Paper or Plastic?

We begin with a quiz.

Section the First:

Which item in each pair is better for the environment:

(A) drying clothes in the dryer or hanging them on a clothesline?
(B) using processed foods or growing your own food?
(C) using disposable diapers or using cloth diapers?

Section the Second:

Which item in each pair is more work for mother:

(A) drying clothes in the dryer or hanging them on a clothesline?
(B) using processed foods or growing your own food?
(C) using disposable diapers or using cloth diapers?

I’m all for making choices that reflect a better stewardship of our earth’s limited resources. I am vaguely disturbed by the flood of hints, tips, and ideas for minimizing one’s impact that never take into account the simple fact that adopting them means more housework. There is a serious conflict between environmentalism and feminism, and no one says much about it. It is reminiscent of the stereotypical 50s jerkhusband who never thinks to notice (let alone thank his wife for) the vacuumed rug or the perfect roast when we advocate measures for saving the earth without thinking about how they don’t save mothers time.

Perhaps you object (I hope you object!) to me casting this as more work for “mother.” Shouldn’t father do his fair share? Yes, of course. But I’m already working my husband to death–if I expected him to, say, hang out the laundry after dinner, he would no longer be able to bathe the rugrats as he normally would during that time. Even in that mythic 50-50 household, all of these environmentally correct options would require more work for mother: if my husband did half of the gardening and canning, my half would still be far more work than opening a jar of Ragu.

Not every pro-good-stewardship decision makes extra work: certainly the less stuff you buy, the less stuff mother has to organize, maintain, and clean. Washing the towels every other day instead of every day means less housework. You get the idea.

But particularly when it comes to food, the decision to transition from Lays Potato Chips to homemade chips made from potatoes you grew yourself represents a decision to go from chips that cost mother mere minutes (purchasing bag, opening bag) to countless hours (gardening, washing, cooking, cleaning up after cooking).

I know, I know: involve your children in the work and view it as quality family time. Yes, there can certainly be that element. But the vision of mother hanging crisp white linens in the sun while her brood plays in the fresh air frays a bit at the edges when she has to dislodge dead bugs from the baby’s mouth and her preschooler drops the kitchen towels in the grass and then she has to change their muddy clothes when they go in. (What? More laundry?)

It isn’t my goal to discourage movement in the direction of conservation. (And I’m sure homemade potato chips would be wicked good.) I’m just tired of people pretending that there is no cost attached and forgetting that that cost is borne disproportionately by women.

55 comments for “Paper or Plastic?

  1. Julie-

    What a great post. You’ve given me a lot to think about. I have had these thoughts milling around in my head, but not nearly as coherently. I wish the media would recognize this instead of classifying those that don’t do all these “green” things as lazy or uncaring. Alternate post title: It’s not easy being green.

  2. Thanks for your insight. I’ve been pondering this for awhile… I too am tired to hearing about all sorts of conservation ideas without any notice of the massive amounts of my time they will consume. Why does harder, time consuming and/or more expensive have to be better? For me, the jury is still out on the cloth/disposable argument and so many other green lifestyle choices anyway. Besides, in addition to being more time consuming for me (as a mother), don’t you have to wash your cloth diapers several times a week? That’s hardly a negligible environmental impact…

  3. I acknowledge your larger point and think it is valid. In defense of cloth diapers though, they are actually surprisingly easy. My wife was big on purchasing them while I was pretty uneasy about it. I’ve been converted though (and have saved a lot of money along the way). My wife’s blog posts on her choice to move to cloth diapers and her experience in using them are here here, here, and here.

  4. Marc, I know that cloth diapers aren’t a full-time job, but you can’t argue that cloth diapers are equal to or less work than disposables.

  5. I have been hanging all my laundry all summer and it takes FOREVER. This last week I have been extra busy and have been using my drier and been feeling really guilty. Thanks for this Julie, now I am going to try and feel happy when I do have the time to hang my clothes and happy that I have a drier when I don’t have the time or energy for the clothesline. Also you are right about the reality of hanging clothes, they do fall in the dirt, my kids pull them down and occasionally there is bird poop and I have to rewash things.

  6. Is there a better way to show that we value the natural resources Heavenly Father has given us than by using them sparingly?

    Will faith alone prevent landfills from filling up and oil wells drying up, or is some effort also necessary?

  7. We just moved into an apartment without a washer/dryer and I’ve started hanging my clothes up to save money. It has been a big transition for us; laundry takes a lot more time, plus it ends up spread out throughout the week because I can only do a load a day, maximum. I do make a lot of our food from scratch, but you’re right that it takes quite a bit of time. For me cooking is something I enjoy and like to spend time doing, so spending Saturday afternoon making jam or cooking spaghetti sauce is relaxing. For others it’s not. I do wish we had more acknowledgement of cost-benefit ratio in making decisions. I am a big proponent of good environmental stewardship and conservation, but time and money are also important factors. Some of my friends have decided not to do cloth diapers because they live in areas with water-use restrictions. We’ve opted not to use them at this time because of the fact that it costs $1.50 a load to wash clothes and because we have limited space for hanging them up.

