A Tale of Sustainability: Are sustainable switches always the most sustainable option?

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Sustainable Trade-Offs

Who gets to choose what we define as sustainable? One of the largest concerns in the sustainability space is that there is not one  agreed definition or standard for sustainable practices and products. Sustainable options given to businesses and consumers are justified with predictions, comparisons, and assessments.

We can predict how much we think something will improve the environment long term. We compare the impacts of our previous practices to the lesser impacts of practices we hope to adopt. We plan assessments with information we think will show where we currently are in our sustainability journey. Despite these actions being needed steps in the direction of protecting the environment, these actions can have hidden trade offs.

4 Examples of Sustainable Practices That Aren’t as Sustainable as They Seem

Presentation alters how we view a solution’s level of sustainability. There are obvious details that we don’t think of very often impacting if a solution is optimizing sustainability. We tend to offer our attention to the latest buzzing solution. It’s alright to be excited, but taking a step back to re-examine what we are agreeing to will help us refine the practices we’re promoting.

At People Helping People, our team is engaged with sustainable and social impact conversations. Peers in the sustainability space usually bring up interesting takes on what is considered protecting the planet or not. Holding conversations and sharing content is how the sustainable development community can learn from each other. Here are a few thoughts floating around in conversations you might want to know:

Tree planting is not as direct as people think. 🌳

Perception: Originally, planting trees can seem like a straightforward solution. It’s something you can do almost immediately to absorb carbon from the atmosphere and restore forests.

Food for thought: Even if you plant a tree today, you are not seeing a full-grown tree until at least a decade from now. That also means the tree isn’t absorbing carbon on the scale shown by predictions using data of full grown trees until years later.

Electric cars still have emissions like gas cars. 🚗

Perception:  Electric cars are presented as an emission-free option for transportation.

Food for thought: The US has not fully transitioned to using only clean energy. This means there is still electricity being produced by methods like burning coal (which adds greenhouse gases to the atmosphere).

Biofuels are potentially a “one step forward-one step back” cycle. 🌾

Perception: Without the use of petroleum, biofuels like corn-based ethanol or soybean-based ethanol become the more environmentally-friendly option for fuels.

Food for thought: Producers of corn-based ethanol or soybean-based ethanol usually clear forest land to get the organic material for the fuel. This is another release of greenhouse gases, and this could work against sustainable agriculture/ forestation practices if people are not careful.

Recyclable/ compostable cafe cups contaminate recycling. ♻️

Perception: Recyclable/ compostable cups reduce waste created by plastic cups that are sitting in landfills.

Food for thought: Some, if not most, recyclable/ compostable cups have a polyethylene (plastic) lining on the rim of the cup (so they are attached/bonded). Both the cup and the polyethylene are recyclable, but they need to be separated to do so. Leaving the two together makes recycling complicated and contaminates the recycling process.

As you can see in the examples above, trade offs usually happen indirectly. Who would think to question the lining of a cup when the packaging says it’s compostable? Very few people. On top of that, it wouldn’t necessarily be fair to say that people need to double check or investigate every sustainable practice. Any sustainable option should already have a vetted solution that people can trust. If that’s not possible, the trade offs need to be communicated and improved upon once they are found.

If we fail to acknowledge trade offs in sustainability, we’re not truly protecting the planet.

Weighing Sustainable Options in Retail Businesses

Easy-to-miss trade offs exist in sustainable development for retail businesses as well. When processing a life cycle assessment for products, businesses are weighing their sustainable options. Is one ingredient more eco-friendly than the rest? Is this location better for sourcing than this one? Then, businesses start to see how the product choices are super intertwined.

Let’s use mailers for an example. This is a discussion that came up in conversations of sustainable business practices.

Some companies use either bioplastic mailers, recycled plastic mailers, or paper-based mailers. The goal of course is to reduce the amount of immediate waste when a consumer receives a new product. At first glance, you may want to compare the mailers by price, durability, and other factors related to what it will cost the company to use the mailers for order shipments. Honestly, that’s understandable, but that’s also how people miss the underlying trade offs.

A company may decide to switch from recycled plastic mailers to paper-based mailers to have a zero-waste, plastic-free product. Here is the question lurking beneath the surface of that kind of decision: Is the environmental impact to use the paper option less than that of reusing the plastic mailers?

Possible comparisons to be made:

  • Energy and emissions of paper production vs. Energy and emissions of collecting plastic mailers to reuse
  • Transportation impacts of paper-based mailers vs. Transportation impacts of recycled plastic mailers
  • Storage required for paper-based mailers vs. Storage required for recycled plastic mailers

A Tale of Sustainability

To make it more clear, let’s focus on the transportation aspect between two different types of mailers. Compared to recycled plastic mailers, paper-based mailers are zero-waste and easy to produce. This means there may not be a complicated process to incorporate paper-based mailers. When it comes to transportation, paper-based mailers tend to be bulkier.

Hypothetically, a box of paper-based mailers could carry 200 units while a box of recycled plastic mailers could carry 350 units. Mailing order shipments would follow the same trend that you can transfer more recycled plastic mailers at a time than paper-based mailers. If a company sends the same amount of shipments out for each type of mailer, they would need more trucks for the bulky paper-based mailers.

More trucks sent out for order shipments means an increase in the cost of order fulfillment and an increase in greenhouse gas emissions. Suddenly, what seemed to be a good idea of substituting plastic with paper becomes an addition to air pollution. In fact, if calculated, the negative effects from using the paper-based mailers could end up being greater than that of recycled plastic mailers. This is how trade-offs become underlying issues.

Sustainability is a Learning Process

We continue to learn about sustainability everyday to address all the trade-offs that go unnoticed. As a community, it’s wonderful that we take a step forward no matter how small. Likewise, we also need to mindfully reevaluate solutions as we discover new ways to ensure our environment is protected.

What have you learned about your sustainable practices lately?

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