What is good for 'the environment'?

Recently I've been pondering claims that various practises are good for 'the environment'.  I've come to the conclusion that such claims are often dicey - not because of 'greenwashing' (although that's real), but because there isn't, exactly, an 'environment'.  Instead, there's a whole bunch of systems, which often need quite different things to support them.  Sometimes the things different environmental systems would benefit from are even directly opposed to each other.

The place I see this most starkly is plastic packaging.

There is no question that plastic doesn't ever fully degrade: it just hangs around forever.  And there's no question that, when that plastic makes its way to the ocean, sea creatures mistake it for food: be that whales and albatrosses mistaking largeish bits for fish or filter feeders mistaking microscopic bits for plankton.  Once eaten, that plastic has been seen to accumulate in the stomachs of larger animals, leaving no room for actual food, leading to starvation; the same is presumed to happen with filter feeders too.  It may also happen to worms and other organisms that feed on soil, too, when tiny bits of plastic make it into our compost bins, perhaps from tea bags.

Plastic (or, at least plastic that isn't safely either landfilled or recycled) is clearly bad for the health of many organisms within our environment.  This likely has spill-over effects to the entire food webs they are part of.

But is plastic bad for 'the environment'?

What about another aspect of our environment: the emissions of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are warming our planet and threatening the survival of all manner of species.  Is plastic packaging positive, neutral or negative there?

I would argue it is a clear positive.

Carbon dioxide emissions are primarily caused by burning fossil fuels; fossil fuels are the major source of energy on the planet.  The biggest thing we can do to reduce carbon dioxide emissions* is reduce our energy use.

* other greenhbest on balanceouse gases such as methane or nitrogen oxides are also important, and are generated primarily by other things.  What I'm saying here only applies to carbon dioxide as such, but that's still important as it is the most significant greenhouse gas.

Plastic packaging takes vastly less energy to make than glass, metal or paper packaging.  In the case of paper, the energy to make a kilo of plastic packaging is a bit over double that of a kilo of paper packaging; however, your average paper bag weighs nearly 10 times that of its plastic equivalent, so the plastic packaging still comes out as much lower energy.   For glass or metal, they take more energy to make (per kilo) than plastic, plus you use much more glass or metal to package something (by weight) than you do plastic - a clear win for plastic on the energy front.

Also, being much lighter, it takes a lot less energy to move goods around when they're packaged in plastic than to move them in glass, metal or even paper.  For goods that travel long distances, packaging them in plastic can make a significant difference.  The coconut oil we buy comes in plastic for this reason.

From a greenhouse gas point of view, plastic is a clear win for the environment; from the point of view of sea- and soil-dwelling creatures, plastic is an environmental disaster.

So is plastic good for 'the environment'?

I've come to think this is often an unhelpful question.  'The environment' is just too complex.  We need to focus on specific environmental systems instead.  Does the thing we're doing help or harm freshwater ecosystems?  What impact does it have on marine life?  Does it increase or decrease soil volume and fertility?  Does it release or absorb climate-altering gases?  What impact does it have on threatened native species?  etc. etc.  Rather than considering 'the environment', I think it will often be more fruitful to identify which systems we think might be harmed, or which systems we think are in need of assistance, and consider how our practises impact those.

This doesn't just apply to plastic: I think it's helpful when it comes to thinking about many environmental issues.

I often hear people arguing the 'environmental' impact of dairy farming.  Someone will contend that dairy farms are terrible for the environment.  A dairy farmer will counter by saying that dairying is different these days and they don't know what they're talking about.  When you listen further, you find that they're both right: they're just talking about different environmental systems.  The 'dairy farms are terrible' people are generally talking about methane emissions from cattle: a potent greenhouse gas emitted in large volumes by cattle and that no one has any real ideas on mitigating.  Dairy farms are, indeed, bad news for climate change.  On the other hand, the farmers are generally talking about the riparian planting that prevents nitrogen run-off into streams.  Riparian planting is super-helpful when it comes to the health of freshwater ecosystems, and has led to amazing improvements in water quality over recent years.  Dairying isn't exactly good news for freshwater ecosystems, but it's certainly no longer the bad news it used to be.

So is dairying 'bad for the environment' or not?  I would say that's a meaningless question.  Like plastic packaging, it harms one environmental system whilst helping (or, at least, no longer harming) another.  The answer depends on which system you have in mind when you think of 'the environment'.

For myself, with these examples, I've come up with ideas on what I think, on balance, is good for 'the environment': what benefits the systems I think are most at threat, whilst harming others the least.

With plastic, I'm a big fan of plastic packaging - at least for contexts where packaging of some kind is necessary.  But I'm also a big fan of incentives for recycling, and of well-sealed landfills.  I want the climate benefit of plastic packaging, but I want to minimise the downsides to marine life.

With dairying, I think riparian planting should be practised anywhere cattle are kept outside.  I love that such planting is tax deductible, and would support it becoming mandatory.  But I also more than halved my dairy consumption a few years back, and toy with the idea of eliminating dairy from my diet completely.  The climate impact of dairy matters more to me than stream health, and I won't really be comfortable with dairy consumption until someone finds a way to address that.

I find this 'systems' approach actually helps me think about what helps 'the environment' as a whole.  It encourages me to tease out the different positives and negatives and think about what will do the most good overall.  Maybe you'll find it helpful, too :-)

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