Refuse the bottle on World Water Day

Pour some tap water into a plastic bottle, slap a label on it, and what do you have?

Snake oil.

Nonetheless, Americans buy around 9 billion gallons of bottled water every year, sold by a brand promise of purity, health, beauty and personal style.

Although critics haven’t put much of a dent in the demand, there are signs that’s about to change. More than 90 colleges and universities, including Brown and Harvard, have banned or are restricting the use of plastic water bottles, Bloomberg has reported.

“The product just doesn’t make common sense,” Sarah Alexander, 20, an environmental-studies major at Dartmouth, told Bloomberg. “Companies are taking something that is freely accessible to everyone on the Dartmouth campus, packaging it in a non-reusable container and then selling it under the pretense that it is somehow better than tap water.”

Unlike the tap water you pour into a glass, the water in bottles is trucked around the country, consuming energy, producing carbon and leaving an unwanted plastic container. After the consumer’s refreshing drink, the container is:

  • trucked around some more and buried;
  • recycled (more energy and carbon);
  • tossed in the water (maybe even becoming part of the world-famous Pacific garbage patch); or
  • buffeted about the side of the road.

To serve parched students, Harvard and Dartmouth will be installing hydration stations in new buildings. These will enable students to refill their own bottles with filtered water. They’ll also be saving money: according to Ban the Bottle, it costs 50 cents a year to drink tap water and $1,400 to buy that equivalent in bottles.

Let’s raise a glass of tap water to the money back in our pockets. And let’s celebrate World Water Day by being grateful for even having choices about drinking water while so many people go dry.




‘Zero Waste,’ but plenty of gumption!

Karina Quintans tipped the trash can toward her and looked inside: paper coffee cups, tin foil, fast food sacks and, curiously, the pruned leaves of somebody’s indoor plant. At least 80 percent of the trash in this can – clearly labeled “landfill” – was suitable for a second can a few inches to its left, the one labeled “recycling.”

We may not get our waste in the right hole, but at least now, thanks to Quintans and her friends, if you stroll the downtown area of Portsmouth, New Hampshire, you have a 50-50 chance. Until Sept. 27, you had only one option: landfill.

In a civic climate where most of us wait for the government to act, or deride it for failing to, Quintans and her grassroots group “Zero Waste Portsmouth” planned, financed, created and installed five sturdy recycling bins here in downtown Portsmouth, home of the CleanSpeak blog. Each bin has a recycling hole and a landfill hole, the latter label chosen because it describes the ugly reality of waste disposal.

Before the forklifts set those bins in place, when you visited the Port City you either stuffed your recyclables in your pockets until you got home, pirated one of the cafes’ recycling buckets, or most likely, dropped them in the trash can, sending them on a one-way trip to the landfill.

The remarkable thing is that Zero Waste Portsmouth didn’t wait for the city. Although we have curbside residential recycling, downtown street-level recycling wasn’t going into the municipal budget anytime soon. So ZWP drove the project themselves, rounding up volunteers, corporate patrons, some grant money, and some student artistic talent to make these bins a reality. The city will take over from here. Hopefully, collection costs will be offset by avoided landfill costs together with the hard-to-quantify environmental benefit.

Before the bins came, 44 percent of the city’s waste was still going to the landfill, according to Quintans, director of Zero Waste Portsmouth. Twenty-two percent was being recycled. (The rest was yard waste, concrete, bulky, etc.). The downtown area alone was sending 20 tons of trash to the landfill every year.

Zero Waste Portsmouth has an ambitious goal: living up to its name and making the landfill obsolete. As communications professionals, we love this name because what it lacks in immediate viability it makes up for in inspiration.

Admittedly, zero waste is ZWP’s long-term goal. Cutting the landfill-bound portion in half is a shorter-term one. A great first step? Just getting stuff in the right hole.

Meet Quintans and learn more about the project:


There’s a great green business in bottled water

The cure for the runaway use of plastic water bottles has been right in front of my face every Tuesday night. It’s the beer tap in my local bar. With a few tweaks and some creative marketing, the tap could be the end of the perpetual stream of plastic bottles clogging landfills and waterways. (Which, in the interest of full disclosure, I squawked about back in 2009.)