  8. and some of us live it countries where dryers are not the norm – and with a rainy season, Its not that big of a deal!! You manage!

  9. Awesome points, Julie. To me, it’s all about balance. And that to me means there is no One Right Answer that can be declared for all. We all do what we can with all the good desires and goals we have. We want to be sensitive to the environment, but also want to balance the way we use our time and energy. We want to teach our children how to work, but there are many ways to do that.

  10. I agree that it is a balance thing. We don’t use many processed foods because they are gross, and we have regular family cooking days where we (everyone pitches in) make up a bunch of dishes for the freezer, our own convenience foods. But of course then there is the environmental impact of the freezer costs.

    The other thing about hanging one’s clothes is that a lot of times you have to then iron them. Whereas using a dryer, lots of us get by without ever ironing, so the energy trade-off isn’t quite so clear.

  11. The answer, of course, is to not be a mother. Children consume resources AND make it harder to precisely follow the green lifestyle. Therefore, being a mother destroys the environment, and, thus, should be discouraged. Religions that do not discourage motherhood clearly hate the earth and all of its creatures.

    (The foregoing is offered with my tongue in my cheek. If anyone seriously believes the above statement, know that your belief is why I am not on board with your brand of envirionmentalism.)

  12. While there is no doubt that there is a “cost” to going green, I’m not sure I buy the conclusion: “that that cost is borne disproportionately by [mothers].” (I changed “women” to “mothers” because I think that is really your focus; i.e., not on working women who do not have kids.)

    Part of the problem is that you could easily turn any green effort by fathers into a burden for mothers: a) dad bikes to work (45 min) instead of driving (15 min), thus leaving mom with kids for an extra hour each day; b) dad plants and tends a garden, thus mom is left holding baby and washing the older kids’ dirty clothes (your example, above). Even something simple like c) dad decides to eat locally grown food and veggies only—means that mom has to reconfigure her shopping and cooking.

  13. Despite my Y chromosome, I do virtually all the laundry at my house. My wife folds the clothes, and we both think we got the easy job and stuck the other with the unpleasant part. Weather permitting, I’ve been air drying most of the laundry for more than a year. Drying in the sun also has the advantage of keeping the garments bleached white. I do try to be pragmatic about it. Sometimes if I’ve got a lot going on, I may just throw the clothes in the dryer and not feel guilty about it. My dress shirts don’t air dry without wrinkling badly, so they go in the dryer, but they are lightweight and don’t take too much time or electricity to dry. I also put socks in the dryer. Hanging socks individually on the line just takes too much time to be worth the bother. I put pegs on the laundry room wall and I will often hang garments to dry on the pegs if the weather is bad or if it’s too late in the day to get any sun. By the next morning, they’re almost completely dry, and if I’m in a hurry, I’ll throw them in the dryer for five minutes to finish them up. I actually find that the whole laundry process takes less time this way because I can plan to have one load on the line while another is in the dryer. If I only use the dryer, it causes a backlog in the washing machine because I have to wait for one load to dry before I can put the next load in the washing machine.

  14. i find if i do it one thing at a time, it is much easier. and less expensive. i use reusable grocery bags. i recycle like crazy. i use biodegradable products. i can’t dry my clothes outside. i can’t have a compost. we live on a military post so growing a ton of our own food really isn’t plausible for us. just take baby steps. with our next child, i am considering cloth diapers, but since we’re moving again that will depend on where we move. and if i can manage to get a sewing machine for christmas.:) just do what you can when you can. anything that we can do without sacrificing too much of our valuable time as mothers is worth it.

  15. To me, even if it’s not women doing the extra work (I suspect that in the end, that is true anyway, but let’s pretend for a minute that it isn’t), there is still an important point in this post, imo. Environmentalism isn’t a panacea, or at least it shouldn’t be treated as such. There are costs and benefits to choices we make, and if we save the environment but ignore our kids, for example, what’s the point? That’s an obvious extreme, but I think Julie’s post is just a good example why balance is needed, and why any -ism falls short of The One True Cause. There’s more to life and being a good steward than ANY -ism in isolation.

  16. So what if it takes more work (for the mother, for the father, for the children, or whoever). I mean, if one would reject environmentalism because it takes more effort, one might as well reject practical Mormonism, too. No temple attendance, no Sunday meetings, no home teaching, and so forth.

    Sure it takes work. You make work sound like it’s a bad thing, Julie.

  17. Julie, I don’t disagree with the premise that all the “greener” options are more labor-intensive. And yes, most domestic work is done by women. On the other hand, there are a lot of green innovations which don’t create additional work for women and which do offer tangible environmental benefits: for example, driving a hybrid car, or using a high-efficiency washer/dryer instead of a regular one. Right now these are expensive gadgets (one is spending money instead of time to reap the benefits), but their popularity and many people’s desire to be greener will contribute, I think, to bringing down costs over time and bringing new environmentally friendly products to market.

