Paradox 1: Tradeoffs for the environmentally concerned

A friend from back home emailed me a little while ago and asked me about one issue that is particularly bugging her about becoming more environmentally conscious.

There’s all these great new innovations/products etc etc designed to decrease greenhouse gas emmissions, decrease waste production/landfill trash, decrease fossil fuel consumptions etc etc. But it seems like by being conscious of one aspect of “saving the environment”, you almost inevitably increase another.

She brought up a lot of good points. For instance, hybrids are great during their useful life, but what about their afterlife? Supposedly, they can’t be recycled like most cars and are thus meant for the rough and polluting graveyard.

I responded to her with a “yeah! cool that you’re reading my blog!” but also with some answers on the environmental paradoxes.

We have to live with trade-offs – that’s a matter of life. And almost everything we do will inevitably hurt the environment or give us cancer. C’est la vie quoi;) However, a more useful answer actually comes from one of the courses I’m taking right now.

Let’s start looking at the whole lifespan of a product.

This is called Life Cycle Assessments. It takes into account all of the environmental impacts along the entire lifespan of a product. With things like this you can compare the impacts with a more solid ground.

There’s a lot of push right now for businesses to start doing more LCA studies on their products to figure out where they can find efficiencies through the supply chain. After a quick search on it, just found out that Montreal actually just had a conference on it last week. Cycle 2007: Modern Society’s Economic Model is Outdated. Here too.

Interesting stuff and it helps answer some of these questionable environmental choices that we’re faced with. I have to say though: after doing flowcharts after flowcharts and thinking about emissions to air, emissions to water blah blah blah…. it’s a good scientific way of figuring out what you already know. Be smart. Be efficient.

Paradox 2 will be coming shortly;)

Suomi updates: Today I was happy that the sky was a little brighter. And by that I mean light gray… not dark gray. Yesterday was terrible and wet. And all I can say is that it’s going to get darker… I don’t know if I’m prepared for months without sunlight. Let me know if my blog becomes a bit too depressing….

Sorry.. don’t get me wrong though. Life is still good here;)

No more leaves really but liked this one- ahh..Fall. Happy Halloween everyone.



2 thoughts on “Paradox 1: Tradeoffs for the environmentally concerned

  1. […] 2: Tradeoffs for the “Caring” Last time I talked about the paradox between environmental choices. (i.e. being conscious of one aspect of “saving the environment”, almost inevitably […]

  2. Jay Godse says:

    Total lifecycle analysis is a great way to look at costs (including environmental costs) and I use it all the time. For example, the Government of Ontario decided to charge an extra 20 cents per wine bottle at the wine store, which was refundable if you returned the bottle. The problem is that you have to return it to the beer store which is different from the wine store. For me, although I want to be environmentally friendly, it is just easier morally and financially to toss the bottle into the glass recycling bin than to spend $2 of my car’s total lifecycle cost (plus carbon credits) getting to the beer store to get my $0.60 refund.

    This analysis works the other way too. In years past, people used to put old tires at the curb for regular garbage collection. No more…now you have to dispose of tires at tire collection centers (usually car maintenance places), and they charge $5 a pop to do it. By making the $5 visible as a part of the total lifecycle cost, it changes how people think about tires, and that will inspire environmentally friendly innovation.

    This brings up a thorny issue (paradox number 3??). Making each line item of the total lifecycle cost transparent is a great first step towards reducing the total lifecycle cost because it shows plainly where the dollars actually go. Having these numbers in front of your face changes how you think about disposing of things. The flip side of this challenge is then reducing these costs.

    Years ago, before Ottawa absorbed Kanata, we in Kanata had a mayor that proposed a kind of user-pay garbage collection system. Everybody got special bags and tags. Every household gets 2 free bags of garbage collected weekly, but after that, the user pays $2/bag. This would have had the wonderful effect of making people very conscious of what they are throwing out, and of the environmental and garbage side of their buying habits. Unfortunately, this proposal flopped in a referendum or election. As I saw it, there were many problems. First, the bags and tags were an additional cost and environmental liability in addition to the user fees for the extra garbage. Secondly, it was seen as a tax on large households, and therefore a regressive tax because large households are often not as prosperous as smaller ones. Thirdly, it exposed an old maxim which states that the cost of monitoring, policing, and billing for a resource (in our case garbage collection and landfill) often exceeds the cost of simply allocating more of that resource.

    Total lifecycle cost is a great start. Beware of the costs of monitoring, policing, and billing. Also beware of the up-front and ongoing total lifecycle costs of reducing your total lifecycle costs. These can thwart the success of an otherwise well-intentioned program.

    I look forward to seeing a proposal. You may want to take inspiration from various governments in how they collect taxes. I would bet that the most efficient ways to collect tax are similar to the most efficient ways to segment and the reduce total lifecycle costs (including environmental costs) of various products.

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