Beware the life cycle of 'recycled'

I have recycled my trash with an almost religious fervor for many years. Every scrap of paper and every used container go into recycling bins. And to close the loop, I look for products made with recycled materials. But when my recycled toilet paper is made in Canada (using wastepaper from who knows where) and transported a long way to my California supermarket, I'm not sure if I've done any good. At what point are the benefits of recycling offset by the environmental costs of long-distance transport?

This situation recurs in some form with almost every purchase that I make. I try to buy organically produced food as a form of economic pressure to remove pesticides and other drugs from the food system. But I recently noticed that my organic kiwi fruit comes all the way from New Zealand, flown in on jets that burn fossil fuel and contribute to global warming. My favorite brand of laundry detergent is made without petroleum-based cleaners, but it is packaged in a petroleum-based plastic bottle and shipped more than 3,000 miles to a store near me.

As consumers, we're overwhelmed by far too many brands, but we rarely have sufficient information to make the right environmental choices.

We might think it would be better for the environment if we switched to more energy-efficient refrigerators, light bulbs, or cars. But this, too, poses a problem. From extraction of raw materials to manufacturing, packaging, and shipping, existing appliances and cars represent energy already spent - carbon dioxide and other pollutants already discharged into the air and water. These environmental costs must be "amortized" over the life of a product. When does it make sense to discard older machines and buy newer, more efficient ones?

The crux of the problem is that most of us are not aware of the origins and history of the products we buy. As Rebecca Solnit observed in a recent essay in Orion magazine, we no longer know the stories behind modern-day objects because of the remote and intricate processes used to create them.

This "silence" of industrial-age foods and manufactured goods must be broken so that ordinary consumers can make informed choices. Besides the "organic" label, manufacturers often voluntarily disclose other things about how they made a product, such as "no animal ingredients," "not tested on animals," "printed on recycled paper," and "made with recycled plastic."

These little bits of information about a product's history often make for better purchasing decisions.

But uncertainties about the relative environmental impacts of alternative choices can be truly reduced only by accounting for all the materials and energy used and waste generated during the entire life cycle of every product. Even a modest approximation of such a "life-cycle assessment," printed in simple terms on a product's label or indicated next to the price tag on a supermarket shelf, would give consumers the means to make a real difference with their everyday purchases.

To start with, manufacturers and food producers should disclose the average amount of energy (renewable and nonrenewable) spent in creating and delivering a product, including energy used to produce its ingredients or components. This estimate should include all the processing and transportation - from extraction of materials to finished goods - as well as energy needed for recycling or disposal at the end of the product's life.

A second useful figure would be the quantity of materials, such as paper, plastic, glass, and metal, used in manufacturing a product and which of them are recyclable.

A final figure would be an estimate of the average distance traveled by the product, similar to the average energy consumed. Smaller energy and materials figures would indicate greater resource efficiency, and smaller distance figures would reflect greater local content in a product.

It isn't unthinkable for forward-looking manufacturers and retailers to jointly provide - and consumers to expect and demand - these numbers and additional explanation. While this may add marginally to the cost of a product, it would be no more complicated than the nutrition information printed on food products.

Before the industrial age, a product's history was usually known because of the proximity of producer and consumer. Now, in the age of globalization, when most products come from unknown farms and factories, imprinting a product's history on its label would be a way to restore some integrity to the product and its purchaser.

Kumar Venkat works in Silicon Valley's high-tech industry and writes about the social and environmental impacts of technology.

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