Bottled water sales were supposed to have peaked – or “tapped out” in the words of the Washington Post – in 2009. That was good news for us crunchoid types who think bottled water is an over-used indulgence that consumes too much plastic and landfill space. The good times lasted a year. Despite public awareness campaigns by groups like, bottled water sales rebounded in 2010. The spring (no pun intended) 2011 edition of the bottled water industry’s trade magazine, the Bottled Water Reporter, announced that the industry was on the rebound and poised for growth in the U.S. and worldwide. And remember, the backdrop to this resurgence is that we didn’t make much of a dent in our 167-bottle-per-person-per-year habit when sales slowed in 2009, we just temporarily curbed its growth.

I’m on record in this space a few years back as having no particular quarrel with plastic. I just think we use too much plastic in the U.S., where clean tap water is the rule rather than the exception. Why burn energy to pump crude out of the ground, burn more to refine it into petrochemicals, then more to turn it into single-serve plastic water bottles? There are better ways, and I’m offering one to the bottled water and convenience store industries royalty-free:

Step One – Convenience stores, remove the cooler space currently devoted to bottled water.
Step Two – In its place, install a cold tap system with at least three or four spigots. One of them should always be local tap water.
Step Three – Invite water companies to rent a tap, install a branded handle, and hook it up to their own brand of water.
Step Four – Sell refills of branded water for a quarter a whack and give the local tap water away for free. Customers have to fill reusable water bottles. If they don’t bring them in, they can get one for a deposit – a hefty enough sum to encourage them to hold onto the bottle or bring it back, but not enough to scare them away.

There’s something in this for the stores and the water companies. The stores can devote less space to water sales and don’t have to re-stock single-serve bottles. They can brand their water bottles with their own logos and colors as promotional items. The water companies can bulk-package their product, which is cheaper and more environmentally sound. That should reduce the amount of static they get from the anti-bottle lobby.

I will admit there are a few holes in the plan that I haven’t yet figured out. How much does it cost to maintain a steady supply of clean water bottles, for example? Truth be told, I’d rather we all just drank local tap water and forgot about water that has to be pumped out of the ground (with electricity) packaged (in plastic) and transported (burning diesel fuel). But designer water has caught on, so why not use free market economic principles to accomplish something for the environment?

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

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.

Oil fatigue and making ourselves care

Who really cares? That’s a vital question, maybe the question, in clean tech communications.

You can sit in a conference room all day hashing out your product positioning, but if you can’t get your audience to feel, you’ll never get them to act.

This truth concerns me from a life-or-death perspective as some of the most concrete, tangible, visible symptoms of our planet’s problems – the things that make us care – are fading away. We, the audience, care just a little less each day.

The BP well has stopped spewing, so the underground oil cam is boring. Tony Hayward has sailed away from the executive suite, taking his $18 million and our anger with him. The oil slick is … well, where the hell has it gone?

Climate change is at least as frustrating as oil fatigue because it’s an abstraction even as it suffocates the planet. Although it’s sweltering here in New England, global warming will seem pretty academic in December. And while the slow implosion of the ocean’s food chain isn’t as jarring as the pothole on your street, ocean warming is being blamed for a 40 percent decrease in the ocean’s algal biomass.

Plastiki gets the art of caring. The sailboat, made of 12,500 reclaimed plastic bottles, just arrived in Sydney after 128 days crossing the Pacific and spotlighting the blight of plastic trash in the ocean. It was an inspired communications gambit that has successfully given compelling physical form to an environmental concern we hardly see.

The vessel was years in the making. Sometimes it takes that kind of effort to make people care. Keep that in mind when you’re fighting the good fight for clean technology.

Sadly, bad news can be easier to care about. Although the plankton decline isn’t so scary, when Louisiana’s seafood restaurants become pasta joints, that will certainly get people’s attention.

A green consumer reaches the Hotpoint of no return

Kermit the Frog was right when he said it’s not easy being green. But he didn’t warn us how freakin’ expensive it can be, too. I learned for myself recently, when I got a personal lesson in environmental math and the correlation between corporate brands and environmental responsibility. It all came courtesy of an electric range.

