends on the use. I personally detest cloth bags for my groceries- they are nasty when the groceries leak, they have to be washed, which wastes other resources (and takes time), they are harder to fill and unpack, they don't stand up as nicely as paper, and they can't be reused to line my garbage cans.
    They are more expensive, and I simply am not forking out the cash for enough organic cotton bags for groceries for a family of nine getting by on one income.
    And why organic cotton? Why not organic hemp? Hemp is at least as much 'better' than organic cotton (so far as resources used and per acre production) as organic cotton is than plastic by your standards- and, if paper bags are made from the trees on tree farms, then paper is probably environmentally more sound than *any* of the above.



    " as a staunch enviro who is fully behind the idea of human-based climate change, there is nothing I could want more than for individuals to think about it as much as you have and make the decisions that suit them best. I actually don't care if people don't recycle, because because thought about it and it doesn't make sense for them. I care a lot more when people don't even think about it at all, and still make decisions which affect our atmosphere or water or whatever."

    But you see, this is begging the question. I don't believe in man made global warming. I think the evidence is against it, and the evidence that the numbers have been fudged, the data collection badly contaminated, and the fascist group think mentality has had a lock down on any discussion that doesn't toe the group think line increases daily:
    Oops
    "New derivation of equations governing the greenhouse effect reveals "runaway warming" impossible...

    Miklós Zágoni isn't just a physicist and environmental researcher. He is also a global warming activist and Hungary's most outspoken supporter of the Kyoto Protocol. Or was.

    That was until he learned the details of a new theory of the greenhouse effect, one that not only gave far more accurate climate predictions here on Earth, but Mars too. The theory was developed by another Hungarian scientist, Ferenc Miskolczi, an atmospheric physicist with 30 years of experience and a former researcher with NASA's Langley Research Center.
    [...]

    Miskolczi's story reads like a book. Looking at a series of differential equations for the greenhouse effect, he noticed the solution -- originally done in 1922 by Arthur Milne, but still used by climate researchers today -- ignored boundary conditions by assuming an "infinitely thick" atmosphere. Similar assumptions are common when solving differential equations; they simplify the calculations and often result in a result that still very closely matches reality. But not always.

    So Miskolczi re-derived the solution, this time using the proper boundary conditions for an atmosphere that is not infinite. His result included a new term, which acts as a negative feedback to counter the positive forcing. At low levels, the new term means a small difference ... but as greenhouse gases rise, the negative feedback predominates, forcing values back down."

    NASA refused to publish his results. He's resigned from NASA, saying, "My idea of the freedom of science cannot coexist with the recent NASA practice of handling new climate change related scientific results."

    I think the only reason there is consensus in your field is because disagreeing with the party line or even suggesting that a bit of data is not accurate is the way to get banished from the club.

    I don't think a group of people who are so afraid of questions or open discussion are the best group of people to be making any decisions about is effecting our atmosphere or our water (You do know that the whole 'plastic bags are killing our fish and birds meme' is based entirely on an 'error' whereby a report about *fishing gear* was rewritten as 'plastic bags,' for no reason whatsoever, right? And you know that there is zero evidence that plastic bags have ever killed *any* wildlife, right?

    For another thing, I really do not know anybody who has never given the environment or their choices any thought at all, and especially not anybody who has gone to school in the last thirty years, so I think that is kind of a strawman. Kids are completely brainwashed and given only one point of view on the issue, and they never even know there is another side. They are given horror stories in school and led to believe (falsely) that collecting glass jars or plastic jugs is making a huge difference somewhere, somehow.

    I think you should take some time to study the other side, the side you never got in college. Try http://wattsupwiththat.wordpress.com/

    Personally, we do what we do because it is financially beneficial to us or because it suits our preferences (we prefer the taste of organic or home-grown tomatoes, organic frozen pineapple, and our own home-grown goat. We also prefer plastic grocery bags or cardboard boxes and we have cork floors and central air conditioning which we have no intention of living without). Some of that meshes with what enviro-fascists feel is good for the environment, some of it doesn't. But I don't think a discipline that denies any deviance from the party line and so limits access to information to only one preapproved point of view can ever really *know* what is best, and nearly every single day I read another piece of evidence supporting that viewpoint (melting ice caps? Probably a result of the live volcanoes beneath them that scientists only discovered in the last six months. 1998 hottest year on record? Except it wasn't. That was 1921. And it goes on).