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Smart gridlock in the Green Mountain State

Mike McGrail · May 15th, 2012

Sustainable energy and personal rights are colliding over smart meters, those long-touted pillars of energy-saving smart grids, on the unlikely battleground of Vermont.

Utilities and policy makers favor smart metering for its cost-cutting and energy-saving potential, but their entreaties are falling on granite ears in many quarters of the Green Mountain State.

Bucking an energy conservation technology like smart grids doesn’t sync with Vermont’s Ben & Jerry’s/Birkenstock/organic image. It does, however, sync with an even deeper stratum in Vermont’s social bedrock, where live-and-let-live and minding your own business have been around a lot longer than Messrs. Cohen and Greenfield. Where jokes like:

“Q. How are you this morning Mr. Smith?

A. None of your business, and I wouldn’t tell you that much if you hadn’t been my neighbor for 30 years.”

aren’t jokes, they’re guidelines.

The Vermont smart meter conflict highlights a seldom-explored dimension of environmental sustainability – privacy. Like the siting of wind turbines, it’s an issue that sustainability advocates have to address if our energy consumption habits are going to change for the better.

Smart meters and a smart grid are part of a future where technology helps us consume less energy. Energy efficiency advocates envision a future when sensors in energy-sucking appliances like water heaters can detect when they’re not used for long periods and automatically put themselves in a dormant mode. When refrigerators adjust their cooling levels according to how much food is on the shelves. When household energy management systems automatically reduce heating and cooling and turn off lights in rooms they sense are unoccupied.

Smart metering and smart grids don’t reach nearly that far into ratepayers’ homes. They provide broad consumption data to support energy-saving measures like large-scale load balancing and variable rates to encourage off-peak usage. Nevertheless, they have a lot of people creeped out.

Privacy advocates have pointed out that government and private companies could use data gathered by smart grids – to intrude on ratepayers’ lives. It’s not hard to intuit from energy use patterns when people are home and what they’re doing, even behind closed doors and drawn curtains, they say.

The Vermont ACLU has joined with individuals and other advocacy groups in calling for tight restrictions on meter data. They also want a free opt-out of smart metering programs, unlike the paid opt-out that states like California have implemented.

Smart-grid advocates in Vermont and California, where the same debate is raging, say the smart grid needs information to be smart, and if too many people opt out they won’t have enough.

This is a problem, but it’s not a problem with smart grid technology per se. There’s nothing more intrinsically intrusive about smart meters than there is about surfing the Web or giving a credit card number over the phone. The problem is that consumers have had their privacy pockets picked too many times to accept assurances from utilities that their information will only be used to save energy.

Vermont’s Green Mountain Power Company has devoted a section of its website to explaining consumer privacy protection around data collection. It points out where the company is constrained by existing utility laws and regulations, and that the meters can only measure a house’s overall electrical consumption, not individual appliances.

Even so, the company is shoveling against an avalanche. Spam-choked email inboxes and dinner-hour robocalls have made consumers wary about who collects their information and what they can use it for.

Like so many other pieces of the sustainability puzzle, this one needs government to put it in the proper place. Not all consumers will trust the government to protect their privacy any more than they trust private industry, but the weight of laws and regulations on their side is likely to win converts. Especially when they hear stories like Mike Butler’s and weigh the environmental upside.

Butler is a Houston homeowner who used a smart meter to cut his power consumption 36 percent during the summer of 2011, which was a scorcher even by Texas standards. “I found a few power hogs, such as leaving my laptop charging all the time,” Butler said. “I made some simple behavioral changes and checked my statistics weekly to verify the impact of my efforts.”

Privacy guarantees alone probably won’t carry the day for the smart grid. Privacy guarantees plus stories like Mike Butler’s just might.

 

Global investors pour money into green energy

Steve McGrath · July 8th, 2011

Nothing like cool, refreshing facts to support the desperate hope for a renewable energy revolution.

New investment in green energy was up nearly one-third globally in 2010 to a record US$211 billion. That’s 32 percent above the 2009 level and more than five times that of 2004, says the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP).

