Triggered by a post from an excellent enviro-tumblr that I follow, I can’t help tip-toe into the metal bottles vs plastic bottles “debate.” I think metal is the absolute worst of the two choices. Here’s why:
Manufacturing. The above horrifying graphic illustrates a real mining project. And it represents a process quite common around the world. It’s used to dump billions of gallons of chemicals and slurry as sites such as the Lihir Mine, which looks like this:
The Lihir site doesn’t look environmentally destructive, does it? Just a big facility parked on an the edge of an island. It may even be a pleasant place to work, with nice views of the Pacific, surrounded by lush greenery, and sited at the bottom of a tree-lined slope. This is what politicians defend. And it’s hard for the workers here to vote against it. It’s also much more destructive than pumping oil out of the ground.
We think more about oil in our daily lives, but rarely about mining. (Note, climate change adds an entire dimension that I cannot address here - I don’t know of enough analysis out there to funnel down to make a metal vs plastics comparison. Certainly, there are land-use adaptation issues, as well as enormous CO2 emissions to account for. If you know how to scale climate to this argument, contact me.)
The metal bottles vs plastics debate has been taken on by many researchers and commentators, and even governments. For example, self-described product life-cycle expert and enviro-writer Pablo Ester, has taken on the metal vs plastic debate several times, here, here, and here. He argues that metals (and ceramics) are better since they aren’t readily disposable. Plastics, he says, are bad because they last forever in the environment (how long does metal last?).
This is a bad argument. Like many environmentalists, he ignores the pre-manufacturing process of these products, such as shipping, the ratio of emissions on a per-product basis, amount of permissible pollution, and the vast gap in measurable environmental damages of mining metal vs drilling oil.
Post-production problem - domestic waste isn’t that big of a deal. Most landfill waste is construction, demolition, and industrial waste. Thousands of buildings, like malls and concrete parking lots, are literally thrown away, eclipsing entire neighborhoods worth of annual garbage.
Only about 35% is domestic waste comes from people’s homes. And only a small percentage of that is plastic. In other words, landfills are literally filled with things like entire buildings made of wood, concrete, metal, and glass. On a per-volume basis, there’s relatively very little plastic. Worse, metal and chemical treatments last many years longer than plastic. Metals produces many more chemical waste products, resulting in longer-lasting environmental destruction.
I know, this could deconstruct into some sort of existential, Milton Friedman-ian, “I, Pencil” spiral. How far back should one go in analyzing the bottle manufacturing process? To the shipping process? To the raw mine materials? To the manufacturer of the machines that mine the mine?
This question was addressed from an economists point of view. I, Pencil is a must view. “How does one manufacture a pencil” makes for a wonderful mind massage, doesn’t it? A pencil’s life spans the entire manufacturing gamut of mining, forestry, glue, shipping, marketing, and disposal (where do pencils “go”?). In fact, so intriguing is this topic that NPR’s Planet Money took on pencil manufacturing in 2009, and then revisited it in a fantastic analysis this past December. Both are must listen podcasts. I digress.
Metal bottles are far, far more destructive than plastic ones. There are more measurable, but hard to see, environmental damages from the manufacturing side of metal manufacturing than plastic, and environmentalists who argue otherwise are misunderstanding the facts (I’m sure inadvertently).
The “debate” needs to include the manufacturing processes, in addition to the common arguments of post-production costs of these two materials.
Metal manufacturing includes many environmentally harmful steps, which includes surveying/scouting, +machines to dig +machines to crush +rail and transport +deforestation +dewatering +cyanidation +spoiling water sources +tailings (all done with legal permits).
And then there’s post-ore processing, which must not be ignored - smelting, forming, cutting, welding, machining, polishing, painting, chemical washing, individual packaging (+sourcing paper board and inks), individual shipping, and individual shipping packaging. So many chemicals, so much water, and so much CO2 emitted that it’s impossible to calculate.
Not to mention the horrible waste products from manufacturing metals:
See tailings storage, here.
Your metal bottle contains some really nasty embeddedness of waste, pollution, land clearing, and lasting environmental destruction. This should evoke quite an ethical quandary and false sense of consumption security.
Worse, mining is regulated differently that oil. Miners have permission to pollute, and they don’t (generally) have to clean up their sites after they’ve finished. So, manufacturers are not obligated to clean the mess, unlike oil manufacturing where remediation is highly regulated (albeit with few nasty exceptions [Ecuador, Alberta]).
The process for plastic manufacturing is much cleaner and less wasteful: pumping oil out of a small area leaves (generally) no tailings, causes less damage to the geographic extent, is shipped in bulk, and uses far fewer machines - it’s a very efficient production process compared to mining. Manufacturing the bottles is en-mass, use minimal labels and glues, ultra-minimal packaging, and are all bulk shipped.
One poisons uncountable number of bodies (flora, fauna, land, water bodies, entire eco-systems); the other poisons (possibly/maybe) one body (ours), the occasional turtle or bird (which die naturally annually by the billion), and are limited geographically, which for the most part, are easily remediated. Of course, this is a relative comparison, both are nasty. Both kill eco-systems and people. I believe that one (mining) measurably kills more than the other, and for longer periods of time.
Lest the reader is confused - I don’t support use of either metal bottles or plastic ones. But this bottle vs bottle narrative from my fellow environmentalists is not objective. (I’d argue that greens have fallen for clever marketing).
I prefer a clay coffee cup bought from my local Salvation Army. For hiking, use a plastic one gallon container, thrown in my trunk.
Obviously it irks me when someone says that metal is superior to plastic. I believe this to be demonstrably not true. One should not depend on post-manufactured life-span analysis because it inherently ignores the incredible (incredible!) destruction from the process of manufacturing metals.
UPDATE: Jenifer Aniston Sex Tape (aka, New ad-campaign to sell bottled water)
- resumebuilderonline likes this
- adjustedlatitude likes this
- litteraenimoccidit likes this
- les-etoiles reblogged this from climateadaptation
- plastic-surgery-marketing likes this
- green-street-politics reblogged this from climateadaptation and added:
- vaginasinapaperbag likes this
- meanthugging likes this
- ellobofilipino likes this
- drinkthe-koolaid likes this
- abcsoupdot reblogged this from climateadaptation and added:
- abcsoupdot likes this
- msmajik likes this
- newanddifferentsun likes this
- starsatthree likes this
- climateadaptation posted this