My 30-year-old Hotpoint stove has been decaying steadily since I bought my house 10 years ago, and when one of the burners fell apart it was time to start socking away money for a new one. I had resisted replacing the stove for years, even though the burners were too small, the oven looked like the gateway to the third ring of hell, and it was the color of an under ripe avocado. Why? Because it worked. And, God help me there must be a penurious Yankee hidden on my family tree someplace, I couldn’t bear to get rid of something that worked. Not just for the money, though that had something to do with it, but because of the environmental impact of throwing out a major appliance. There is close to 200 pounds of steel, copper, plastic and assorted insulating materials in an electric stove. There was no way I could re-use the stove by selling it on Craig’s List or donating it to a charity – it was too old and decrepit. The Hotpoint was landfill fodder, and though my town has an excellent recycling program, the energy and new raw materials consumed by disposing of my old stove and replacing it with a new one weren’t worth it to me.

Then the front left burner crumbled like a Bermie Madoff hedge fund, and it was off to Consumer Reports to find a good quality replacement. I trust Consumer Reports the way I used to trust Larry Bird to hit the game-winning three-pointer with no time left on the clock. I don’t buy a roll of Life Savers unless CR says it’s okay. I’ll pay extra to buy something that CR recommends as a quality product with a long life span and low maintenance costs. So when all signs pointed to yet another Hotpoint in my price range, all that remained was to accumulate the last few bucks of the purchase price and head off to the appliance store.

Then my church had a “sustainable gift fair” for the holiday season, I bought a little book called “The Better World Shopping Guide,” and green reality clubbed me behind the ear.

The Guide rates companies according to a social responsibility formula that includes social justice, animal protection, human rights, community involvement, environmental record. I looked up appliances, found Hotpoint, and almost choked. It wasn’t just rated low, it was rated the lowest – a big fat “F,” alongside General Electric. The Guide counsels against doing business with any company graded “F.” And it doesn’t mince any words. “This category is reserved for companies that are actively participating in the rapid destruction of the planet and the exploitation of human beings. Avoid these products at all costs.” The companies that rated high on the list were the BMWs and Acuras of the world. They were expensive but, according to Consumer Reports, often weren’t a good value and didn’t last as long as the less expensive Hotpoints and GEs.

So there was the choice: a high-quality product with a long life from a company with a crummy environmental rating or a mediocre product from a company with a high environmental rating. A high-quality product from a highly rated company wasn’t an option because by the time I saved enough to buy one the old Hotpoint would have either crumbled or burst into flames.

Ellis Jones, author of “The Better World Shopping Guide” and a professor at Holy Cross College in Worcester, Mass., said my dilemma is pretty common among socially conscious consumers, and that there are no fix-all answers.

“Unfortunately, in a market economy it’s often more expensive to be a responsible corporation, and that cost is passed on to consumers in the form of higher prices,” Jones said. “What I tell consumers is that it’s important to understand the limits of choice and still stick by one’s guns as much as they can in any given situation. Everyone comes to the table with different resources, or they live in an area where they have limited choices of products and companies to buy them from. You can only do the best you can with what you have.”

If we want to make a difference socially and environmentally, Jones said, we have to increase the quality of our purchases, buy from higher rated companies, and decrease the quantity of our purchases. He predicts that it will get easier to buy conscientiously over the coming years because companies realize how social responsibility resonates with their consumers, and they want their brands to represent progressive ideals. In the meantime, he says, we will have to compromise on one front or another when voting with our disposable incomes.

So I compromised. Sort of. I didn’t buy a new stove. Actually, I couldn’t. I had to use the money I saved for a stove to replace the front left fender on my Honda Accord after a hit-and-run driver punched a hole in it. The Honda, with 165,264 miles on it, is a much bigger environmental issue than the stove. And what the hell, I still have three burners left on the stove. Maybe in 2011 …

Wind power and one African boy’s astonishing story

I’ll keep this wind energy post as short as my last one was long. I’m speechless and inspired by the story I just read of a self-educated African boy from Malawi who in 2002 cobbled together bike parts, gum tree wood, an old shock absorber and other junk to bring the first sparks of electric power to his village. Fourteen-year-old William Kamkwamba of Masitala had spent so much time tinkering and dump-picking in preparing his wind turbine that his neighbors thought he was smoking pot. But when he scaled the rickety 16-foot tower and sparked up a car light bulb, he became a village sensation. He has since created the village’s first water supply and irrigation system. Read the BBC article. There’s a video, too. And a book.