    I see environmentalism as reconciliable with feminism because ultimately real, sustainable, serious change isn’t going to come by you or anyone else making your own potato chips: it’s going to come from major societal change in which technology will play a big part. One tiny example of that is the use of CFL light bulbs. They cost more upfront, but you change them less often (which saves women a few minutes a year!).

  18. Also, m&m touches on something really important which I think is missing from your argument when she mentions that we each have our own individual “good desires and goals.” One person’s drudgery is another person’s hobby. For some people environmentalism is enough of a reason to do something, but we can’t all do everything, and most of us choose things to do that we prefer.

    So, maybe I only hang out my laundry once in a blue moon, but for some people it’s pleasant to have an excuse to go outside. I grow tomatoes because I enjoy growing tomatoes. I talk about how great they taste and revel in their organic-ness and free-ness, but those are just byproducts of the process. There’s something about it I find very satisfying.

    Cloth diaper people are a great example, because they really do seem to enjoy it, and the enjoyment motive probably supports the environmental motive. I don’t cloth diaper but I do use rags (“washcloths”) instead of paper towels, and I do find it oddly fun and satisfying. I started doing it for environmental and economic reasons, but I’ve kept doing it for other reasons: the cloths do the job better, we don’t run out, and I find it strangely liberating not to have to buy paper towels anymore. It’s not just that it’s easier not to lug home the packages; it’s also really liberating not to let some company dictate my needs and market this stupid product to me. Sounds so minor, and yet it’s enough of a lift to be worth the one extra load of laundry per week. For me, that is. For you, maybe not.

  19. I mean, if one would reject environmentalism because it takes more effort, one might as well reject practical Mormonism, too. No temple attendance, no Sunday meetings, no home teaching, and so forth.

    I don’t see her rejecting it at all. Just stating that there can be a cost, and that cost can conflict with the ideals of feminism.

    I don’t think anyone here is rejecting environmentalism outright.

    Even our Mormonism has its costs. That doesn’t mean we reject it, but everything in life is about choices, and about cost and benefit, and about figuring out what matters to us and seeking to spend our time and energy in ways that are consistent with those values.

  20. While estimating costs,lets’s not forget that we can consider intangibles such as convenience. Some considerations cannot be calculated as dollar values, but still have value.

  21. Really good points, Julie. This reminds me of discussions about how first wave feminism was often very classist in its assumptions — women needed to get a maid, so that they could be free from drudgery, and spend their time writing important books and thinking deep thoughts.

  22. Which is why, Julie, one needs to be mindful that the liberal \”green\” doctrine also leads to outlawing people having children.
    I\’ve already personally met some seriously misguided liberal Mormons who think \”God wouldn\’t want me to bring more children into this world.\” But, because they learned at BCC that one can disregard what the prophet teaches about gay marraige and the proclamation on the family, well, they\’ve just disregarded what the prophet teaches. FWIW.

  23. Julie,
    You wash your towels every other day?!?

    I wash mine every other week (in a good month).
    Or maybe once a quarter. . .


    But, that’s waaaay greener, isn’t it? ;)

  24. I’m guessing folks who wash their towels less often live in less humid climates than Julie and I live in.

  25. LiberalSlayer, could you please find a posting nickname that doesn’t entail an intent to murder people? It’s just that, you know, murder is not really what this web site is all about. Or the church. Or the gospel.

  26. LS’ murderous intent would be evident no matter his moniker, as would his stupid lies about BCC and his idiot mischaracterizations of what it means to be environmentally-friendly.

  27. In addition to being green, I suspect, given the current financial climate that we’ll start hearing more about how to save money by increasing domestic work, specifically for women. One biggie I’ve heard a lot already is eating out- in the vast majority of homes when they don’t eat out, mom cooks.

    I mean, why pay when mom can do it for free? (except it is only free to the people not doing the work, it actually costs mom quite a lot.)

    Jessawhy, we live in Az where you hang a towel up and it’s dry a half hour later- for us the reason to wash a towel is because it’s actually dirty. I suspect in humid climates the reason to wash a towel is to prevent mold. ick

  28. OK, so there is one other thing that is lurking here in my mind, a sort of flip side to this. Who’s to say that it’s BAD for a woman to do ‘more work’? I appreciate conveniences of our modern world, but I also appreciate the opportunity to work for my family’s behalf. I will even go so far as to say that there are many times that I feel the Spirit when I do do some good, hard, non-convenient work for my family. A woman working is not all bad, and should not always be avoided just because it can be. (Not saying the OP was saying that, btw.)

    (BTW, Julie, I don’t mean to speak for you in 21. I was simply sharing my understanding of what you wrote.)

  29. (So, for example, Starfoxy talks about women working more to save money. I actually often LIKE doing things that can save us money. I think that is a tangible way I can contribute to our family’s well-being, especially since I am not employed outside of the home. Work to earn, work to save. Works for me.)

  30. Value your time at 3 times what your employer pays you per hour. Only do extra work that saves you at least that much. That’s my philosophy toward money- and environment-saving steps that take extra work. Only do what’s truly worthwhile. Our time is worth a lot. Do less and have a lot more peaceful calm hours to enjoy life. =)

  31. No problem, Tatiana. We each have to find our own balance, right? :) I actually think it’s interesting that you have a formula to sort through it all.

