We face sustainability choices every day: paper or plastic? Drive or take the bus? Fresh or frozen fish?
It seems like one week a new study comes out claiming X is better than Y, and a week later Y is better than X. How are we to know what to believe? And more importantly, which choices are the ones that really matter?
For years, Sightline has sought to clear the air, helping you understand what really makes a difference, and what you really shouldn’t fret about. It’s this kind of work that we can only keep doing with the support of our community—readers like you.
Here are a few examples of the kinds of work we’ve done over the past few years, thanks to our supporters:
Paper vs. Plastic
Even with the rising popularity of BYOB—that’s Bring Your Own Bag—most of us still occasionally face a decision in the checkout line: paper or plastic?
While greenies endlessly debate which is better, Sightline’s 2007 analysis shows that what’s in the bag is far more important than the bag itself. Namely, a meat-based diet embodies significantly more energy than a veggie one.
Cloth vs. Disposable diapers
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Over the years, three Sightline parents have weighed in on the great diaper debate: cloth or disposable. Cloth might seem like the obvious choice, since it spares thousands of diapers from the landfill. But cloth requires countless loads of laundry, eating up water and energy in the process.
Lisa Stiffler weighed in with her answer earlier this year: it depends on where the rear is reared. If you live in an area with ample water and clean energy, cloth could be the answer. But if water is scarce and your washing machine is powered by dirty coal, disposables might be a better option.
Dogs vs. SUVs
It’s the meme that just won’t die: an internet rumor has it that owning a dog creates more climate emissions than driving an SUV. But last November, Clark had to put this one down—showing that even with a conservative look at the numbers, the claim just wasn’t true. In fact, the anti-doggites responsible for the claim were probably off by a factor of 18!
Organic vs. Conventional
For years veggie lovers sang the praises of organic produce, but lacked solid evidence that organic was superior to conventional. That was until WSU published a study in September showing that not only are organic strawberries better for our bodies and the soil, but they taste better too. Now those are findings we can sink our teeth into.
Frozen vs. Fresh salmon
While foodies may have carried the day in the organic food debate, another 2009 study revealed that frozen fish is often better than fresh—at least where the climate is concerned. That’s because fresh fish requires timely, carbon-intensive modes of transportation to get it to your supermarket before it goes off.
But that rule doesn’t always hold. Like with diapers, it depends where you live. In the Northwest, fresh fish often comes from our own backyard and requires little transportation, so Cascadian fish-lovers shouldn’t fret too much.
Breast milk vs. Formula
Most experts agree that “breast is best” when it comes to feeding your baby, but the choice isn’t so clear these days. Breast milk commonly violates FDA levels for poisonous substances in food—the result of exposure to industrial toxics in our everyday lives.
Most risk-benefit analyses tip the scales towards breast milk, but that doesn’t take away the dangers of chemical contaminants. What is clear is that having bodies free of toxics is a basic right—one we often lack.
Walking vs. Driving
Could a stroll to the store be worse for the climate than driving? That’s what some researchers claimed in 2008, arguing the extra calories burned while walking had to be made up for by eating more food.
However, even though our food system is notoriously carbon-intensive, that extra food is likely to be starches and sweets, which we produce an excess of anyway. Back-of-the-envelope math suggests that walking is about 12 times better for the climate than driving.
Portland vs. Seattle vs. Vancouver
All three of Cascadia’s major cities have reputations for being green leaders in the US and Canada. In January, Sightline dug into the numbers to see once and for all who would win the “Greenest City” award.
No surprise, Vancouver, BC handily took the gold. But silver was a surprise: despite Portland’s national reputation as a sustainability leader, Seattle came out on top.
Car vs. Bus vs. Plane
Trying to decide how to make your next trip? Look no further than Sightline’s Green Travel ranking. If you’d like to lessen your carbon load, steer clear of driving solo or flying and stick to buses, rail, or human-powered modes like walking and biking.
