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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Consumer Choices

Air Date: Week of

Many of us worry about whether we should be using paper or plastic bags, cloth or disposable diapers. But a recent book by the Union of Concerned Scientists suggests that these sorts of consumer decisions are relatively insignificant, compared to other choices we make. Host Steve Curwood talk with Warren Leon, Deputy Director of Programs at UCS and co-author of the Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, about the purchasing decisions that have the greatest environmental impacts.


CURWOOD: It's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. The Union of Concerned Scientists usually turns its intense scientific analyses on the weighty environmental and security issues of the day. Global climate change. Radioactive fallout and the like. So, it is a bit unusual when the liberal advocacy group turns its high-powered computers to such mundane matters as diapers and coffee cups. But that is exactly what they did when they set out on a project to identify the most important things consumers can do to protect the environment. In The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices, co-author Warren Leon explains how consumer choices can make a difference.

LEON: You know, you've probably heard the phrase "Don't sweat the small stuff." What we're trying to do is to get people to sweat the big stuff.

CURWOOD: So what's the small stuff we shouldn't care about?

LEON: We shouldn't worry about when you go to the grocery store and somebody asks you paper versus plastic, which type of bag you want. If you can bring a bag from home, that's great. But if you can't on that day, take whichever's convenient. When you have a child and someone asks whether you want to have that child in cloth diapers or disposable, choose which is right for your child. Don't worry about the environmental implications of the 2 alternatives, because they both have some environmental impacts, and the impacts are relatively equal. On top of that, we certainly think people should recycle. We certainly think people should try to use less material. But don't get so compulsive about it that you lose sight of the big stuff.

CURWOOD: You mean, like getting in the car and driving a mile to pick up that plastic cup.

LEON: Exactly. Or, going out and buying a new house that is 1,000 square feet bigger than you really need, so that you're using literally hundreds if not thousands of pounds of extra material in building that house, and you're going to, in every year you live in that house, use lots and lots of extra energy to heat and light the house.

CURWOOD: Okay, so if there was one area that people were going to change their behavior in, what would be the top priority?

LEON: Cars.

CURWOOD: Cars. Why? Why are cars so bad for the environment?

LEON: Well, cars cause considerable air pollution. They contribute heavily to global warming. They also contribute to water pollution. The manufacture of things like batteries for cars contributes to water pollution, runoff from roads contributes to water pollution. They also contribute to altering natural habitats, primarily through construction of new roads.

CURWOOD: So we should get rid of our cars, or drive less, or get environmentally-friendly cars? What should we do?

LEON: Well, the last 2 that you mentioned. We're not saying to people that they need to get out of their cars completely, never step into one. That's clearly unrealistic. What we're saying is, anybody can look at their own driving habits and find ways to cut their environmental impact 10%, 20%, even 50%, without too much trouble.

CURWOOD: So, what's the big deal about meat and fruits and vegetables?

LEON: Meat in particular has a really big impact on the environment. We were surprised when we did this study how significant it was. We compared eating beef to poultry to eating pasta. And we found that eating the beef produced about 17 times as much common water pollution as eating pasta. It also had a much greater impact on endangered species, because of the tremendous land use. And so, people switching from meat to vegetables and grains reduces their environmental impact significantly. But even if they want to switch from beef to poultry, that has a great impact.

CURWOOD: Really? What kind of impact does poultry have compared to beef?

LEON: If you switch from beef to poultry, you reduce your environmental impact in half or less. And so it's a good way to reduce one's impact even if you don't want to sort of go to a vegetarian diet.

CURWOOD: Vegetables are dangerous, too, it looks like. You have fruit and produce down here as something that has pretty high impact.

LEON: Primarily because people consume a lot of food. We're not telling people not to eat. We just need to acknowledge that farming and agriculture are resource-intensive activities. There are ways they could be made to be friendlier to the environment. A lot of those changes need to be made on a society level, through laws that will reduce the use of pesticides, for example. But consumers can help, too, by buying organic foods. When you go to the store and buy organic foods, you are not only reducing your environmental impact, but you're sending a powerful message to farmers, to grocery store owners, and to the government, that you're a person who cares about the safety and the environmental impacts of what you eat.

CURWOOD: You make the claim in your book that there are actually good types of consumptions. I'm wondering if you could give us a sense of some of those quote "good" unquote purchases.

LEON: A refrigerator is a good example.


LEON: New refrigerators use only about a third of the electricity of one from 25 years ago.

CURWOOD: But doesn't this add to the waste stream by getting new appliances and therefore you have to get rid of the old ones?

LEON: The average family uses the equivalent of more than 3,000 pounds of coal a year to provide the electricity it needs. You have to imagine that 3,000 pounds of coal are being dumped on your lawn each year. (Curwood laughs) If you could reduce that significantly, that's going to be a greater positive impact than --

CURWOOD: The dead refrigerator in the solid waste.

LEON: Yes.

CURWOOD: You have created some sort of a game on your Web site here.

LEON: The Great Green Web Game. In a fun way, it tries to get you to think about the choices you make in your own lives, and what you could do to reduce your environmental impact.

CURWOOD: So what kind of questions have you got for your trivia game?

LEON: Well, one example is: what do Americans spend the most money on, clothing, toys, or entertainment?

CURWOOD: Entertainment, I'll guess.

LEON: Clothing.

CURWOOD: Clothing.

LEON: (Imitating buzzer) Aaa

CURWOOD: All right; you'd better throw me another one.

LEON: For every household in America, livestock produce 1 ton of animal waste in a year, 10 tons of animal waste in a year, or 20 tons of animal waste in a year?

CURWOOD: So what's the poop for this answer, huh? Well, I think it's a lot, so I'm going to guess 20 tons.

LEON: Twenty tons, you're right. And if people just imagined all that --

CURWOOD: Twenty tons! You mean, from the animal meat that's consumed in this country, if all that manure that the animals generated for that meat to be grown was piled on their front lawn, there'd be 20 tons of it?

LEON: Twenty tons. It's actually not just animals for meat. It's also dairy cattle as well. But even then, that's a lot of animal waste. And it suggests why it causes such a significant water pollution problem.

CURWOOD: Huh. That's one way to fertilize your lawn, isn't it? Well, I want to thank you for taking this time with us today.

LEON: Oh, thanks for having me.

(Music up and under)

CURWOOD: Warren Leon is Deputy Director of Programs at the Union of Concerned Scientists. He and Michael Brower co-wrote The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices. You can play the game based on their book at a link in our Web site: www.loe.org. That's www.loe.org. It's NPR's Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.



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