I Have Doubts
I’ve always thought the decent thing to do to minimize my negative impact on the environment is to recycle, avoid plastics as much as possible, buy green products, eat organic food, wear sweaters more instead of turning on the heating, buy fewer and higher quality items,… you know the typical. But I’ve been having some doubts that are causing me to seriously reassess some of these conventional practices.
It all started about a year and half a ago when a friend stayed at my place while I was away. She bought some conventional dishwasher tablets and left them behind. I was a bit upset that she would pollute my kitchen with non-eco-friendly products, but I used them reluctantly as it would be wasteful to throw them out. The first time I used one of her tablets, to my surprise every single item in the very full dishwasher came out completely clean. You see, it was normal for some of the items to need re-washing by hand or in another cycle. I had initially thought it was odd that I had to do this, but I accepted this as normal after the dishwasher’s manufacturer sent an engineer who couldn’t find anything wrong with the machine and just recommended that I clean the filters regularly. I did so to no avail. I considered replacing the dishwasher but thought that would be wasteful. Anyway, I thought the first time I used my friend’s dishwasher tablets was a fluke, so I waited till the next time to make a judgment. This time round, I added my stainless steel pots that I normally would have hand washed to get them properly cleaned. All the dishes once again came out clean including the pots. Every time, I used the tablets I got the same results and the filters didn’t need cleaning as often.
When it came to buying new tablets I was torn between getting my old eco-friendly ones that I had bought for years or the ones my friend left behind. I remembered what a client who was a surfactant scientist had said to me years earlier when I expressed that I stopped using conventional detergent brands because they used synthetic chemicals which makes them not eco-friendly. He commented that using only plant-based ingredients doesn’t make a product green. There were other factors to consider such as the energy resources used to produce it and its effectiveness. I finally got what he meant. I was using more water and electricity by running more dishwasher cycles and rewashing dishes by hand. I also discovered that some of the so-called plant-based detergents still contain synthetic chemicals. I gave up on the eco-friendly tablets. Next, I went back to my old favorite hand washing dish detergent–Fairy Liquid. I can now clean a sink full of dishes with just a droplet of detergent while with my “green” liquid I needed half a bottle. At times I still marvel at how clean Fairy leaves my dishes. I can’t help but hear in my head the jingle to its TV ad from when I was growing up: “now your hands can be soft as your face with my mild green Fairy liquid”. I also changed my clothes detergent after I got tired of my work-out clothes never smelling clean even with frequent washing.
A Different Ball Game
My attitude towards caring for the environment had been the same as how I care for my home. I show respect and gratitude by keeping it clean and strive hard to only furnish it with things that make a positive impact. I figured this was enough but I’ve come to realize that it isn’t, that caring for the environment is a whole different ball game. How much control do I really have over how the products I buy are made or how the energy that powers the public transit I use is generated? Sure, as a person living in a democratic society I can vote for legislators aligned with my views. I voted for the Green Party in the last election. But when I look around me it is very disappointing to see how insignificant the impact of my purchasing and voting power has been. I’ve been an avid consumer of organic food ever since I discovered Whole Foods (WH) while living in New York city in 2001 (minus my time living in China, where there was no WH or similar store). I still remember the first time I walked into their branch in Chelsea to find myself in a hall with the most wholesome and pretty fruits and vegetables I had ever seen. I told myself if this is what organic food looks like then I want it forever! Of course I later discovered not all the food there was organic but it was too late, I was sold. I gladly spent twice and even thrice what I would have at the conventional supermarket a block away. Besides, I was helping save the planet. Since then organic food has become more ubiquitous, but I notice that the packaging it comes in hasn’t changed much. Pre-packaged foods are still mostly packaged in some sort of plastic. For years I felt that was fine since I religiously put all the plastic packaging in the recycling bins. Then it emerged that the plastics I thought were going to my local recycling plants were actually going to China. Once China stopped accepting them, they started going to countries such as Turkey, Senegal and Vietnam.
It turns out that it doesn’t even matter where the plastics end up. In fact, just 10% of all plastics made can actually be recycled and only at great expense. NPR’s Planet Money program discovered an industry commissioned report that revealed that top executives from the plastics and oil industry have known since 1973 that “recycling plastic is nearly impossible. There is no recovery from obsolete products. Recycling is costly. Sorting it is infeasible. Plus, plastic degrades every time you try to reuse it.” “plastics are nearly impossible to recycle, there is no recovery from obsolete products…” Planet Money reporters found more confidential memos from meetings that echoed decades of this knowledge. That recyclable symbol of a triangle of arrows with numbers in the middle printed on plastic bottles and packaging is just a marketing ploy to fool folks like me into a false sense of doing the right thing-ness. So the oil and plastics industries, and our legislators (they couldn’t have done it without them), have known for almost 50 years that these plastics are mostly going to end up in landfills and oceans, polluting our food and water. Further, plastics production is estimated to triple by 2050. But Chevron-Phillips has pledged to “recycle all the plastic they make by 2040.” They will get there through education, investment in infrastructure for collection, and innovation. Pretty much the same old story that they have been telling us for decades. How can the industry have so much influence that prevented them being held accountable? I know the answer is money and ignorance (or too much trust) on the part of the public.
