it’s the system

again and again as i read life cycle impact reports a common theme emerges.

when you want to know whether a product is harmful for the environment, it all depends.

it depend on what?

it depends on what environmental impact you are talking about

Is it climate change? Is it water consumption/ degradation? Is it littering (which includes materials entering food cycles)? Is it toxin related, the emissions of invisible particles and chemicals into the air, the water, the land? Is it the impact of converting natural habitats into large plantations?

it depends on whether you consider positive points from avoided impacts. take wood-based PET (i.e. polyethylene bottles whose key components are made from wood/corn & wheat straw). the avoided impacts in this case would arise from the fact that, because it was used to make bio-based ingredients for the PET, that wood residue was not burned, and hence impact on climate change was avoided. ignore for the moment just how difficult to calculate that would be, or that hmmm…bio-based PET is another rabbit-hole topic which could have me running into one all day. but you get it. adding credit points from avoided impact reduces the environmental impact of producing bio-based PET.

it depends on how the product gets disposed.

by now we should know that putting any organic product into a landfill leads to methane emissions which has a massive impact on climate change

it can depend on where you live. energy in India is mostly from fossil-fuel sources like coal. which needless to say, impacts climate change.

it depends on how often you re-cycle. glass bottles were generally found to be the worst offender across a number of environmental impacts except eutrophication and freshwater ecotoxicity. but, when the same glass bottles were recycled (at-least three times according to the european study quoted in this LCI report), these impacts start reducing.

it depends on the size of the container, the more volume of liquid it carried, the better it is from an environmental perspective.

it depends on whether the beverage is kept chilled at the retailer. because that means using energy, and please see the above point on the source of energy!

it depends on the layers of aluminium packaging that is used if the product was packed in a can or a ter. and whether a product is packaged at all. tap water (if potable) has lower environmental impact than consuming water in any other format.

so wait…what does this mean for us?

the possibility of infinite it depends and the possibility of infinite manipulation of how your environmental impacts can be analysed could & will freeze us into a state of indecision.

how we need to look at this i think is in the manner prescribed by the wonderful systems thinker Donella Meadows. what we are dealing with here to me seems to be in the space of parameter changes in a system. these are often the first level of changes that are attempted to be made, changes in the variable factors. like change the material for the beverage container. or the production method.

it could help.

but it’s a bit like chipping at the iceberg to make it go away. while ignoring the massive layer of ice below the surface.

the underlying system is what we need to be looking at.

the pervasiveness of a system where we want individualised consumption, variety, beverage served just so, it’s the non-sharing economy that we have bought into (literally). the need to commodify and commercialise what could have been provided in other ways or may not have been necessary at all. only when we change the underlying system will there actually be a difference. but until then, we try.

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