Other facts from UNEP’s new report:

  • Wind farms in China and rooftop solar panels in Europe were key drivers in the investment increase.
  • China was the world leader in “financial new investment” – i.e., investment in utility-scale renewable projects and equity capital for renewable energy companies. The nation’s tally was US$48.9 billion, up 28 percent this year.
  • Developing economies (which invested US$72 billion this year) overtook developed ones (US$70 billion) in financial new investment.
  • Investments in small distributed capacity, e.g., rooftop solar, rose 132 percent in Germany to US$34 billion.
  • Costs for renewable technologies are falling.
  • Wind dominated financial new investment in large-scale renewable energy.
  • Biggest percentage jumps in overall investment were in small-scale projects, up 91 percent to US$60 billion, and in government funded R&D, up 121 percent to US$5.3 billion.

“The finance industry is still recovering from the recent financial crisis,” Udo Steffens, president of the Frankfurt School of Finance and Management, said in a UNEP news release. “The fact that the industry remains heavily committed to renewables demonstrates its strong belief in the prospects of sustainable energy investments.”

So there’s hope. And now facts.

More here.

Nuclear will kill you! Nuclear will save you! A German-Japanese debate

Mike McGrail · June 2nd, 2011

Germany, which has never had a nuclear accident on the magnitude of a Chernobyl or Three Mile Island, plans to phase out nuclear power by 2022. At the same time in Japan, which is still trying to control one of history’s worst nuclear accidents, there is no serious opposition to nuclear power. The New York Times reports that a plan for expanding Japan’s nuclear industry, shelved as the crisis with the Fukushima reactors continues, will very likely be revived in the future because of the local economic benefits a nuclear plant offers.

The contrast between Germany and Japan’s nuclear attitudes invokes two recurring story lines in the larger environmental debate. The first is the inherent contradiction of nuclear power, and the second is growing faith in renewables.

Nuclear energy has always been a problem for us non-doctrinaire environmental types – environmental practicality and environmental disaster rolled into one. Go looking for opinions on what’s more environmentally sound, nuclear or fossil fuels, and you’re going to strike an emotionally charged mother lode. Some point to the respective death rates attributed to fossil versus nuclear. Some highlight the pollutants and greenhouse gasses fossil fuel plants emit. Others say it’s a false choice between two unacceptable solutions that draws attention from renewable energy development.

If you look at it from a day-in, day-out perspective, it’s hard to argue against nuclear. A nuclear plant does not emit pollutants during normal operation the way fossil-fuel-powered facilities do. Uranium enrichment is less environmentally damaging than coal mining, and much safer. Nuke plants operate for years on a complement of fuel rods. Fossil fuel plants need coal and oil shipped in constantly by rail or ship, which expends fuel and emits pollutants.

As Fukushima has demonstrated, though, when you go nuclear you’re entering a high-stakes game. Nuclear waste is arguably the most toxic material that humans produce, and it stays toxic for thousands of years. Nuclear accidents like Chernobyl and Kashima have huge social and economic costs. Five million people live in regions still contaminated with radionuclides from Chernobyl. The then-Soviet government of Russia had to move 350,000 people a safe distance from the ruined reactor. The town is deserted. The surrounding exclusion zone, where no residences or businesses are allowed, covers almost 300 square miles once occupied by 120,000 people. The reactor itself is still a danger. Nuclear experts are concerned that its concrete enclosure is decaying enough to raise the risk of radioactive dust.

Even when a nuclear accident occurs, it doesn’t take the familiar refrain of “if not nuclear, what?” to appear. I didn’t have an answer myself until this week. Germany provided it: renewables. Germany’s plan to get out of the nuke business does not include falling back on fossil-fuel-generated power. It’s based on the country’s long-term plan to go heavily into renewables.

This is Germany we’re talking about. Eighy-five million people. Europe’s largest economy. Source of some of the world’s finest science and engineering. Not a country or a people prone to irrational decisions made in the heat of passion. About 70 percent of Germans expect electrical rates to rise as nuclear is phased out, and they’re willing to pay the price. If they believe renewables can support a heavily industrialized economy, I’m sold. Germany is setting a goal that the rest of the world should aim for as well. Every major technological development in history looked crazy at one time. (A week’s worth of music on a credit card, anyone? How about guiding a rover around Mars from Earth like it was a radio-controlled car?) With the pace of renewable energy technology development, Germany’s goal looks less crazy than it does savvy.

