Saturday, November 05, 2011

calculating the impact of takeaway

I washed up four take away containers this morning, courtesy of last night's take away from Aaj India. (If you live locally and haven't eaten there, get thee to Aaj India I say. It's delicious and last week they kindly cooked a meal for us at 10pm!)

Take away. By Thursday or Friday evening I'm over the organisation required to not only decide what to eat, but also have all the ingredients on hand. I love take away. It's a love-hate relationship however, because for all the convenience and release, there are a bunch of plastic containers at the end of it which I don't want to keep but I don't want to throw away either.

I'm becoming increasingly cautious about eating from plastic for a range of health reasons. However, my uneasiness at takeaway containers does not stem from these health concerns. 'Slow death by rubber duck' by Rick Smith and Bruce Lourie, seemed to indicate that if I'm going to eat from plastic, takeaway containers aren't too bad. They don't contain BPA and don't leach too many nasties. Disposing of them is another issue altogether. Plastic just doesn't break down.

That's not entirely true. Plastic may break down under the glare of the sun's UV light into smaller plastic fragments over the course of, I don't know, ten years? Eventually its long plastic polymers might biodegrade with the assistance of microbes in... well nobody really knows how many years it would take. Possibly millenia. That's the good news. The bad news is that salt water prevents the sun from breaking down plastic. Any plastic in the ocean stays there. Forever. Possibly in broken down form, but possibly intact. This means that all the plastic produced in the world in the last 80 years is still sitting around somewhere. That thought troubles me deeply, and every time I eat takeaway I feel a twinge of guilt that I've personally contributed yet more plastic to the plastic dump sites of the world. (Check out 'Plastic. A toxic love story' by Susan Freinkel [Text Publishing, 2011] for more distressing plastic reading)

I manage to assuage some of my take away guilt with the thought that communal cooking must surely use less energy than everyone cooking individually in their own homes. One kitchen running hot must beat 30 kitchens running hot at the same time. I like to think so anyway, and I did find a supporting paragraph or two in a book on environmental sustainability last year, although the positive contribution of eating out has nothing to do with better kitchen efficiency! Apparently in Japan, it was calculated:
...that if households decreased cooking at home by 10% and increased eating at restaurants correspondingly, the demand for eating and drinking places would go up by 1.49 times. This would increase total carbon dioxide emissions by 0.3% (less sustainable) while landfill (waste) would decrease by 0.3% (more sustainable). However, the effect of spending more time and money at restaurants would mean that less was available to spend on other forms of consumption. If this 'rebound effect' is taken into account, it would lead to a significant reduction in emissions and waste, and the lifestyle would become more environmentally friendly.

Heap and Comim, 2007, Consumption and Happiness: Christian values and an approach toward sustainability in Berry (Ed) When Enough is Enough. A Christian framework for environmental sustainability, Apollis, Nottingham.
These calculations are far more precise, complicated and comprehensive than my own, and my idealist dream of communal kitchen benefits is most likely cancelled out by the increased contribution to landfill by those blasted takeaway containers.

Am I the only one who makes these crazy, constant mental calculations about my impact on the planet? I ordered a couple of organic, fair trade cotton tops over the internet. Organic equals better for the environment and better for the farmers. But what about the miles the clothing travelled to reach me? One was produced in India, another in the Netherlands. Did I cancel out the organic goodness by purchasing a product which has traversed nearly half the globe? What about the organic pepitas from China and those delicious, all-natural nougat bars from Belgium?

It seems to be a situation of damned if I do, damned if I don't - don't consider the environmental cost of my lifestyle and the world is doomed (sorry to be melodramatic there, but if you read what I've been reading, we're pretty well stuffed). Make an effort to reduce my contribution to environmental degradation, and I'm still contributing to the degradation.

Maybe you are a climate change denier who finds my calculating angst over the top because you don't believe human activity is contributing to global warming. Think about this: As much as 1.6 billion pounds of plastic end up in the ocean each year. 267 different species of turtles, birds and marine mammals are dying because of the impact of plastic in their environment. And if turtles, birds and sea life dying doesn't concern you, plastic is increasingly being linked to significant health problems in humans. Global warming or not, our consumerist, oil guzzling lifestyle is having a devastating impact on the earth, and I've just skimmed the surface of only one area of destruction.

Nine hundred words later and I'm no closer to completing my calculations. But I'll keep plugging away at it, trying to minimise my impact on the earth. And I suppose one way to solve the takeaway container problem is just to eat in at the restaurant. Or organise myself better so I can make it through a whole week without resorting to convenience. Now there's a goal!


At 11:07 am, November 06, 2011, Blogger Rebecca said...

At least Aaj India uses recyclable containers. It's the polystyrene containers that get me mad. That stuff won't break down EVER.

At 6:52 pm, November 06, 2011, Blogger Cherie said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 6:53 pm, November 06, 2011, Blogger Cherie said...

As you may know, my son, Ben, sailed from Hawaii to the Puget Sound in June on a 38' sailboat. Took almost a month. He saw plastic on the ocean every day, Cecily. Litter. It really upset him and does me, too. I hear what you are saying and I, too, find it very disheartening. I think about all the mounds of garbage on the surface of the Earth. By that I mean the hills of garbage bags and other throw-aways we make and cover with dirt and plastic. Locally we use the mounds to generate electricity that powers hundreds of homes. That's kind of cool. Still, it's just a really odd thing, trash.

Good for you for keeping us on our toes!


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