Friday, July 31, 2020

Why good people do bad environmental things: a book report

A year or so ago, I read DeSombre's Why Good People do Bad Environmental Things.  It seems like the perfect kind of book for finishing up my Plastic-Free July series . . . because I like to think I'm a good person, and I think single-use plastic is a bad thing, and yet even *I* certainly had my share of single-use plastic this month.  Why, oh why, do we do things we shouldn't?

Actually, the way the question is usually framed as, "why do those other people do all that bad stuff?".   A solution that many kind-hearted, green-minded people come up with is to try to inform the public, and to change their minds.   A persistent theme running through the book is:  that approach doesn't work, because information isn't the key to behavior.   Putting up signs in the bathrooms that say "These paper towels come from trees!" is worse than useless.  

The problem usually is not that we don't know or that we don't care; it's that we have many different values that we care about, and many different habits we rely on, and many different structural constraints built into the way we live our lives.  DeSombre illustrates this point with her own experience.  I don't have the book in front of me anymore so this isn't an exact quote, but she says something like,
I'm a committed environmentalist, and I know how harmful automobile culture is, and yet I drove to the coffee shop today to work on this book because it was raining and I didn't want to bike or walk in the rain.
So why do good people use bad plastic?  Part of the issue is the "bad actors" who structure the situation to make it hard to avoid (say, companies who want to sell more plastic and who flood the market).  She notes this isn't just a matter of power-and-money vs. powerlessness; the small number of players who have a vested interest in producing more plastic makes it easier for them to organize, where as the vast numbers of people who are very or mildly ticked off by plastic trash form a diffuse group who have many priorities.  It's not just money and power; it's social graph theory at work.   "The broader point is that externalities are more likely to be created, and more resistant to being addressed, when those who suffer are more numerous and more spread out  (and those who cause the externalities are smaller in number and more able to coordinate their action.)"  [p. 31]

Compounding this is something known as the "Jevons Effect", which posits that a more efficient use of a resource (or perceived efficiency) can lead to increased use of that resource.  More efficient lighting sources has led our society to use more lights; more efficient air conditioning has led to ubiquitous (over) use of AC; computers have increased our use of paper instead of decreasing it.   

And although she doesn't give this example, I do believe that widespread adoption of recycling in past decades led to increased comfort with using plastic, giving us another example of the Jevons effect in action.  (When I was growing up, there was no curbside recycling of anything.  I remember reading an article by a social scientist who predicted that future generations would mine landfills to extract valuable plastic once we ran out of resources to make this material).   We've come to accept recycling as the good and natural order of things, so much so, that when China stopped accepting recycling, many people got mad at our city waste management authority because "they won't let us recycle any more".  Now we don't have a way to feel virtuous about disposing of plastic yogurt tubs . . . but that virtuous feeling had its downside.  Although recycling of plastics increased in the past decades, production of new plastic ramped up even more.  

But let's return to the question of information.  We keep thinking that information will change people's behavior, but it almost never does, because (a) people usually already know, and (b) they care about other stuff more.  (Yes, paper towels come from trees, but I need to dry my hands).  Knowledge and education can't overcome expense or inconvenience.  

The exceptions to this ineffective information rule come in a variety of ways.  Information can help change behavior when it is
  • new knowledge (for example, last Halloween, many people avoided candy made with Palm Oil when they learned of its role in deforestation);
  • long-term education of children;
  • "procedural" knowledge:  how exactly to recycle, or who to call for an energy audit.
In my own words, we're more likely to change if we get "how to" information, not "why to", information.  

Another kind of information that can be powerful is feedback, provided we can figure out how to get it.  (It's very hard for most of us to get feedback on how our house uses energy, for example.  If you think about which of your appliances used the most energy in the past week, how would you know?)  But with plastic, you really can self-monitor, if you're up for the task.  For me, back in 2012 I started the simple task of just counting how many trash cans I put at the curb (not even paying attention to what was in those trash cans).  That year, my family filled our garbage can 23 times.  Somehow, without entirely knowing exactly how, that number has come down dramatically.   Okay, I admit that having our last three kids move out during the past few years has contributed a bunch to the decrease in trash we produce.  But I do think that just being aware of our garbage has had the bigger effect.     

Part of the reason, DeSombre would suggest, is that personal feedback can often lead to changes in infrastructure.   When this happens, she points out, the infrastructure change (like installing new water-saving toilets) means that daily decisions (shortening showers) aren't required to achieve the same kind of results.   My own acquisition of a curated canning jar menagerie during the past decade certainly helps me avoid food storage bags, saran wrap, yogurt containers, etc.  