  32. “Who’s to say that it’s BAD for a woman to do ‘more work’?”

    I don’t think that it is bad, but it is something that needs to be considered when making decisions about how couples will spend their time and money. For the person who doesn’t cook there is little difference between eating out or eating in, and they need to remember that the money saved by eating in is had at the expense of the cook’s time and effort. Sometimes the money saved isn’t worth it.

    There is nothing inherently bad about doing more work. I just think we need to make sure we’re doing the most valuable work with our limited time.

  33. For the person who doesn’t cook there is little difference between eating out or eating in

    Do you really think so? I much prefer a home-cooked meal most of the time, and I think hubby does, too.

    But I’ll be the first to say that I am very grateful to have the resources to buy a pizza once in a while on those days when I can’t do one more thing. And I’m grateful for a hubby who almost always can tell when it’s that kind of a day and offers to pick one up! :)

    (BTW, I agree with what you have said. Again, it’s all about balance and weighing costs and benefits — all of them, not just the effect on the environment.)

  34. I agree, Julie, especially with feeding a family. Growing your own food and buying local requires a lot of effort as far as understanding your local food economy. Using loads of fresh produce requires careful planning and creativity to avoid waste and rebellion from the masses. It becomes as time-consuming as you allow it. Unfortunately, it’s a battle against a system of consumption that is so entrenched in our society that it’s difficult to recognize (yes, I sound like a zealot!)
    But I’m only making this effort because it’s important to me and I know my limits. As soon as someone tries to make me feel bad for buying bread or using Pampers, I tune them out completely.
    (The irony, of course, is that my kids would love it if I just tossed them the occasional bag of Cheetos and let them wash it down soda).

  35. “Do you really think so? I much prefer a home-cooked meal most of the time, and I think hubby does, too.”

    Well, you know, if the skill of the two cooks is comparable then it holds, but If you’re that great of a cook, then there’s no need to rub our noses in it. :)

  36. Oh, dear, no, Starfoxy. I’m a pretty simple cook, actually. It’s just that eating out can get old fast, and the food is often heavy and calorie-laden. We just usually prefer to eat the lighter, simpler food I cook.

    I AM pretty good at hiding health food in my meals, too, so that’s a plus. :)

  37. A little late and not where the thread’s going, but Garbage Magazine (likely now defunct) had an article almost twenty years ago on disposable diapers where they ran all of the impacts of disposables vs cloth (both home-washed and a service) and came to the conclusion that it’s basically a wash. Cloth diapers reuse the cellulose more than disposables, but use way more water and electricity to clean, plus the chemicals involved in the washing (bleach produces dioxin), etc. It’s not a slam-dunk that using cloth diapers is better for the environment — the balance can probably be close enough that local variations like the way in which waste is disposed, the availability of potable water, the method of electricity production can nudge the answer of which is environmentally friendlier this way or that.

    And might we not be better off doing the things which save us time to enable us to do more cash earning, and then contributing the extra cash to support important causes like microloans? Is it entirely inappropriate to encourage people to study these questions out, rather than taking any one source’s opinion as final, and then praying about it to see if God has an opinion on how he would have you handle your individual stewardship in your part of his vineyard?

  38. enjoyed the post, Julie.

    This probably isn’t the point of your post (and might qualify as a thread-jack), but does anyone know of a reliable source that looks at the strength of evidence for environmental issues like those that Julie brings up? Something similar to the source that Blain mentions? A source that is rational, based on evidence, and technical?

  39. I read a post a few weeks ago written by a woman who wanted to do something to save the polar bears and decided to turn her porch light off when she wasn’t using it. It solved her major moral problem and she was able to sleep well, aglow with a warmly righteous feeling.

    Though I have always turned off lights I’m not using, I never thought of it as a way of saving polar bears. And I don’t do it mainly as a cost-saving action or to save the environment. It’s just that waste is bad. Even Jesus did a careful accounting of the fishes and loaves after the miracle.

    Environmentalism and feminism both seem so full of warped moral thinking that trying to figure how they are in conflict with each other seems an exercise in labyrinthine self-befuddlement. I could never hope to get to the bottom of it.

    However, avoiding waste and eating healthy seem important, in and of themselves. I avoid convenience foods and processed foods, and my diet tends toward raw fruits and vegetables, Since I’m busy during the week, I spend some of Saturday preparing meals that don’t have high fructose corn syrup or hydrogenated oils for the rest of the week. I try to think of it as a pleasure rather than a cost. It’s just how I want to live.

    As I can, I try to get things simpler but I use as my guide avoiding waste and keeping myself and the world more healthy. My actions may or may not comport with the latest suggestions from environmentalists, but I have enough to do without worrying about them.

    When I was at the university people were arguing about whether styrofoam coffee cups or paper coffee cups were most environmentally sound. I think the argument never ended conclusively, and still, years later, the university offers both so people can make their own choice. I had other things to think about.