Oh behave! Why environmental sustainability needs a new brand of communications

Mike McGrail · April 8th, 2011

Hybrid vehicles have gotten more press over the last year than almost anything other than Charlie Sheen’s public implosion. Google the term “hybrid vehicles” with any major media outlet name – The New York Times, USA Today, Wall Street Journal, CNN, etc. – and you will find anywhere from 250,000 to 1.2 million hits for 2010 alone. PR industry journal The Holmes Report says the Chevy Volt’s 2010 “Volt Unplugged” launch tour helped the General Motors plug-in hybrid generate more than 5 billion media impressions last year. New players like the Chinese government and a Russian investor marketing a Soviet-era technology jumped into the market in 2010, creating even more interest.

And what did all of this hype deliver? A ten percent drop in 2010 hybrid sales, according to hybridcars.com, attributed partly to the Toyota Prius’ woes, but still surprising considering the launch of new hybrids like the Volt and the Nissan Leaf hybrid.

In a similar vein, the death of the McMansion – oversized homes that waste space, energy and materials – was another media favorite last year; I chimed in myself on this very blog. The reality in the housing market? Not so hot for us small-is-beautiful types. Home buyers have become more environmentally conscious, according to a recent report on the public radio business show MarketPlace, but not at the expense of a three-bedroom house with two baths.

So are the lackluster sales of hybrids and construction of smaller homes a harbringer of long, bleak years for those industries? I’m going to say no, because there were sub-texts in both markets that point toward a promising future, albeit on the other side of a hard reality. The hard reality first: no one is going to get rich quick manufacturing hybrids or selling smaller homes. Shiny, happy press notwithstanding, electric cars and smaller homes strike at fundamental behaviors and habits that won’t change quickly. If the contrast between glowing media attention for hybrids and smaller houses and their mediocre sales is an indicator, then there are few fast bucks to be made in either industry. But there is profit out there for companies who identify their markets carefully and stay in it for the long haul.

Take General Motors. It isn’t booking too many Volt sales yet. However, on the “Unplugged” tour, the company laid the groundwork for success down the line. The tour emphasized Volt’s practicality as a family vehicle and let more than 6,000 potential customers test drive it. Family vehicle = daily routine = habit = something that fits into consumers’ lives without being forced in. Give it a few years, after the Volt graduates from the “science project” phase, and that marketing effort will pay off in higher sales among people who never thought they’d be plugging their car into their house to charge overnight.

In environmentally friendly housing, developers are tapping into a ready-made societal change – Baby Boomers downsizing their homes in retirement – to market cottage communities of small homes built around common areas and within walking distance of stores and other necessities. Just last week, USA Today recently reported that cities in Washington’s Puget Sound region have adopted ordinances to accommodate cottage housing. Washington architect Ross Chapin has already developed 40 “pocket neighborhoods” of homes under 1,300 square feet across the country.

For us in communications, the lesson in this contrast is that media coverage can sell a lot of non-essential products – computer games, electronic gadgets, Miley Cyrus concert tickets, etc. However, media coverage on its own does not move substantial goods like vehicles and housing. So as we try to help our sustainable technology clients succeed as businesses and not just as media creations, what should we do differently?

We need to practice a brand of communications whose end game is changing behavior, not just minds. An economy built on environmentally sustainable technologies starts with behavioral changes, like plugging cars into electrical sockets overnight. Successful communications campaigns in the coming years will be measured not by volume of media coverage, but by how visibly they helped shift behaviors toward a sustainable lifestyle.