Another reason my trashcan count might work so well, she'd suggest, is that feedback needs to 
  • be in terms that people understand (cost, say, as opposed to CO2 emissions), 
  • have a basis for comparison (to neighbors or to previous behavior), 
  • be almost immediate in time, and 
  • be given in a way that people can see it (they don't have to go looking).  
Counting trash cans has a lot going for it, according to this list above.  I can't tell you how many times my husband has come upstairs from the basement (where our trashcan is now), and described to me with great satisfaction that it's still not looking full enough to put out for a couple of weeks yet.  

The book also has chapters on habit.  The paragraph that got me thinking most from this chapter was on one of our stickiest habits:  "One of the major areas for environmentally relevant habits is commuting."  Drivers tend to drive everywhere, even if a bus, metro, etc might be a more convenient way to get to a store, etc.   "We tend to use the same mode of transport no matter where we are going."  There's more good stuff in that chapter, but that was the section that really got me thinking.

Toward the end, DeSombre returns to attitudes and policy.  She notes that calling upon our attitudes and values that are not specifically environmental can help us persuade ourselves (and others):  appealing to frugality is more effective than appealing to environmentalism in conserving gas.  We can appeal to good parenting (avoid pesticides) or being a proud resident of a place (avoid degradation).    Calling attention to people's identity is more powerful than providing information, as anyone familiar with the "Don't Mess With Texas" anti-litter campaign well knows.  Indeed, ironically, focusing on certain environmental behaviors as morally "good" in their own right makes it more likely that people will reward themselves for "noble" actions by allowing "bad" behavior -- a "moral licensing" paradox that echoes the Jevons effect she described earlier.  So focusing on other deep-seated values has multiple advantages.

And changing social norms is an important step in making policy change easier.  "A community that has already reduced its use of disposable grocery bags is much less likely to stand in the way of policy action to eliminate or tax the remaining use.  Policy at local levels . . . can then increase support for policy at higher levels of government."


So, this brings us to the close of my Plastic-free July blogging.  It's been as intense as I thought it would be, and honestly more fun than I thought it would be.  I ended up learning a bunch of stuff myself (especially about so-called styrofoam and about silcone, but also about fun things like chocolate syrup and wine vinegar).   Thanks so much for tagging along with me!

Thursday, July 30, 2020

The clear choice: glass

Instead of continuing to blather on about why plastic is bad, I feel like I need to spend a bit of time humming my favorite tune, singing the praises of canning jars (and other glass containers, while I'm at it).  Because the choice we face regarding plastic isn't all about making sacrifices.   The alternative to plastic in the kitchen isn't deprivation; it's beauty and convenience.

Glass.  How do I love thee?  Let me count the ways.

When I keep cheese in a pyrex container, it's easy to see how much is left, and it's easy to seal.  (My family often has difficulty sealing supposedly-resealable plastic bags, and so cheese in plastic often gets hard edges in my household.  Cheese in pyrex stays the way cheese oughta stay).  

Food I keep in glass bowls or glass containers can go straight from the fridge into the microwave, or straight from the fridge onto the table, making snacking or meal prep that much easier.  

Matching lids with containers is So Much Easier with glass than with assortments of plastic storage containers.   This is true of pyrex-like containers; it's true for glass bowls that I just put a plate on top of in the fridge, and it's Sing-to-the-Heavens true for canning jars, which have exactly two sizes of lids despite the variety of shapes and sizes possible for these amazing jars.   (You may have more sizes of phone and computer chargers in your house than sizes of canning jar lids.  Crazy).

You can take glass containers to many different stores and ask people to fill them directly.   You just "tare" (weigh) the container first, and then buy things in bulk.  If you store the empty containers in your shopping bag, the contents of this bag become your shopping list.  We've brought glass containers to grocery stores, butchers, farmer's markets, etc, and we've purchased olive oil, beans, rice, spices, sandwich meats, salmon, other fish, jelly beans, m&ms, liquid hand soap, and probably other stuff I've forgotten.

Canning jars don't leak.  The wide-mouth pint sized are totally my favorites for storing leftovers that I'll take to school for lunch for that reason -- no spills.  I can bring soup in one of these jars and not have to worry about spills even if the jar lies on its side in my bag.  