    At about the same time, I showed up at a friends house where we were going to practice shooting our bows getting ready for hunting season. I had a cup of hot chocolate in a styrofoam cup, and he became very upset and preached me a little sermon about my wicked ways. At the time, he was a serial adulterer, but that was an old moral category he was too enlightened to be bothered with.

    I would refuse to feel guilty about using disposable diapers. I would read the label of those potato chips and wonder how many I really wanted to eat, and probably see whether I could be satisfied with nuts or peanuts. But I wouldn’t make homemade chips unless I took joy in doing so. I would shop at Walmart and marvel at the worldwide system of efficiency that is being developed, wringing waste out of the system.

  40. I often wonder how much of environmental damage is due to styrofoam cups, disposable diapers, packaged foods, etc. as opposed to global policies, etc.

  41. (Perhaps off subject, perhaps not.)

    Throw the principles of food storage into the mix.

    Why do we eat fast foods? Because they are fast. One of the hidden costs of eating stored food is that on average preparation times are longer. It adds up, 21 meals a week. if you add a couple hours for each meal, you have another full-time job.

    Does storing and rotating most of your food help or hurt the environment?

  42. Blain, there’s been research suggesting that the environmental impact is roughly equal, but a lot of those studies have been financed by Proctor & Gamble. (If you google “cloth diaper disposable diaper studies” there’s an ABC News story from 2005 that comes up which mentions most of them and why they might be flawed). So I don’t have any counter-evidence, but I’m not convinced by the research that’s out there.

  43. Midge #18

    I believe that being good stewards of the environment is part of being a faithful human being as well as a Saint. But I find that so many people think they are making “green” choices because the “experts” tell them they are, and yet in reality they could be (not always) making things worse rather than better.

    For examples, CFL’s seem like such a great energy solution, until you find out that CFL’s contain mercury-a neurotoxin that causes brain damage and kidney failure. An MSNBC report from April of 2008 said:
    ” The amount (in one CFL bulb) is tiny — about 5 milligrams, or barely enough to cover the tip of a pen — but that is enough to contaminate up to 6,000 gallons of water beyond safe drinking levels, extrapolated from Stanford University research on mercury. Even the latest lamps promoted as “low-mercury” can contaminate more than 1,000 gallons of water beyond safe levels.”

    Considering that most of the consumers who buy them have NO idea about the mercury, and simply toss them out with the garbage, these “green” bulbs could very well be doing more damage to the environment (and our health) than they are helping.

    As far as hybrid cars go-again, it’s all about what you take the time to know. One report done by an automotive engineer who has worked for all 3 “big three” companies wrote an article that states: “Gas – electric hybrid engines use several large batteries. Creating these power cells requires a couple of hundred pounds of heavy metals– not to mention the copper used in the large electric drive motors and the heavy wires they require. Mining and smelting lead, copper and other heavy metals is an energy intensive process that generates both air pollution and deforestation. Disposing of the batteries when they outlive their usefulness also raises environmental challenges.”

    Newsweek ran an article on hybrid batteries and the fact that they only work for so long, and replacing them is expensive. As demand for hybrids has increased, so has the demand for batteries and Toyota/Panasonic announced plans to build a $200 million dollar factory to manufacture batteries to meet their goal of selling 1 million hybrids a year. New factory means more air pollution and mining.

    It pays to do your homework on whether or not the things you CAN do ARE truly helping the environment or not, and to be responsible once you know. Scripture informs us that the fullness of this earth was given to us to benefit man and meet our needs as long as we use them with judgment and thanksgiving. If we are spending more time trying to save the earth than we are trying to save the souls of our brothers and sisters, our priorities are in need of adjustment.

  44. We drive a 1994 Geo Prizm. It averages 30 mpg (we fill up every two weeks — really) and I have none of the worries about mining, smelting, and disposing of heavy metals. It’s not easy being green, but I think I found a happy shade of forest glade that works pretty well.


  45. Hmm. Some thoughts from an envi sci major here…

    -We\’re stressing out about environmentalism being more work. Some environmentalist things are… some aren\’t. I think we hear a lot about either the expensive or labor-intensive ones because they have more sex appeal than the plainer stuff: the expensive ones are alluring because they don\’t require extra work, and the ones that do require extra work have the same sort of effect that has popularized reporting of Heat Indices and Windchill Factors instead of the actual temperature. It\’s so scary, you have to keep watching. : )

    So in the interest of defending honest-to-goodness Green, and of blowing off the prescriptive press who think the greenest use of peoples\’ time is taking the dirty bathwater out to the garden one bucket at a time, here\’s some *good* advice.

    -Anything that means you get to drive less! (This is my favorite because… I get road rage.) Planning out errands for the week is 5-15 minutes of annoying busywork- but I hate traffic *so much* that it\’s worth it, and you usually get far more than 5-15 minutes of your life back in return for the investment. It\’s a win-win situation: you spend less money on gas, don\’t get as cranky, and save the polar bears all at the same time. (I will admit to being irrationally PO\’d because my new VT route has one sister at the edge of every single quadrant of town- no way to trip-chain visiting teaching. This *better* be inspired…!)

