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Need-to-know eco-hacks

Sonya Angelica Diehn
April 22, 2015

Forty-five years after the first Earth Day, green living has become a matter of course for many. But what earth-friendly practices really help the environment? DW busts some eco-myths - and provides a few useful tips.

Young girl holding Earth in hands against green grass (Photo: Colourbox)
Image: Colourbox

Established on April 22, 1970, to raise environmental awareness, Earth Day is heralded as marking the birth of the modern environmentalism. In the 45 years since, issues such as pollution, sustainability and low-carbon living have gone mainstream.

Yet Earth Day is also criticized as an opportunity to do one eco-friendly act to wipe your conscience clean. In light of the numerous ways in which consumption, waste and the dangers of climate change affect our lives, shouldn't every day be an opportunity to do something for the Earth?

In the spirit of knowledge, DW's environmental desk highlights a few practices understood to be good for the environment - but that may be doing more harm than good.

1. Paper bags are not necessarily better

In the grocery store, you may be confronted with the question: Paper or plastic? Made from petroleum, the lightweight, flexible and durable material has become ubiquitous in our lives, from holding our food to making up the clothes we wear.

But plastic represents a real environmental problem: Aside from being made from a finite fossil fuel resource, plastic never biodegrades - it just breaks down into ever-smaller pieces. Plastics have become a scourge in our oceans, harming marine life and impacting ecosystems. The question of what to do with plastic after it enters the waste stream is a pressing environmental issue worldwide.

Sea turtle with plastic bag stuck in mouth (Photo: Surfrider)
Many marine animals confuse plastic waste for food. They try to eat it - and dieImage: Surfrider/Ron Prendergast

So, should you take that paper bag then? Paper bags, it turns out, also present environmental problems. To make paper, trees are cut down, while processes like bleaching pollute the environment with toxic chemicals.

Paper bags also don't necessarily gain points on the disposal side.

"Biodegradable does not mean eco-friendly," says Leyla Acaroglu, an expert on sustainability. She adds that unless paper bags are composted, their decay releases methane - a powerful greenhouse gas. Acaroglu also points out that a standard paper bag uses four to 10 times more material than a plastic bag - meaning more resource extraction and a larger carbon footprint.

The upshot? Plastic bags are better than paper - especially if you reuse and properly dispose of them.

2. Recycling doesn't happen as you might imagine - but that doesn't make it pointless

Recycling is eco-friendly, we are told. So we diligently sort our waste, imagining the plastic bottle we toss in the bin being endlessly made into new plastic bottles.

Wrong. First of all, recycling also involves transport, so to make recycling worthwhile, recyclables would need to be collected in large amounts and efficiently processed. But even in countries like Germany, with highly developed and efficient recycling systems, 60 percent of the material that's tossed into the "gelbe Tonne" - the plastics recycling bin - ends up being burned.

Plastic bottle recycling in China
Recycling must be done at scale to be energy efficientImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Philip Heldt, a waste specialist at North Rhine-Westphalia's consumer advice center, says the mix of different types and colors of plastic makes it nearly impossible to produce high-value products out of such waste.

Instead, he says, such materials are "down-cycled" - for example, shredded and made into briquettes, which are then burned for energy instead of coal.

Burning waste plastic as fuel? That doesn't sound eco-friendly. But it's still better for the environment than extracting virgin resources, Heldt asserts.

3. Don't just buy local - buy seasonal, and locally appropriate

"Buy local" is a well-known eco-mantra - make sure the products you buy, especially food, come from the region where you consume them, the concept goes.

This is true to the extent that transporting goods around the world involves energy in transportation. But for example lamb from New Zealand has a lower carbon footprint than lamb produced in the United Kingdom - even if you live in the UK. That's because New Zealand has a longer grass-growing season, making lamb production more efficient.

Acaroglu says that in her native Australia, "growing rice is a ridiculous thing to do, because we have low rainfall." Similarly, for people living in central Europe, buying locally grown tomatoes in the middle of winter has a fairly high impact, "as they come out of energy-intensive hothouses rather than from the vine outdoors."

"Local should also come down to seasonal," Acaroglu concludes - adding an important detail to the "buy local" meme.

Fresh carrots for sale at the farmers market (Photo: Chris Kalbfleisch)
Farmers markets typically offer in-season, local fruits and vegetablesImage: CC/Chris Kalbfleisch

4. When you are thirsty: water, tea, coffee

Bottled water is an eco-sin - it is transported from afar and packaged in plastic. But doesn't tap water contain toxins like pesticides and antibiotics that have been released into the environment?

These appear in tap water only in trace amounts - and are also present in bottled water, Heldt points out. "Mineral water presents no advantage over tap water," Heldt says - especially since most harmful chemicals are consumed from food, not water.

Heating water for tea presents another conundrum. Should you use an electric kettle, or put the teakettle on the stove?

Heating water on the stove with natural gas is the most efficient, Acaroglu says. But when it comes to electricity, the kettle is better than stovetop. However, there's an important caveat, she adds.

"The problem is human use - the design of most electric kettles encourages overfilling," Acaroglu says - 63 percent of people are guilty of this in the UK, where 97 percent of households use electric kettles. So fill to the minimum line to prevent wasted energy.

And finally, that beloved potion: coffee. The answer here is fairly simple. The lifestyle trend of coffee pods, like Nespresso, are the worst. Although Nespresso says they are recyclable, Heldt points out that few people would separate the coffee grinds, aluminum and plastic components for recycling. Coffee pads are significantly better, as the filter paper makes them easily compostable.

Nespresso coffee capsules (Photo: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty Images)
Coffee capsules: sexy but sinfulImage: AFP/Getty Images

And your to-go cup? You'd think paper would be better than plastic - but this presents the same problem as the bag issue. And since most paper to-go cups are in fact lined with plastic, Acaroglu points out, they can't be recycled.

"The problem with recycling is that it validates disposability," Acaroglu thinks. For a true eco-hack, she recommends taking five minutes and sit down with a cuppa, instead of drinking on the run. Maybe you could even take the time to gaze at a blue sky or some green trees.

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