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Wine, Food, Flowers and Diapers: What's Greener?

By Joe Laur |
We know that veggies require less energy and material inputs to grow than farm animals. So arugula is greener than beef, right? Well, it depends.
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We know that veggies require less energy and material inputs to grow than farm animals. So arugula is greener than beef, right? Well, it depends. If the arugula comes from Chile in January, and the beef comes from my neighbor’s grassy pasture in September, the beef may win out on environmental footprint due to shipping and other factors.
Here’s a few other examples of where we have to look deeper that just simple choices.

If I live in London, cut flowers flown in from Kenya actual have a lower environmental impact than flowers grown in nearby Amsterdam. Turns out the Amsterdam flowers are grown in greenhouses heated by gas- that and trucking them under the English Channel gives them a bigger footprint than the Kenyan flowers, which also provide much needed jobs for Kenyans.

Take glass containers versus plastic. Glass is better right? Well, if it’s locally produced and reused or recycled back into new glass, it may be better. But recycling glass is energy intensive, and doesn’t save that much over new glass. Plus, it’s not often recycled back onto new bottles but more often used as landfill cover or road bed material. A PET plastic bottle on the other hand, because it’s light, can travel further with less fuel and carbon, be melted back into new plastic with less energy and recycled again and again. So use glass locally and plastic for things that must travel longer distances.

I live in Massachusetts. Should I buy the California organic wine or the French organic? Turns out that in my part of the world, it takes less energy to send me the French wine by cargo ship than it does to truck the California wine across the Rockies and the rest of the country. I could buy a New York wine, but I’m partial to reds and haven’t’ found a decent New York red. Maybe some NY vintner reading this will send me a free bottle (or case) of a glorious red to try. 313 Farley Rd, Wendell MA 01379.

When I bought my highly efficient refrigerator 12 years ago, the shipping from Denmark gave it a bigger upfront footprint, but the energy savings over the decade beat the domestic US fridge available at the time.

What about cloth diapers versus disposables? Cloth is better right? Well again, it depends on who and where you are. In an area with little landfill space and lots of fresh water, washing the 5,000 or so diaper changes per child may make sense- especially if you don’t use zinc based diaper rash ointments which literally “come out in the wash” and pollute the water. Cloth diapers may not be the best choice where water is scarce. Friends at the Rocky Mountain Institute told me that the impacts and tradeoffs between cloth and disposables were about even. With twins, we went with partially compostable disposables, and worked hard on early toilet training!

You don’t have to be Einstein, but taking a few minutes to weigh local conditions, shipping methods, manufacturing effects and other out of sight factors may help you to “think like a forest” and make the better environmental choice. There is no right answer, but while making every day green decisions, make sure you weigh all sides. Pass me the NY red wine, please.

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