Business needs to commit itself to environmental change

Been there, done that. Bought the 100% organic cotton T-shirt

11 February 2008 00:00  [Source: ICB]

Fred Seelig/New York

It's 2008, and I feel like we've gone through all this environmental enthusiasm before - and to no lasting effect. Back in around 1988-1990, here in the US, there was a great push forward with cities starting recycling programs, consumer product companies selling biodegradable garbage bags, and encouragement to convert homes to clean, efficient, natural gas heating.

But since then, we've built ever larger McMansions, and filled them with gadgets that suck electricity even when turned off. Cars, too, are now bigger, literally making fuel economy worse.

So it makes me bitter when Ford - the company responsible for the 12mpg Excursion - touts its new Mustang for having soy-based foam in the seats.

It makes me bitter when plastics companies tout their latest biodegradable or biosourced polymer, which: quite possibly has a worse impact than its petroleum-based equivalent due to the energy and chemical-intensive nature of agribusiness often cannot be recycled with conventional plastics and will never biodegrade in a landfill in any case. As it is now, most US cities can only recycle polyethylene terephthalate (PET) and high density polyethylene (HDPE), leaving billions of polypropylene (PP) yogurt cups to sit forever in landfills.

I know companies have limited amounts of money to spend on reasearch, or on greener substitutions. So imagine if instead of developing soy foam, Ford spent that money eking out even just one more mile per gallon. Over the car's life, that would reduce its environmental footprint far more effectively. Imagine if, instead of developing the latest biopolymer, plastics companies spent that money on making their products more easily recyclable, or stronger, so that less material needed to be used in the first place.

It took decades to phase out ozone-harming fluorocarbons. But our "safer" refrigerants turn out to be greenhouse gases. So now we're looking for ways to replace those, too.

We spent decades getting heavy metals out of batteries and other products. Now, we're urged to replace our safe, but inefficient, light bulbs with heavy metal-laden compact fluorescent lights (CFLs). Yes, it is well documented that the emissions reduction from the reduced electricity needed to run CFLs more than offsets the bulbs' own toxics. But how soon will it be before we are urged to replace CFLs with something safer? How soon will it be before companies focus on truly long-term environmental benefits instead of what's going to create the most media buzz for the next fiscal quarter?

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