Don’t do cash for clunkers

I’m keeping my clunker. And you should, too.

Mine’s a Honda Accord, so it doesn’t actually qualify as a clunker despite its 150,000 loyal miles, but on principle I would not do “cash for clunkers.” Let me tell you why.

Long before the word warming was ever married to global, we understood we were filling landfills too quickly. The concept of recycling emerged, and attentive citizens learned the mantra reduce, reuse and recycle. In that order.

Thus my first beef with cash for clunkers: It puts the recycle cart before the reduce and reuse horses, and in this case recycle is a euphemism. Although cash for clunkers sounds kind of green, it equates to destroy and produce.

You annihilate a working automobile by pouring sodium silicate (liquid glass) into the engine to ensure it never goes another mile, killing 30 percent of its resale value. A recycler removes some parts for resale, drains the haz-waste fluids, mashes it into a steel pancake, puts them on a barge to who knows where, or chops them into bits, producing carbon at every step.

Meanwhile, you produce a new car from materials mined from the good green earth, processed in a steel plant, shipped to an auto plant, manufactured with carbon-generating energy, shipped to dealerships and driven home by someone who just threw away the car that got him to the showroom. It takes somewhere between 3 and 12 tons of carbon dioxide to make a new car.

(Since this is a clean tech blog, I won’t go off on the confiscatory aspect of this – why should you as a taxpayer pay for my new car? And if that’s what it takes to stimulate the economy, maybe we should just ride out the recession. I won’t harp on the fact that this is ultimately another staggering gift from your grandkids to the auto industry. Or that it feeds into our worst consumerist compulsions. Or worse, how four of the top five new car models that clunkheads are buying are made by foreign automakers.)

I’ll stick to our focus and observe that cash for clunkers is about as green as bottled water. The policy goes out of its way to stimulate the unnecessary manufacture, distribution and consumption of objects that are ultimately superfluous. In the best case, you’re taking a pig off the road and replacing it with a hybrid, the net gas-mileage/pollution benefit offset by the impacts of manufacturing the hybrid and destroying the clunker. Oh, and not every beneficiary of the program is buying a Prius. Did you know that a new car that gets 22 mpg qualifies for a cash for clunkers subsidy? That’s a pretty low bar.

The crime in all this is that what Washington and we in the middle class call a clunker is quite often a perfectly serviceable means for a lower-income or unemployed person to get to work, see the doctor or take in a ballgame. A clunker can carry meals to seniors or homeless people to shelters. It can give the kids at the tech school some fodder for learning a valuable trade while transforming a clunker into a cream puff.

Cash for clunkers: It’s your cash. Clunkerhood is in the eye of the beholder. It’s not making us green, and it’s putting us in the red. Don’t do it.

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Got an opinion? Tell us what you think.

Strategies for effective green retailing

Plus lessons from Coca-Cola, Dell and Timberland

Retailers go green for two reasons. One, consumers favor products they believe are green. Two, it’s the right thing to do.

One in three American consumers are more likely to choose environmentally responsible products, and 70 percent of Americans are paying attention to what companies are doing about the environment, according to an Opinion Research poll. Across the water, two out of three UK adults say environmental concerns influence their purchasing decisions.

Does the time and expense of green retailing to these consumers pay off? The jury is still out on that one, so the smart retailer at least considers going green. Fortunately, good green retail marketing is by definition good for the planet. It’s not greenwashing. To be effective, green retailing actions must be able to withstand reasonable scrutiny. They’re changes that matter, in ways however small, to the planet and your business.

Step one: the inventory
If you want to go green, the first thing to do is conduct a thoughtful inventory of how your business affects the environment. Consider both the obvious and less obvious impacts. Let’s say you sell cars. Obvious impacts include the gas they burn, the emissions they spew and the pile of tangled metal that eventually goes to the landfill. The less obvious effects include the production of electricity to illuminate your lot; the trees that die for your paperwork; and the impact of trucking new cars to your showroom. Less obvious still are the natural resources that go into the vehicles’ parts, the energy produced in refining those materials, and all the subsequent consequences of manufacturing.