If you keep the food below the "freezer line" (marked on the side of the jar) to allow for expansion, you can freeze food in jars.  You can put jars (without the metal lids) in the microwave.  You can put canning jars in the oven.  They're incredibly versatile.

Food stored in canning jars is pretty.  That's partly because you can see the food and all the colors of the food, and it's also partly because the jars lend a kind of uniformity to any array.  

Canning jars often come with measuring marks on the side, so it's simple to make things like salad dressing without using extra measuring cups that you have to wash later.  For that matter, most canning jars come in sizes that match English units of measurement (cup, pint, quart), so they can be used as measuring cups themselves -- especially if you're as slapdash about cooking as I am.  

I guess I ought to mention . . . you can use canning jars to can food.  Yeah, that.  So if you snag a bunch of locally grown or cheap produce (for example, I was once given a crate of plums leftover from a big event), with a bit of upfront effort you can store that food on your shelves and eat it later.   So canning jars allow you to take advantage of frugal finds and of healthy in-season produce.  

Rodents and pests can't eat through glass.  

The rings for canning jars make great cookie cutters (regular size) or burger patty shapers (widemouth size) or baby toys (any size).  

The half-cup and one-cup sized canning jars make great wine glasses, if you happen to host a party with a bunch of people drinking wine and you don't happen to have wine glasses any more because you gave them all away because you have canning jars instead.

Making your own yogurt (which stores nicely in glass jars) or your own vinegar (likewise) is way cheaper than the store-bought versions.  

Those are the things I can think of quickly . . . I'm sure there are more reasons I love these guys.  I might come add some stuff in the comments.  (Feel free to suggest things I left off this list!)

Wednesday, July 29, 2020

Silicon, silicone, and plastic

Silicon is an element.  Silicone is a polymer.  The silent "e" makes all the difference.

Silicon (without the e) is a relatively inert element that's been used in making glass for millennia, not to mention being useful in mortar and other cool construction materials.

Sometimes, when people are trying to go green, they'll try to switch from things like plastic sandwich bags to reusable silicone sandwich bags.  I see more and more of these out there.   You can buy silicone ice cube trays, cake molds, and more.  Silicone (unlike plastic) can go in the oven, and it's non-stick, and it's trendy.  So it's reasonable to wonder:  is silicone (with an e) sustainable?  I honestly didn't know until I started digging into this for my plastic-free July blogfest.   Here's what I dug up in my searching. 

Is silicone an ecologically sustainable material?  Well . . . , as "Livegreen" says, "not really, but better than plastic in some ways . . . "

While the base silicon comes from quartz, a plentiful resource, the hydrocarbons used to make silicone usually come from petroleum or natural gas. The methods for obtaining and processing these materials have well-established environmental criticisms. Silicone is arguably more environmentally friendly than plastic in kitchen applications, as plastic is not as hardy or long lasting as silicone is — and silicone is more inert than plastic, which means it has a lower chance of leaching chemicals into food when used for food storage. Using silicone in kitchenware can be a good option as long as you maintain it to ensure it has a long lifespan, and do your best to recycle it once you can no longer use it.

[However . . . ] While there is nothing about silicone chemically that would prevent it from being recycled, curbside recycling programs rarely accept it, and it can be difficult to find a silicone recycler to accept post-consumer products. This is because many consumers confuse polyurethane with silicone.

The website notes that Terracycle will recycle the material, but, as I noted last week, "The service can be expensive for an individual, but manageable if you organize a collection with a group of friends."

A company that sells silicone bakeware and kitchenware weighs in with this unusual argument for why silicone is preferable to plastic -- it doesn't decompose easily!  As they say:

Because silicone is so durable, it doesn’t easily biodegrade or decompose. While normal plastics break down into dangerous microplastic pieces that can be ingested by wildlife and ocean life, silicone doesn’t break down much at all (it’s that good!). While this may sound worse, plastic activists say it’s actually better for the environment, as large silicone pieces are less likely to get caught in fish bellies, which can cause a multitude of health problems in marine life as well as in humans that consume them down the line. [from a company that sells stuff]

 So.  It seems like if you can get non-polymer-based versions of your objects (a metal or glass baking pan, a glass storage container, for example), that's the eco-friendly champion.   But if you are eyeing, say, a rubber spatula and a silicone one, the silicone version makes more sense.  (Glass spatulas are not so practical, really.)

And . . . that's everything I know about silicone.