Can environmentalism be harmful for the environment?

Can environmentalism be harmful for the environment?

It is not an easy topic. You might recall events, examples from your own life when the best intent turned out to be a mistake and had worse consequences than doing nothing…. It feels usually devastating… I have a bit of a concern anytime when I see initiations that are fundamentally driven by positive intentions, but see that careful consideration is missing. Oversimplifications, such as translating all environmental problems into the existence of plastic, without further distinctions, may be as detrimental as doing nothing related to the waste management problems. Unfortunately. Having several well-written, informative, really professional works out here, I will not enter into anything scientific now, but would try to put this whole initiation into context, as an everyday person, a caring one – ok, with a bit more sensitivity stemming from my educational background – to try to make you all think a bit further. Reading this post you will have a strong impression, why.

Plastic Free July is a global movement, the purpose of which is to reduce the overall use of plastic and thus its detrimental impact on the environment, especially on wildlife. Most of us can agree that it is heartbreaking to see animals with plastic particulars around their bodies, limiting them in their motion, and thus reducing their chance to survive, such as seeing the ocean shores full of plastic bottles and other non-degradable materials floating. We can also agree that small steps can add up and have a large impact, so we should do our best on our micro level, too.  What really matters is the mindset and the commitment to change, breaking bad routines and concentrating on replacing them with sustainable ones.

My concern comes from the overall approach, though. Our natural environment itself is a complex system, with its internal rules, which we have to approach with respect and study thoroughly to understand. If we consider that as a part of a global system, in which also economies and societies are present, it gets even more complex. I do not mean to keep anyone off doing something to make things better, or at least less harmful, just because it would be too complicated to act properly, but would shed some light on the context and potential consequences of our actions, if not careful enough.

Since the ongoing movement is about plastic, and the purpose is to reduce the use of it, let us work with this example for the time being. To summarize concerns, remember a saying form Albert Einstein: Problems cannot be solved at the same level of awareness that created them.” Yes. Once we face a problem which is the consequence of an earlier lack of proper consideration, it might not be the best idea to try to solve it with the same mentality. Lack of proper consideration…

In the past, during economic development, we focused on only some parts of the global system around us, and prioritized one element over the others when the use of plastics started to spread and later to explode. The vision may have been a positive one: find alternatives of exploiting natural resources, especially those that seemed to be close to critical levels of availability, and also ‘cheap’ alternatives to keep the economy going to contribute to social welfare. ‘Cheap’ meaning at lower cost, given the actual economic approach, which considered capital and workforce being limited resources and natural resources, especially the capacities of the environment, unlimited. The problems occurred when it was realized that this was just one side of the coin and no one took proper care about the other: what to do with those plastic items out of use and how to treat them as waste…

Shortly, when certain inventions appear, they tend to solve one particular problem, by nature. But responsibility does not stop there, as it shall have to be put into context. And this is where we mostly fail. It is stemming from human nature, as we tend to overemphasize positive features and ignore risks in many cases, such as concentrate more on things closer to us in time and less on those being further away.

Nature is a self-sustaining and self-governing system, which also reacts on changes by accommodating or isolating them. Unfortunately, when we interfere into this system with our means, breaking its balance, we may receive a feedback which we might not be happy with… Humankind, which was supposed to be the part of the natural environment as one of the species, gained dominance over time, and started to alter their surroundings to a massive extent. Today, we are facing its consequences, and unfortunately seem to make similar mistakes, as in the past… Do not consider consequences thoroughly enough to adjust…

Going along the example of the fight against plastic, see some facts that may be worth considering when looking at the big picture. First, see a larger context. The study ‘Preventing plastic waste in Europe‘ (EEA, 2019) provides a state-of-play of plastic waste prevention in Europe. It maps and analyzes efforts across the Member Countries of the European Economic Area (EEA) to address plastic waste generation through prevention measures. Not surprisingly, the bottom line is that the prevention of the most environmentally harmful plastic types, such as single-use plastics and non-recyclable plastic products should be prioritized. While charges on plastic shopping bags have led to significant results in reducing their use and thus the waste in many countries, similar measures should also be applied to other types of plastic products. The largest issue is said to be  plastic packaging and the waste stemming from their use in Europe. According to statistics, ca 35% of landfills consists of plastic waste, related to packaging. 

Unfortunately, the plastic prevention strategies failed to keep pace with the increase of plastic production in Europe and, as of today, only 30% of plastic waste is collected for recycling. In addition, most recycling operations take place outside Europe, where environmental practices and standards may differ.