With this inventory, you learn pretty quickly the infinite breadth of your environmental footprint. The good news is you don’t have to fix everything at once. The inventory simply introduces you to accountability and defines the scope of areas where you can become more sustainable. (This step also tells you how critics might attack you should you be so foolish as to make overly aggressive green claims.)

With your environmental impact inventory complete, here are some options for going green and some examples of companies that employ them:

Green your product
Any product can be greened up. Downsize the vehicles you sell, for example, and make room for some hybrids. Or use greener materials. Payless Shoes now offers a full line of eco-friendly footwear, purses and accessories that use natural fibers like organic cotton, hemp, jute (plant), recycled rubber and plastic, water-based glue and (for packaging) 100-percent recycled boxes printed by soy-based ink. No metal or pesticides in the sourcing chain and no excess raw material extraction. (Sorry, ladies, no pumps either, but you can still get some elevation, see right.) The marketing benefits are immediately clear: Why else would this post mention Payless? How else would Payless have caught our eye on Reuters?

Green your most visible operations
Whole Foods Market banned the use of plastic grocery bags at its 280-plus stores starting on Earth Day 2008. In the ensuing year, it says it has kept an estimated 150 million plastic bags out of landfills. The campaign helped energize customers to triple their use of reusable bags – themselves made of recycled materials. The company also sells a special reusable bag for $29.99, each sale of which feeds 100 kids in Rwanda. That’s good marketing, and it’s hard to be cynical about feeding the hungry.

Green the building
Timberland opened a “carbon neutral” store in New York City last week with reclaimed wood, salvaged brick, efficient lighting and non-VOC paint. These green features hit the consumer between the eyes. Although less visceral, Timberland’s LEED certifications for its mall stores are also important for green credibility.

Green your energy consumption
Dell, for example, announced last week it gets 26 percent of its global electricity needs from renewable energy sources, up from 20 percent in 2008, and powers nine of its facilities with 100 percent renewable energy. Twenty-six percent doesn’t sound like a whole lot, but the company wisely uses credible third parties to compare itself favorably with competitors in technology and in big business. Dell also uses another tactic…

Buy renewable energy certificates
Renewable energy certificates, or RECs, are commodities that an organization can purchase from a renewable energy producer (solar, wind, biofuels) to conceptually offset the harm the first company’s power sources are causing. Purchasing a REC subsidizes renewable energy production and effectively increases the cost of emitting carbon. It’s of limited green retailing value except in bolstering a claim of progress toward carbon neutrality.

All of these measures can be effective, but they have the potential of doing more harm than good. Few media stories are more withering than a point-by-point analysis (of how a company took its green claims a little too far. So just be careful what you say and how you say it:

  • Modesty is always nice, lest you provoke observers to note all the ways you are not yet green.
  • Align green retail actions with your product. The auto industry needed greening, so Toyota greened an auto, the Prius. Coca-Cola, a beverage company, is vowing to replenish the supply of the world’s most popular beverage: water. Alignment resonates. If your building is LEEDS certified but your product pollutes, your overall message is weak.
  • Try to be correct. The Treehugger blog skewered an Italian architect for a stunning creation billed as the “first zero CO2 office building in Milan.” Among other things, the building is elevated on 13-meter pyramid-like “stilts,” effectively driving occupants onto elevators just to get inside. On a roll, the blog even complained about the carbon footprint of manufacturing photovoltaic panels for the roof.
  • Prepare for surprises. As reported, Coca-Cola until recently assumed that most of its emissions came from manufacturing or its trucks. It discovered the lion’s share came from cold drink equipment – the coolers, vending machines and fountain dispensers. This gear includes potentially damaging refrigerants and insulation and consumes a lot of electricity. This unexpected source accounted for about 15 million metric tons of emission every year – almost twice that of the trucks and manufacturing combined.

These examples should give you some direction in planning your next step in green retailing. Remember, if it’s good for the planet, it’s good for business. Because it’s hard to profit without a planet.

Of plastic bottles, grassroots and reducing consumption

A word about plastics, the bete noire of the environmental movement, and a lesson in fuzzy math, environmental style.