Communications and public relations have traditionally been about changing peoples’ intellects – what they think and believe. Changing a person’s behavior means engaging their senses, their personal values and their community ties as well as what goes on in their minds. To promote renewable energy clients, maybe a smart phone app that tells the average consumer how many pollutants they save by walking a quarter mile to the store instead of driving is as good as the coveted Wall Street Journal hit in the long term. Maybe organizing environmental fairs with community groups and letting people see and touch sustainable products is more productive than spending a week sweet talking a CNN producer for a few minutes of air time. How many parents would get religion about scrubbers on coal-fired power plants if you showed them a transparent model of a child full of all the dioxin they’ll absorb by the age of 10?

Okay, maybe I don’t always know the difference between advocacy and scaring the hell out of people, but you see where I’m going with this. As an industry, are we up to providing our clients a new model of communications services? I say yes – and I have a feeling it’s going to be a ton of fun figuring it out.

Insulating against revolution?

Ed Marshall · February 17th, 2011

insulated coolerIn New England where I’m writing this, insulation is typically thought of as a way to keep the cold out and heating costs down. In hot climates, however, it’s a way to keep the air conditioned cold in and the hot out. Think of your beach cooler keeping the ice from melting and, in turn, your beer cold. Same concept.

A recent Reuters story notes that the Saudi government is undertaking an ambitious program to cut energy use by some 40 percent, “largely by enforcing investment in insulation”. So, why the Saudi push to insulate? They need the money – specifically, the money made selling oil. The Reuters story quotes a Saudi official noting that 70-80 percent of their energy use goes to air conditioning and they use oil to generate the majority of their electricity. With a growing population and an extreme dependence on fossil fuels to subsidize the amenities of a comfortable life (cheap electricity, plentiful food, cars, roads, etc), the Saudis are staring at a classic export land problem.

Almost half of Saudi Arabia’s GDP is directly related to oil exports. Some 75 percent of its government revenue comes from the oil industry. The more oil the Saudis use, the less is available for export, even as production from their aging oil fields slowly declines. The reduction in exports helps push up prices on the open market, increasing cash flow which encourages domestic economic growth and energy use. Eventually, this domestic demand increases enough to materially reduce revenue from oil exports, squeezing subsidies that support things like cheap and plentiful food and fuel. Exposing the national population to unsubsidized prices is politically perilous. Hello Cairo.

Saudi marketIran is caught in a similar rock-and-a-hard-place bind. Indonesia dropped out of OPEC in 2008 when declining production and increasing consumption pushed it from being a net exporter to net importer of petroleum.

So, what does the export land issue mean to us, the oil importers? We don’t generate much electricity in the United States with oil these days, but it certainly is vital to our transportation system. Whether by car, truck, train or plane, our consumer lifestyle is powered by petroleum. Gasoline, diesel and kerosene move everything from people, food and building materials to toys, toothpaste and auto parts. As oil prices rise, transportation costs increase, putting a drag on an already weak recovery. Hard to insulate our way out of that.

Unnatural resources: a reindeer case study

Stephen Hodgdon · February 9th, 2011

St. Matthew IslandAccording to the World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report, we’re currently consuming 50% more natural resources than the earth can sustain, which means we’ll require the resources of at least two whole earths by 2030 to avoid humanity’s version of bee colony collapse.

Chicken Little hyperbole? Perhaps.

But Aussie cartoonist Stuart McMillen provokes chilling thought on the matter when he asks and illustrates “What happens when you introduce a couple dozen or so reindeer to an isolated island of untouched natural resources?”

Football, Fritos and the killer analogy

Steve McGrath · February 2nd, 2011

If you’ve got good stats to back up the value of your clean technology product, congratulations.

Quantifying the benefits your product delivers – e.g., pollution reduced, revenue generated, costs lowered, or time saved – can make a big difference to the communities you are trying to engage. Great stats, however, only work when the context is clear. How much is, say, 37 percent? 10 tons? A nanoliter? Compared to what?

To deliver that context and drive home the impact of your numbers, try drawing a simple, concrete analogy. That’s exactly what Reno Contracting of San Diego did a couple of weeks ago with a news release that began…

Reno Contracting has recycled more than 60,000 tons of waste from construction projects since the beginning of 2009, accounting for an average 72% of construction debris diverted from going to a landfill.

Great stats, but did they not get a lot better when the analogy kicked in?