Important to note, that the term ‘plastic’ does not cover a homogeneous group of materials. There are non-degradable and degradable types. Easy to understand that non-degradable has a risk to stay in its original form for quite for some time, in the form of waste (pollution). It can also be recollected and recycled, meaning not to result in additional waste from environmental point of view. And we can also find plastic which is degradable, behaving like paper or other organic materials which have a limited lifetime and then decomposing into its original inputs, or at least something processable for the natural environment. The European policies target the single-use and non-degradable types, and facilitate to increase the proportion of recycling by all possible means. Consequently, approximately half of the EEA countries declared a priority waste stream, and 173 waste prevention measures has been identified, 105 of which cover the production phase of plastic products and 69 cover the consumption phase. 73 measures are market based, majority of which means posing charges on the use of plastic. Sadly, only 9 Member States has declared, explicit  targets in their prevention policies, all the others are working with intentions, best practices and voluntary solutions…. Nevertheless, what is a real achievement is that single-use plastic plates, cutlery, straws, balloon sticks and cotton buds will be banned by 2021, and Member states have agreed to achieve a 90% collection target for plastic bottles by 2029. Plastic bottles will have to contain at least 25% of recycled content by 2025 and 30% by 2030.

Take a look at the same issue from replacement or complementary point of view. What can you replace plastic with? The current enemies, plastic bags, containers, cups, PET bottles, may be replaced by paper or organic textile bags, containers with paper, porcelain, glass, or metal, for example, cups may also be made of paper, glass, porcelain and metal, such as PET bottles. And we arrived to a point where we can start to worry about the forests, providing the raw material of paper, metals and other resources we are mining to provide the input for aluminium, steel, porcelain, glass, etc., such as the energy consumption and the generation of side materials, air and heat-pollution, natural environment converted into industrial zones, etc… Just some examples (globally): 27,000 trees are said to be cut down each day just to have toilet paper, 75,000 per year to print only the daily issues of the New York Times, and an average supermarket goes through 60,000 paper bags, annually. It takes almost 4,000 years for a bottle to decompose (although it can be reused and recycled several times by then), and aluminium cans may almost be recycled without limitation in time. Energy saving on recycling only one may be enough for a television to run for 3 hours. 

We can also go further and worry about the economies, the welfare of societies, especially those who are close to the human minimum when it comes to pure survival…Besides the complexity of the natural environment and its relation to the human economies and societies, there is a kind of moral contradiction in our heads. We worry about overpopulation and global warming, as an example. We would like to solve the nurturing issue by increasing the efficiency and productivity of agriculture, though we also fight for organic food, bio products, and less transportation associated with the distribution. Which latter are in an obvious contradiction with the former…

We could continue with hundreds, if not thousands of examples explaining complexity and contradictory nature of the environment and our approach to it. Instead of doing so, to make all of you hesitating and leaving the scene instead of trying to act responsibly, let me give some highlights on a desirable mindset change which would lead to positive changes. And these are just the very basics.

Think global, act local. Let it be your general approach. Do not make an excuse for yourself by emphasizing your minor individual impact but do what you can on your micro level.

Take a look at your habits, routines, and make two lists: those you consider sustainable and those unsustainable (if followed by others in an extensive way). The first list may contain elements such as walking to places instead of using vehicles, or using public transport instead of your car, collecting your waste separately and bringing to the selective collection places, not asking for single-use plastic bags at the supermarket, etc. The other list may contain extensive water consumption, using too much processed food, over-consumption of power unnecessarily, throwing away household appliances instead of getting them repaired, etc.

Reduce. Reduce your ecological footprint in general. Use what you really need and do not make excuses for yourself. Less fuel, less power and water, smaller house, (more green to protect you from a part of the effects of heatwaves, instead of using air-conditioning, as a side-effect), less single-use products and less food waste.

Reuse. Vote for durable things and reuse them. Pay more attention to practicalities then pure aesthetic. Do not forget that you might have different impression than pure facts would tell you. Using paper shopping bags is more detrimental than using one single plastic basket for all your shopping for years, especially if made of recycled material. And this is just one example.

Recycle. Once you cannot reduce further and there is no possibility to reuse something for natural reasons, as no material tends to last forever and their characteristics that make them useful may decline over time, use products made from recycled materials or choose those that may be recycled over time. You have a smaller footprint if you can keep materials in circulation as long as you can, without further significant energy consumption and pollution.

Rethink. Be curious and ask questions. Look for environmental facts and be critical. Change your own mindset and revise it regularly. Think over what matters really in life and remove those items that you can just recall with considerable efforts. Those are most probably not necessary at all… Several alternative statistics exist by now, with the purpose of measuring human welfare, well-being, happiness, however you describe it, and there is less and less evidence on having a strong correlation with the level of consumption. Why to continue on that then?

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