Plastics, as we’ve been taught since the mid 1970s, are evil. Lucifer, sitting on his throne in hell, handed the formula directly to inventor Alexander Parkes in 1862, and life hasn’t been right since. Made from petroleum and breaking down into hazardous chemicals – when they break down at all – plastics are symbolic for everything that’s wrong with the world economy. There is no better example of plastic’s malignant effect than the spread of bottled water. Plastic water bottles increase petroleum use, clog landfills and foul the oceans, according to environmental groups. Every time I buy water in a plastic bottle, I feel like I’ve personally flown up to Prince William Sound and rolled a sea otter in Alaskan sweet crude. Plastic bottles have gotten such a bad rap lately that you might as well be carrying a mustard gas canister out of the MobileMart as 16 ounces of Poland Springs, in many environmentalists’ estimation. You can’t care about the environment and drink bottled water, goes the new orthodoxy.

So let’s stop buying water in plastic bottles! When demand slumps, the bottled water companies will have to use a more environmentally friendly material, like glass. Glass isn’t made from oil, it recycles easily and it doesn’t degrade in landfills. That’s all true, but glass breaks more easily than plastic. Breakage increases waste and spoilage. More waste means producing more to meet demands – which takes energy. Also, because it doesn’t degrade, glass permanently takes up landfill space. It’s heavier than plastic, so it requires more energy to ship.

Okay, so maybe glass isn’t the answer. How about boxes, like the kind kids drink juice from?  They’re light and durable. They’re also difficult to recycle unless the thin layers of plastic and metal insulation are stripped from the paper, according to the New York Times. Metal cans? Very recyclable, but it takes a ton of energy to produce and recycle metal – especially aluminum.

The point here isn’t to stick up for unfettered use of plastic bottles. The debate around plastic bottles and their potential replacements is symbolic of a larger issue – the complexity of “environmental math,” or trying to figure out when doing something with environmental motives has unintended consequences. The way our economy is geared right now, if we’re going to cut down on something like plastic bottles, we expect another disposable alternative. That’s the key word – disposable.

Anyone wise to environmental issues knew right away that the plastic bottle scenario above is a red herring. The best alternative to a disposable plastic water bottle isn’t making a disposable bottle out of another material; the best alternative is a reusable water bottle. It can be made of metal or plastic, as long as it isn’t thrown away. Because what we use is the smaller part of our environmental conundrum. Every product and commodity has an environmental price tag. The bigger problem is that we use too much of everything, and our appetite is growing. As far back as 1995, United Nations writer John Young reported in “Towards a New Culture of Consumption” that “materials use has grown far faster than population: in the US, total consumption of virgin raw materials was 17 times greater in 1989 than it was in 1900, compared with a threefold increase in population.” Metal, glass and plastic consumption is also increasing. Reducing use of one commodity usually means using more of another one, unless our disposable society changes. We have to stop making stuff to throw away.

The problem is that reducing consumption is the maiden aunt of the environmental movement. It bakes pies and babysits the kids so its sexier siblings – solar energy, wind power, biofuels and recycling – can go out on the town with media and investors. There is no industry backing conservation. In fact, considering that our economy is based on consumption, the business community is probably uneasy about the reduction message. Government, heavily influenced by industry, won’t push the reduction agenda. (If you have any doubts, consider what happened to the nutrition pyramid by the time the food industries weighed in.)

If this most important part of the oft-repeated “reduce, reuse, recycle” mantra is to catch on, then, it’s going to have to be a grassroots movement. Ten years ago, it would have been unrealistic to expect a national campaign of “turn it down, turn it off, don’t use it, don’t buy it” to take off on its own without some big patron saint at the national level. But we live in the viral marketing age fueled by the Internet. A growing crop of Web sites like and the World Wildlife Fund site advise consumers on simple measures that make a big difference. A small example: washing clothes in cold instead of warm water – which is reducing electrical usage – saves the average consumer $167 per year, according to the blog Saving Electricity. The Rocky Mountain Institute estimates a lower dollar savings – $61 – but a higher percentage – 85 – and 1,281 fewer pounds of CO2 released into the environment.

Since you’re reading an environmental blog, chances are you knew that already. So here’s an extra credit assignment: find a good energy or material conservation tip on a Web site that you like, and e-mail it to people you know who are least likely to be environmentally aware. Tell them how much they can save washing clothes in cold water, or turning the air conditioner down two degrees. You could be planting the seed of a reduction revolution. And what the heck, put a reusable water bottle in their Christmas stocking. It just might catch on.