This amount is the equivalent of three football fields, each 100 feet deep.

… and when the analogy was reinforced by this simple graphic?

While 60,000 tons of waste and 72 percent diversion are impressive, they operate on the cerebral level. Football field imagery, coming in the heat of playoffs for the country’s most popular sport, adds emotional impact.

So valuable is emotion that we’re in New England blogging about a West coast construction firm after seeing news that somehow caught the eye of Inhabitat, which gets 100,000 readers a day. Although I have no way of proving it, I think the football fields comparison made all the difference between obscurity and publication by one of the world’s premier green blogs. Okay, two, including us ;).

Ten days later, the Boston Globe rolled out three tangible comparisons in a front page story about coins that went missing in an armored car transfer. The coins weigh 4,317 pounds, equivalent to an average hippopotamus. Stacked, they’d be three times taller than the city’s iconic Hancock Tower. And, in case you hadn’t heard about the NFL championship tournament, the coins weigh more than the starting linemen of the two Super Bowl teams. There were graphics for all three of these analogies. Pounds are abstract. Analogies deliver emotional, or at least sensory, impact.

A client of ours offers up high-impact comparisons like these through their software. The product’s main function is performing forward-looking environmental impact assessments on manufactured goods while they’re still in the design stage. The software measures carbon, energy, air and water impacts of a design, not only in the straight-up metrics you’d expect, but also in their layman’s equivalents, such as:

Energy consumption – hours of TV watching, light bulb burning, laptop operation

Carbon production – miles driven (European car, American car, hybrid)

Air impact – liters of sulfuric acid created, Kg of corn grain produced in the USA, and (my favorite) bags of corn chips produced

Water impact – Deep ponds depleted, shallow ponds depleted, Kg of corn grain produced in the US.

Take your pick. If you can say your clean technology product can do the equivalent of taking 10,000 cars off the road, unscrewing 30,000 light bulbs and preventing 50,000 ponds from drying up, people will listen.

What other effective comparisons have you seen?

Admit flaws to achieve perfect tone

Steve McGrath · December 21st, 2010

Rhetoricians call it “arguing against interest.” In simple terms, it’s a good way to build credibility fast. You readily admit a weakness in yourself or your argument to actually advance your larger case. I swear to you, your honor, I had no role in the killing of which I’m accused. I was out of state, uh, delivering a shipment of drugs. This mechanism causes the audience to wonder, who but an honest-to-God truth teller would disclose something so damning?

Arguing against interest can be a powerful tool for building brand credibility. Look at Domino’s Pizza, now publicly admitting their old pizza was terrible. Or Dos Equis: What, the Most Interesting Man in the World doesn’t always drink beer? This is a beer commercial!

What makes arguing against interest so powerful is its stark contrast against the vast majority of communication that argues, often lamely, in its own interest. Ads, websites, press releases and corporate blogs dump buckets of overstated goodness on a cringing consumer. You know, if you buy the right camera, you’ll shoot National Geographic quality images. With the right diamond necklace, you’ll be back on your honeymoon, and with a fabulous spouse.

Not saying such images aren’t seductive, but overstatement is the Achilles heel of marketers who are mired in old-school corporate communications. While gilding the lily has never been a great persuasion technique, today’s audiences despise it. They are sophisticated, discriminating and skeptical, if not cynical, driven largely by social media.

Case in point
A wonderful example of a brand arguing against interest to deepen credibility is Patagonia, the maker of outdoor apparel for skiers, rock climbers and campers (it’s like a crunchy Timberland). They’re not just sprinkling their content with a few aw shucks asides, they’re actually building their brand around a concept that, at first glance, is directly opposed to their own goal of making money.

The company’s Common Threads Initiative is urging customers to buy less clothing, wear it longer, repair it instead of throwing it away, and when it’s worn out, hand it back to Patagonia for reuse or recycling.

… to wrest the full life out of every piece of our clothing, the first three of the famous four R’s are equally important – to reduce, repair and reuse as well as recycle.

Under reduce, the company is calling on consumers to “buy what you’ll wear, and want to keep long enough to wear out” in order to “get by with fewer clothes.”