Wood vs. Steel
While it’s not a decision we often face, a lesser-known debate is going on among home-builders: is a steel or wood frame better for the environment? One side argues that steel and concrete are better because they’re easier to reuse, last longer, and can be recycled. But others maintain that the processes used to make and recycle concrete and steel are energy-intensive.
Like the paper vs. plastic debate, it’s the focus of the debate that’s the problem; how you heat and power your house is far more important than its building materials. When you compare wood and steel over the lifespan of a home, there’s little difference.
Happiness vs. GDP
It turns out we’ve been looking in the wrong place by trying to maximize GDP instead of GNH—Gross National Happiness. Researchers have found traditional indexes, like GDP or the Dow Jones, are a poor measure of how happy our citizens are.
Gray vs. Green
The Northwest has been going gray for more than a century, but now we’re getting greener. Since we’ve been building cities and towns, the guiding principal has been to install pipes and gutters—the “gray”–that shunt polluted stormwater away from parking lots straight into rivers and lakes without any kind of treatment.
But we’re now
coming to understand that “green” stormwater solutions such as rain gardens, green roofs, porous pavement, and protecting trees and plants, are a smarter, cheaper way to go. Portland even has a Grey to Green initiative to encourage the widespread use of what are called low-impact development strategies.
Megaprojects vs. Least-cost planning
In 2001, Alan penned an op-ed in the P-I advocating for least-cost planning in transportation. Nearly a decade later the principle still hasn’t been adopted—but is as needed as ever. The idea is simple: put together a least-cost transportation plan by comparing the costs of the options available. Then, go with the cheapest option.
In the 1990s, Seattle undertook such a process and concluded that freeways were the worst deal while expanded transit and carpools were far better buys. Yet despite the evidence, city and state officials still grapple with expensive projects like highway widening and mega-tunnels.
So there you have it. Hopefully that helps you answer some questions that might have been nagging you. And if you like this kind of work, I hope you’ll consider supporting more of it by making a donation today!
Signpost photo courtesy of Flickr user paullikespics, used under a Creative Commons license.
What I want to know is not X vs Y – but XY vs XX! I mean, where is the analysis of who is lighter on the earth – males or females?
Ask and you shall receive. A new study just came out claiming to have the answer.
The best way to heat your house is with a lot of airtight insulation, amazing windows, a dedicated outdoor air system, and a tiny little heater. Does the Passive House design method work equally well with wood or steel framing?
Levin–Good question. You’d probably have to ask an expert, but a casual google search turned up references to both steel-framed and wood-framed Passivhaus designs.
having children or not?
Good point in your wood vs. steel comparison – that it’s much more important how a home is heated and powered over a home’s lifespan. But even more important than heating source is the home’s size and, to a lesser extent, building envelop. A recent report from Oregon’s DEQ shows that the single biggest way to reduce CO2 generation from homes is to build (and buy) smaller ones. Attached housing is also up there at the top of the list.
It irked me that the question “paper or plastic” was essentially answered by “there are other more important things”. So which is more eco-friendly? Paper or plastic?
Hi Andy–The graph in the post I linked to shows that plastic wins by a nose, at least in terms of the embodied energy in the bag. The point I was trying to make is that the purchases you put in the bag make so much more of a difference that the question of paper or plastic is basically moot. Here’s the original post.
Additional thoughts on this and that:- the diaper discussion fails to mention that having kids is, in the first place, a terrible drag on the environment.- the dog discussion creates the false dichotomy of dog vs. SUV, when it should be dog vs. no dog, or dog vs. other pet. If a meat-based diet for humans is (indeed) a bad thing for the environment, adding millions of meat-in-a-tin-can-manufactured-god-knows-where-eating units to the earth population cannot be good.- the real discussion is not so much organic vs. conventional. I think anyone who reads this column can figure that one out, but organic vs. local. And, yes, there too, it depends (where the organics come from, how the local is produced)- what is in the bag does matter, particularly since the content of the bag is probably more plastic, but billions of plastic bags decomposing over the next 500 years in our oceans, streams and land do matter as well.