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Someday we human beings will learn to make every day Earth Day, but until then we need Earth Day to remind us to stop treating the planet like a toilet. Unfortunately, in our zeal to save the planet, our best-laid plans sometimes collide with every do-gooder’s blind spot—those dreaded things called “unintended consequences.” If you care about the planet, one way to show you care this Earth Day is to ask, “Is what we’re trying really working? Or are we still dooming our children to a charred dystopian hellscape?” What follows are five green ideas that make sense on paper (recycled, of course).
5 Solar Power
Well, surely everyone agrees, if we could only switch over to solar, it would solve a lot of our environmental problems. Sigh. Maybe someday it will, but in the meantime we’re discovering that solar power isn’t the perfect solution we’d all like it to be. Thanks to billions in government incentives, manufacturers are creating millions of solar panels each year and along with them millions of pounds of polluted sludge and contaminated water. And now the double-whammy: Companies must transport these polluted materials by truck and rail to waste facilities hundreds or thousands of miles away. These shipping costs are rarely considered in calculating solar power’s carbon footprint, lending a false impression as to how clean it is as a technology. In California 17 companies with 44 manufacturing facilities produced 46.5 million pounds of sludge and contaminated water from 2007 through the first half of 2011. More than 1.4 million pounds were transported to Arkansas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Rhode Island, Nevada, Washington, Utah, New Mexico and Arizona.
4 Locavore Diet
Eating food grown locally must be good for the environment, right? Right? RIGHT?!? Well… it depends. The conventional wisdom is that food grown within, for example, a 150-mile radius of where you live will leave a smaller carbon footprint than food grown 1,000 miles away. But the numbers say that a head of lettuce, no matter where it’s grown, requires about the same amount of energy to arrive in your home. One of the reasons is that shipping large quantities of food by rail or tractor-trailer is very efficient and adds next to nothing to a food’s energy bill. The real energy costs associated with many foods are incurred once a food enters the home—storage, cleaning, dishwashing and cooking. It matters less where your food comes from than what you do with it once you have it.
3 Public Transportation
OK, at least we can all agree that mass transit is better for the environment than driving a car. Well, not necessarily. (Your author ducks.) Transit studies rosily assume that cars contain one person and busses and trains are completely full, but this is not the reality. The average car contains 1.6 people and the typical 40-seat bus has 10 passengers. According to the Department of Energy, in 2010 transporting one passenger one mile by car required 3,447 BTUs of energy. Transporting one passenger a mile by bus required 4,118 BTUs. Mass transit produces a lower carbon footprint in the few places where it’s used heavily, such as New York City. Lightly-used mass transit systems produce considerably more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than cars do. I know. You think I’m crazy. I’ve linked to the sources for all of this info below. I’m not making this up.
2 Plastic Bag Bans
Banning plastic bags seems like a no-brainer—so long to all that plastic, right? But the bans might be having the unintentional effect of making people sick. People who use reusable shopping bags rarely wash them. The bags could contain bacteria, mold, yeast and other nasty critters. Some researchers have reported that plastic bag bans have caused an increase in illnesses and even deaths. Skeptics say the numbers are suggestive, not conclusive. OK, let’s say the jury’s out. The common-sense solution is to wash your reusable grocery bags often. But this requires the use of more electricity and more water, not to mention the manufacture, transportation and use of chemicals such as detergent and bleach.
1 Electric Vehicles
The benefits are not as clear as people think. The idea behind hybrid cars is that they use less fuel and cut air pollution. And the statistics say that if a hybrid is driven long enough, they do that. However, a study from the Norwegian Institute of Science and Technology reveals that manufacturing electrical vehicles poses twice “the potential for significant increases in human toxicity, freshwater eco-toxicity, freshwater eutrophication and metal depletion impacts.” And according to a report from the Union of Concerned Scientists, hybrids recharged by energy from coal-powered plants generated more greenhouse gases than the best gasoline-engine subcompacts. An electrical vehicle is as green as its power source, and in a large part of the country that means it’s not very green. Two of the cleanest energy sources for recharging electric vehicles are (if you’re an environmentalist, you’ll want to turn away now) nuclear power and natural gas.