Under repair, it’s offering to fix zippers for free if the garment has enough life left in it.

(The company already has a recycling program that’s collected 39 tons of used clothes.)

This initiative is like General Motors telling you to drive your clunker into the ground because it’s the right thing to do. Of course, Patagonia is a for-profit business and commercial brand. So their larger goal with the Common Threads Initiative, one assumes, is to deepen customer loyalty, reduce raw material costs, and put a noble face on plain ol’ customer service (I mean, they’re probably going to fix zippers anyway).

Deep in the content
All this is clearly a flavor of cause branding, but Patagonia is taking it to the next level with a generous dose of argument against interest throughout its public content. For example, Patagonia recently underwent a corporate social responsibility (CSR) audit. A nonprofit watchdog organization took a hard look at their operations. Patagonia blogged about the audit in great detail. The post mentions a couple of instances of where the company fell short in the review (arguing against interest). They even admit they’re a founder of the group that was auditing them. Who even blogs about audits, much less the negative findings and conflicts of interest? Now you might be asking, where’s the marketing value in this? What comes through is not Patagonia’s warts, but its seriousness about being green and transparent. It’s as authentic as you can ever expect communications to get. And utterly believable.

Another example: In writing about the new Common Threads Initiative, Patagonia talks about its five-year-old recycling program, whose goal was to make all Patagonia clothes recyclable within five years. “This we will achieve in fall 2011,” Patagonia writes, “a year behind schedule.” Another argument against interest. This line is just sitting there in the copy, no excuses, no tortured transitions, just a fact. You make the call. This kind of statement is convincing.

Patagonia has a minisite, The Footprint Chronicles, that drills into the origin of Patagonia garments. Click on the Merino 2 Crew sweater and learn that the wool is sustainably ranched, the dye is okay, and the factory is okay,  but the wool travels 16,280 miles from sheep to store. “This is not sustainable,” the Patagonia website tells us. Who says this about their own supply chain? Nobody. In how many instances is it true? All the time, presumably. Patagonia cares so much about getting it right they readily admit what they’re still getting wrong.

In another Patagonia post, a blogger admits his orthopedic problems ruined his climbing adventure. One would expect tales of glory. But while Nike has LeBron and UGG Under Armour has Tom Brady, here’s Patagonia speaking through a guy whose arm keeps dropping out of his shoulder socket.

If all this arguing against interest sounds like overkill, it’s only because we’re calling out the exceptions to the rest of the Patagonia content, which as you would expect is generally favorable to the company. But this positive content is all the more believable next to a few well-conceived arguments against interest.

By acknowledging that’s nobody’s perfect, starting with yourself, you can strike the perfect note.

ARPA-E’s fate foretells cleantech’s future

Stephen Hodgdon · November 10th, 2010

Folks across the entire political spectrum concur the new election may blow a chilling wind across the cleantech industry (if you omit nukes). Budget-cutting is job #1 for this upcoming Congress, and the change of guard within key budget appropriation committees does not bode well for future government cleantech investments.

While all eyes are on cap-and-trade legislation and how the House will act to block EPA climate rules, perhaps the better barometer of cleantech’s future is the continuation of ARPA-E (Advanced Research Projects Agency for Energy) funding.

ARPA-E was created in 2008 with strong bipartisan support to reverse the nation’s falling position in global clean technology markets. What DARPA did for national defense, ARPA-E was to do for energy technologies, bridging the “gap between basic energy research and development/industrial innovation.”

But ARPA-E didn’t really get off the ground until the Obama administration, when Stimulus Bill funding filled its budget coffers. Since then, the agency has funded 37 cutting-edge projects from an initial pool of 3,600 applications. By most accounts, the program has been a strong success, as the New York Times points out:

Last week marked the anniversary of the first round of grants for the Department of Energy program, which is charged with finding game-changing energy research and awarding jolts of funding. Business leaders and other energy experts say ARPA-E not only has found such “breakthrough” projects, but has unleashed interest throughout the innovation chain – DOE, universities, corporations, startups and the financial world.