In Renewables We Trust
This year summer, there were days when the temperature in my place in London got to 32 degrees. The intensity of the heat inspired me to think about how soon I could realize a long held dream of building a passive house. The house will be well insulated from cold, heat, and noisy neighbors and will be powered by renewable energy–mostly solar panels attached to the house. And it will cut down my carbon footprint as passive houses can reduce energy used for heating and cooling by 90% or more. It will be perfect! Then I saw the documentary Planet Of The Humans that highlights the not so rosy side of renewable energy. I knew that intermittency is a key disadvantage of renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. I figured choosing an electric and gas supplier that invests strongly in renewables will help solve this by encouraging innovation in giant batteries for energy storage. But I didn’t know that while renewables generate zero emissions, they can still impact the environment negatively. For example, solar panels contain toxic materials such as lead and we don’t seem to have a plan in place for how we are going to recycle them when they reach end of life. On average solar panels last about 25 years. By 2050, the International Renewable Energy Agency projects that up to 78 million metric tons of solar panels will have reached the end of their life, and that the world will be generating about 6 million metric tons of new solar e-waste annually. Unless we mandate recycling, many of the modules will go to landfill and the lead in them can leach out. Building solar farms can destroy surrounding fauna and flora. Wind turbines can also affect surrounding ecosystems by killing large numbers of birds. I was astounded to discover that the UK gets 47% of its electricity from renewables and how little (be it positive or negative) I knew about something I was supporting with my money.
In contrast I knew of only the downside of nuclear power supply until I came across a TED presentation by Michael Shellenberger. He spoke of how fear of nuclear power is hurting the environment and that like solar and wind power, nuclear power generates zero emissions but can provide power 92% of the time in contrast to 10% to 20% for solar and wind. I also heard “Nuclear is the safest way to make reliable power…And what about the waste? Everyone worries about the waste. Well, the interesting thing about the waste is how little of it there is… If you take all the nuclear waste we’ve ever made in the United States, put it on a football field, stacked it up, it would only reach 20 feet high. And people say it’s poisoning people or doing something — it’s not, it’s just sitting there, it’s just being monitored. There’s not very much of it. By contrast, the waste that we don’t control from energy production — we call it “pollution,” and it kills seven million people a year, and it’s threatening very serious levels of global warming.” He also mentioned that the percentage of global electricity from clean energy sources has been in decline. I was so surprised by what I heard so I did my own research.
I found that from 1998 to 2008 the percentage of electricity from renewable energy did in fact decline, and started an upward trajectory from 2009 and grew by 5% to 25% 2018, while nuclear decreased by 3% during the same period. The most shocking thing of all is that the percentage of electricity from fossil fuel is about the same it was in 1985 at 64%, as it is in 2018 at 65%. Carbon emissions from energy grew by 2.1% in 2018. How is this possible? Haven’t we known about the dangers of fossil fuels for like forever?!? I also discovered that France gets 72% of its electricity from nuclear power. If nuclear energy is so bad, how can France, Hungry and Belgium get such a big portion of their energy from it? Perhaps it could be because nuclear fuel produces much more electricity by weight. For example, 1 kg of uranium “burned” in a nuclear reactor can produce 50,000 kWh, while 1 kg of coal can produce only 1 kWh and 1 kg of oil only 4 kWh (Goldemberg, Jose. Energy (What Everyone Needs To Know®)). Secondly, maybe due to nuclear energy being by “far the safest energy source it results in more than 442 times fewer deaths than the ‘dirtiest’ forms of coal; 330 times fewer than coal; 250 times less than oil; and 38 times fewer than gas”.
I wonder how we are going to satisfy our insatiable appetite for all things electrical without completely destroying the environment and ourselves in the process. If nuclear power can provide a huge amount of clean energy in a safe way why haven’t we invested more in it? It did occur to me that perhaps the initial capital investment of building nuclear reactors could be a deterrent. The capital costs of generating electricity from nuclear power at $6000/kW is higher than that from coal $3500–3800/kW, oil/gas $1000/kW, onshore wind $1600/kW (offshore wind is $6500/kW) and solar is $1800-2000/kW. Notwithstanding, once built nuclear power fuel cost at $7/MWh is lower than that of gas at $31/MWh and coal at $21/MWh. And constructing a nuclear power plant requires less amount of land than it would take to build a solar or wind power farm. It’s been estimated that it would take over 2077 wind turbines on 318 square miles of land to replace one nuclear power plant rated at 1154 megawatts (MW) on 50 acres of land with a 1 square mile buffer. To find answers to my questions I consulted websites such nei.org (by Nuclear Energy Institute) and iea.org (the International Energy Agency) and the books Energy: A Beginner’s Guide, Nuclear 2.0: Why A Green Future Needs Nuclear Power and Energy (What Everyone Needs To Know®). I discovered that there are safer alternatives to using uranium and fission reactors such as thorium and fusion reactors, but we just haven’t invested enough in them. A couple of recent events indicate that the view on nuclear power is starting to change. In July 2020, the long delayed global Iter project to demonstrate that fusion power can be generated on a commercial stage began its assembly stage in France. For the first time in 48 years the Democratic party has endorsed nuclear energy in its platform.
Since I started researching the conventional practices of “caring” for the environment I’ve realized that the old adage of “ignorance is bliss” isn’t true. The lack of awareness on the part of the public, in this case, has serious consequences such as the pollution of our food and air. I can understand why it feels better not to be informed since I’ve been researching and thinking about this more, I’m left with more doubts than ever. I still don’t know what I can do better or differently? Or how I can influence the legislators and businesses that are entrusted by us, the public, to make big and important decisions, but have failed us? If you have any suggestions please let me know.