    -Not buying more house than you need (good for lots of reasons). That means you don\’t clean more house than you need either.

    -Is cutting down on extracurriculars ok? And/or maybe picking one that all the kids can do together instead of having to shuttle each kid individually? Growing up, all three of us did karate. We all went to the same class three times a week (and didn\’t beat each other up any more… or less… than we probably would have done without the martial arts training). This is an old saw and I\’m sure everyone on T&S is too smart to have this problem anyway, but it\’s as if having so many extracurricular activities that nobody can breathe is mandatory. It\’s not.

    -Corollary to the above: if you have to remodel/decorate, don\’t do it in a way that looks super-trendy. It\’ll just look super-outdated in seven years and you\’ll have to do it all over again. Throwing away cabinets and tile and wallpaper: not so green.

    -Corollary to Corollary 1: ditto for clothes. Depending on how much time you have, shopping consignment may or may not be worth it. I\’m a frickin\’ grad student and sometimes wonder if secondhand clothes are worth the time. But either way you get \’em, clothes that are in style this year will by definition soon look old. Buying trendy clothes is just begging for more errands a year later.

    -Speaking of clothes, don\’t wash them unless they\’re dirty. Consider: this \”green tip\” is so obvious and so laziness-friendly that I bet most of you are already doing it. That doesn\’t make it any less effective than more exotic measures.

    -Keep your indoor cat indoors. They\’re deadly on songbirds… and then you don\’t wonder about whether the cat\’s ever coming back, and what to tell the kids if it doesn\’t. I\’m all about averting drama.

    -Speaking of drama: eating local\’s great and all, and we should do it more, but in terms of environmental impact it can\’t come close to just eating less meat. (There is a recent study on carbon footprints to this effect that came into my inbox from the grad program director, who\’s vegetarian and proud of it… I can fish it out if anybody really wants to see it.) There are cans, and there are also dry beans and crockpots (\”electric wife\” as my mom likes to call it) and freezer bags. Compared to all the drama of shopping local, shopping for and cooking beans is pretty low-key. But by the same token you can see why people would prefer to talk about shopping local than recipes for beans- it\’s a lot more Sexy.

    -Let gramma and grampa know (tactfully and ever so lovingly… in other words, I\’ll have my husband do it) that one toy per grandchild per Christmas is fine. Most parents I know in this situation aren\’t too thrilled by gift overload anyway. Convince your kid that giving the extra presents to the less fortunate was their idea if necessary. ; )

    -CFLs. I know we have somebody up there talkin\’ about how they\’ve got mercury in them. But I say, you\’re all reading this thread, so I\’m telling you \”Don\’t throw them in the trash\” and now you all know better. Keep in mind that with their lifespan you only have to deal with the disposal issue once every 10 years or whatever it is; and incandescents need to be changed relatively frequently, and it\’s an annoying chore because there\’s all that thin glass involved. We have one little dead CFL whose plastic base got just a little too smushed in a move that we keep in a shoebox in the closet. When it has burnt-out friends, or we move out of town in four years, whichever comes first, we will make the arduous trek aaaaaaaall the way to Home Depot (I know, it\’s one of those places you\’d normally never go) to have them recycled.


    You may have noticed that overly elaborate \”environmentalism\” gets on my nerves. Some of the extra chores are worth it, but a lot of them seem to miss a larger point. Once upon a time I found a fabulous NYTimes article on some super-environmentalist housewives who actually do all this stuff. Guess what? They all live in schmancy neighborhoods in houses way bigger than people with a ZPG-approved number of children could possibly need, and the extra chores were their version of conspicuous consumption. Mmm-hm. When you get right down to it, the environmental problems common to the US are usually a result of having too much stuff. We tend to think of our stuff as labor-saving, but a lot of it\’s really not. Let\’s be smart and ditch the non-green things that also happen to be wastes of time, and then with our extra breathing room we may find ourselves having the time to do some more labor-intensive things as well. Starting with the extra chores is putting the cart before the horse.

    You may have also noticed that most of the above suggestions are ever-so-blessed cheap. Kinda goes along with the getting-rid-of-excess theme.


    And of course, a couple unrelated thoughts.

    -While it\’s true that the more-work environmentalist efforts usually end up causing more work for women, I don\’t think it\’s fair to call that environmentalism\’s fault. More-work measures mean more work- that can\’t really be disputed. How it\’s distributed is entirely up to us. If the extra workload lands *disproportionately* in Mom\’s lap, that\’s Dad\’s doing. And past a certain age, the kids\’.

    -I just gotta put in a word on cloth diapers here. I\’m from a paper mill town (Green Bay, WI), used to work in one. There is no way that the (pretty marginal, when you consider all the other junk that comes through the line) extra load on wastewater treatment from cloth diapers can compare with the PCBs, dioxins, and all other goodness that has gone into the Fox River from making disposables and other paper goods. Paper processing is dirty, dirty business. Having lived with it, I have a very difficult time believing that making a diaper once and washing it multiple times can compare to making every single diaper from scratch.

