A Thanksgiving plea

November 22, 2012

In this nation, in which many things are not as we want them to be, we still have much to be thankful for.  Many of us lead lives of comfort unimaginable to most of the world.  We are relatively safe, and relatively healthy.  Thanksgiving is a good time for us to reflect upon these blessings, and to contemplate our proper role in the world.

One area in which we inexcusably squander the largesse conferred upon us is the environment.  Despite having abundant supplies of relatively cheap oil, we constantly complain about the prices we have to pay, especially those who, understandably, have bought into the auto-dependent suburban or exurban life style so cleverly marketed to us and subsidized by our government.

While I share in the pain of high energy prices, I question whether we are using what we have responsibly.  I just read that we use 17 million barrels of oil each year to make single-use containers for bottled water.  About half those bottles contain tap water (sometimes subject to additional treatment), and about three-quarters of them are not recycled.

The bottled water industry is a convenient target, but not the only one.  Our environmental concerns are constantly assuaged by chasing arrows on single use plastic containers that indicate they may be recycled, and all we need do to feel satisfied is separate them out and place them in a separate bin on trash pickup day.

While recycling single use containers is certainly better than tossing them in a landfill, is it really the environmentally responsible way to live, or is it a cheap fix that “kicks the can down the road,” if you will pardon the expression?

When I was in China in 1983, I recall going into a store and seeing many products, such as detergent, shampoo, mouthwash and the like in large containers.  One wishing to purchase quantities of these products for home use either bought or brought from home a standard sized container that would be used over and over again.  We used to do this with deposit soda bottles, until the industry convinced states passing bottle deposit laws to allow for single use containers (in New York, returned bottles are not required to be recycled, though most are).

I recently bought a product that obviates the need for single use containers for carbonated beverages.  A Soda Stream machine carbonates water at home, to which various flavorings can be added, and the bottles can be re-used for several years.  In addition to saving petroleum used to make single-use containers, one also saves the energy costs of distributing full soda bottles, which must be considerable.  The machine is easy to use and the carbon dioxide cartridges last several weeks.  When empty, they can be exchanged for full ones and they are then cleaned, re-filled and re-sold. While using Soda Stream is not really much cheaper than buying soda in single-use containers (at least until the cost of the machine, about $100, is amortized), it is very convenient and, I believe, much more environmentally responsible.

Instead of complaining about high oil prices, we need to pressure manufacturers to sell products in multi-use containers and to show, in every other way we can, that we are serious about conserving this finite, precious resource.  Meaningful action could slow the growth of demand enough to have a real impact on oil prices, as well as upon the environment.