Beaupre client, SAGE Electrochromics, is one such example. In March it received $72 million in loan guarantees from the program to develop dynamic window glazing technologies that make buildings highly energy efficient. It has since broken ground on a new 300,000 square foot manufacturing facility in Minnesota that is bringing 160 new green jobs and 200 construction jobs.

But SAGE’s immediate impact is the exception within ARPA-E .  Most projects probably won’t start yielding big results for at least five years. As the mid-term election showed, Americans are impatient. Congress already punted on funding ARPA-E for the current fiscal year, saying current Stimulus funds should be sufficient for now. Who knows what the lame duck Congress will do.

With a Teaparty-inflamed House itching to slash and burn budget expenditures anywhere they can find them, ARPA-E will be the bellwether by which America regains its advantage or falls farther behind the world in clean technology innovation,  along with all the good jobs and good karma that comes with it. DARPA gave us the Internet. A short-sighted vote to chloroform ARPA-E could be an equally monumental loss.

An inconvenient wrapper, or what Al Gore didn’t tell you about SunChips bags and climate change

Mike McGrail · October 7th, 2010

The tissues next to the sink in the men’s room at work taunt me every time I stand at the slow-working hand dryer waiting for my hands to stop dripping. It only takes about 15-20 seconds under the dryer until I can go back to work, but drying my hands on tissues is even faster – maybe three seconds. Nevertheless, I resist the siren call of processed wood pulp. When I use the hand dryer, I’m not throwing anything out. Since the climate change debate started, I’ve been obsessed with throwing away as little as possible in favor of the “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra. So I stand there with my hands under the dryer even though the paper product would be more convenient.

Convenience: a perfect segue from hand drying to junk food bags.

Frito Lay, maker of those quasi-healthy crunchy snacks called SunChips, recently embraced the “recycle” part of the 3R mantra by packaging SunChips in a compostable bag. That’s quite a leap up the sustainability index from the plastic bags that most snack food comes in. Most plastic never degrades completely, even in direct sunlight, because there’s nothing in plastic for microorganisms to eat . The compostable bags, by contrast, can be gone in a couple of weeks because they’re made of plant matter that microorganisms like just fine. Considering the amount of snack food Americans eat, Frito Lay’s biodegradable SunChips bag was definitely a step in the right direction.

It was a step right back when Frito Lay announced this week that it’s discontinuing the compostable bag because customers think it’s – waaaaaaaiiiiit for it – too loud. Apparently, the compostable bag’s molecular structure makes it snap, crackle and pop lustily every time a chip junkie sticks his/her paw into a handful of no-trans-fat flavor. Facebook groups like “I wanted SunChips but my roommate was sleeping…” and “Nothing is louder than a SunChips bag” cropped up in protest. Customers complained to Frito Lay, which decided to replace the compostable bags with plastic on all SunChip flavors except the original.

First of all, what kind of wusses have Americans become when the crinkling of a food bag turns us catatonic? How loud can one bag of chips be? Are people bleeding out of their ears because they had to go for that one extra handful of SunChips with lunch? No matter. A vocal slice of the populace don’t want their late-night munchie attacks broadcast over the SunChip BagNet, so 30 million plastic bags are heading back into the waste stream.

This is the wrong message for corporations to send the public. As a society, Americans need to throw away less. What we do throw away should be as biodegradable as possible. Packaging is a major contributor to pollution and landfill clutter. Frito Lay’s initial effort to make a mainstream consumer product more environmentally sustainable was the right message to the general public. Snuffing it wasn’t.

Here’s a radical solution for all of the people who think the SunChip bag is too loud. If you don’t want anyone to know you’re having a private moment with the SunChips bag – waaaaaaaaaaaaiiiit for it – take it OUTSIDE before you open it. You’ll get some fresh air with your healthy SunChips and maybe burn a few of them off as you walk from the couch to the porch for a fix. Ask Frito Lay to bring back the biodegradable bag. It might not be the convenient solution, but it’s the right one.

Now if you’ll pardon me, I have to hit the men’s room with my new fast but environmentally sustainable hand-drying solution: the backs of my pant legs.