    There\’s also a reasonable health hazard you get from piling up human feces, complete with all the viruses that kids are prone to, in landfills that are not designed to contain infectious materials. Dumps aren\’t designed for human waste- sewers are. And wastewater treatment is required to actually clean up all the crap that they process, which paper mills and dumps are not.

    Finally, you don\’t need bleach to sterilize cloth diapers. There are lots of other things that will sterilize just fine: hydrogen peroxide. Ethanol. Rubbing alcohol. They\’re still pretty affordable materials, and they help come cleaning time because they don\’t make your eyes water either.

  46. 46 — My point was less about dueling studies (which drives me up the walls) than it was about the value in looking into these questions and thinking about the parts that you hadn’t known about before. It’s the environmental equivalent of people eating so much low-fat food that they’re eating more fat than they were before.

    Reduce-reuse-recycle is good, for instance, but then there comes the point where you just need to throw the almost-usable thing away because the labor cost to fix it is more than it would be worth when you’re done. “Pay more for something better built so it will last longer” is a good point, and I agree with it, but some folks are never going to be able to afford it, and still have the need.

    Reality can not be accurately circumscribed by slogans that fit on a t-shirt or bumper sticker. Good ideas and good points have their limits, and being aware of those limits is a good thing. To *every* thing, there is a season. One-size-fits-all usually doesn’t.

    49 — Good stuff to bring to the party. I think I’d be a little cautious about putting clothing washed with ethanol or hydrogen peroxide into a drier, but it would probably be relatively safe if line-dried. The ethanol would probably evaporate relatively early on at the lower temperatures, but, still….

  47. Blain- well naturally, you have to rinse it. Otherwise you run the risk of having a baby who smells like a 190-proof cocktail. : D

    (“I swear, I thought it would cook off…”)

  48. No one needs to feel guilty about normal consumption and waste generation. While making paper can create sewage that feeds bacteria, like the sewage in cloth diapers, environmental regulations specifically require controls on both outflows, whether from an industrial plant or a municipal sewage treatment plant. If either one is putting bad stuff into rivers, it is in violation of the Clean Water Act, and you should point this out to your local environmental agency, or become a plaintiff in a citizen suit to force compliance. As to the human feces in disposable diapers, note that in the “natural” world, animals like wolves, birds, and deer go to the bathroom wherever they want. all over the landscape. Wild animals are a reservoir of all sorts of disease microorganisms, including plague and rabies. The key fact is that the siting and operation of landfills is controlled by EPA and state agencies to ensure that they do not contaminate groundwater with ANY of the potentially harmful substances in the solid waste. There is in fact NO evidence that any modern regulated municipal landfill presents a danger of contaminating drinking water. Such risks came from the disposal of chemicals such as solvents used in dry cleaning or degreasing replacement parts for cars and aircraft.

    The mercury in fluorescent lights IS a concentrated risk of a toxic material that needs to be disposed of separately so the mercury can be recycled rather than contaminate groundwater. Congress acted irresponsibly by mandating use of compact fluorescent lights without funding separate disposal and recycling, using a special tax on the bulbs to finance it. There are also many applications of light bulbs for which CFLs are not suited, because (a) they do not come on instantly, and (b) they do not glow brightly in cold temperatures, etc. If they are a good idea, and truly save money, people can choose them on their own, without being forced to do so, and being stuck with bad consequences, which include the risk of mercury poisoning of infants and animals if the bulbs are broken in the home, such as when a lamp is knocked over.

    A lot of environmental guilt is based on bad information. For example: Paper does NOT endanger old growth forests; paper trees are fast growing cheap pulp trees that are harvested at 5 to 10 year intervals. Worrying about how many trees are used to make paper is like worrying about how many corn stalks are cut down to grown our corn. Paper pulp trees are the ideal renewable resource. Additionally, every atom of carbon that goes into a plant comes from carbon dioxide (CO2) in the air. The more paper pulp trees we grow, the more CO2 is subtracted from the air. By turning the trees into paper, we pay for growing MORE trees and removing MORE CO2 from the atmosphere! The whole notion of recycling paper is stupid, and in fact , IF YOU RECYCLE PAPER YOU ARE ADDING TO TOTAL CO2 AND THUS ADDING TO GLOBAL WARMING. The best place for used paper to go is into a library, or an attic, or into a landfill, where it can sit for a hundred years without returning to the atmosphere. The dumbest thing that can be done with garbage is to burn it in an incinerator, since that returns carbon directly to the atmosphere. The garbage company commercials on TV that brag about generating electricity by burning garbage are stupid. They are ADDING to CO2 and global warming. They also add to air pollution. The best place for trash is in the ground.

    Another myth is the notion of “biodegradable” plastic. Unless a plastic product is intended to be left out in the open, where sunlight and bacteria break it down, it is best to NOT have containers that will “biodegrade”. Everything that goes into a landfill should be as “inert as dirt.” Then it can eventually be used for a softball diamond or golf course. If it biodegrades, the land can collapse, and it can release methane, which is a greenhouse gas even stronger than CO2! In some cases, it can even collect and explode!

    Polar bears are at an historic high population level. the notion that they will become endangered is looking at forecasts some 40 years in the future, and assumes that temperatures will rise at a significant rate, and that as the total area of sea ice decreases, the bears will be disadvantaged in hunting for food. However, the global temperature record of the last 10 years (1998 to 2008) shows that there is NO observed warming trend. Global warming, if it exists, is so small that it is not actually detectable against the background of normal variations. Indeed, 2008 has been the COOLEST of the last 10 years. So only the most gradual global warming models actually fit the observed data of the last 10 years.

    The pictures of glaciers retreating? Note that this is due to LESS rain and snow, not consistent warming temperatures. They do not show the glaciers that are growing. Consumer Reports a few months ago showed 3 pictures of a glacier over the 20th Century. The middle picture, showing the glacier beginning to dry up, was taken in the 1950s, when global temps were FALLING. If glaciers are supposed to grow when weather is colder, why didn’t ALL the glaciers grow during the 40 years of global cooling from 1934 to 1975?

    I know some of you are going to claim that I am departing from the topic of this thread, but the fact is that most of the “green guilt” people feel makes no real sense in the real world. If you are not profligate and wasteful, the kind of food you eat and the products you use will not make much difference in environmental impacts, specifically because we have environmental laws that control the worst impacts already. The hype about global warming being a crisis is simply false. It is going to be very gradual, and NOBODY is going to die due to global warming in the next 50 to 100 years. The most significant thing we can do to decrease greenhouse gas generation is to increase use of nuclear power plants (no one in the US has ever died from nuclear power plant operation, and coal fired power plants expose us to far more radiation than a nuclear plant from Carbon 14–indeed, the ash from a coal plant is a highly concentrated source of uranium!), and switch over gradually from fossil fuels to hydrogen, which can be created using electrical power and waste heat from nuclear power plants. In the next 50 years we are going to have quantum leaps in the production of energy and efficiency of storage and distribution. When people talk about a “Manhattan Project” or a “Moon Shot” program to fight global warming, they should remember that those were massive concentrations of high tech, not backyard efforts by elementary school children and their moms.

    If you want to feel guilty about something, you could consider sacrificing to help fight disease and poverty, which kill more people and cause more pollution than anything we Americans do in the course of our normal consumption of goods and services. By ensuring adequate food, housing, medical care and education, we will be helping poor people around the world far more than global warming is liable to hurt them for another century or more. (No, hurricanes are NOT caused by global warming. Note that Galveston was hit by a far worse hurricane in 1901, and 2006 and 2007 produced NO significant hurricanes hitting the US.)

  49. Cloth diapers don’t really get very clean if you wash them at home. If you use a reputable diaper service then they disinfect them much better. I wouldn’t use cloth diapers washed at home for health reasons, although you may be helping the environment by doing so.

    It is debatable if growing your own food is better for the environment. The main argument for growing your own food is that food shipped from far away puts a lot of greenhouse gases in the environment because a truck has to drive a long way and you don’t have to drive to the grocery store as often. Many of the large corporate farms have genetically altered seed that make them immune to roundup. Then to get rid of weeds they spray the entire field and everything dies but the crops. This requres no tilling of the soil. Tilling of the soil releases carbon into the atmosphere. So the big industrial field put less carbon into the atmosphere than a bunch of small gardens producing the same amount of food. I also question whether people who have gardens really drive any less. If anything they are making extra trips to get fertilizer, mulch, and seedlings. You may have an issue with pesticides on your food but the question was the impact on the environment. Some may argue that pesticides run into streams and hurt the environment. That is a valid point, although I think roundup degrades pretty well. My point is that often anyone who disagrees with some green idea is often labeled as against the environment, when the truth is these are complicated questions that don’t have very simple answers.

  50. I would second comment 41. Large commercial farms are regulated for environmental impacts on air, soil, surface waters and groundwaters in ways that no backyard farm ever will be. We should also understand that the impact of pesticides on our health is generally far less than we fear. Some of the most long-lived people in America are in North Dakota and nebraska, where they are exposed to agricultural chemicals at a far higher level than most of us. We should also understand that just because something is “natural” does not make it benign. Most of the major disease organisms are perfectly natural, as are the fleas and mosquitos and rodents that transmit some of them. There are high levels of natural pesticides in plants, which deter insects from eating them. Mushrooms contain hydrazine, which in high concentrations is used as rocket fuel and is highly toxic. Peanuts and peanut butter and taco shells made from corn contain small amounts of aflatoxin from mold. All of these are mutagens and thus potential carcinogens. They are unavoidable in our food, and note that these are all in pants, so vegetarians are not escaping carcinogens by avoiding meat. Additionally, we are all exposed to natural background radiation, some of it from the potassium that is essential to our own bodies. We get more radiation exposure from sleeping next to our spouse than we will ever get from living near a nuclear power plant. If we avoid acute exposures to harmful substances, we have done about all we can to control external sources of cancer. Cancer is a natural problem, and cannot be wholly eliminated by controlling our environment. Getting obsessed with small risks can create even bigger risks, such as the concern over DDT leading to millions of deaths from malaria.

Comments are closed.