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Mail Bag: Readers Respond

MailBag.jpgThe "Paper or Plastic?" story in the Fall 2012 Cascade inspired several readers to write. 

In our Ask the Expert column, we interviewed chemist David Tyler, who offered his views on "life-cycle assessments" that seek to determine the environmental impact of consumer choices. Our readers respond:

Dear Editor,

I’m writing in response to your article “Paper or Plastic? The Answer Might Surprise You,” in which you interview chemistry professor David Tyler.
Dr. Tyler makes several excellent points. Environmental impacts are complex and can involve trade-offs. Popular wisdom about environmental impacts is sometimes wrong, and life cycle analysis can be a powerful tool for uncovering hidden impacts.
Complex analysis can yield complex results, however, and analysis is only half the challenge. Poor communication can paralyze people with indecision—or worse, lead them to bad decisions. Results of multiple studies can always be “cherry picked” to support nearly any position. Unfortunately, in the course of substantiating his hypothesis that popular wisdom is often wrong, Dr. Tyler has done just that.
Here are just a few examples:
Based on a single study in the United Kingdom, showing that burning paper for energy saved more energy than recycling, Dr. Tyler concludes “we are making some assumptions about recycling that maybe we shouldn’t be making.” What assumptions are these? Of thirteen different studies recently evaluated in the U.K., eight found that recycling paper saved more energy than incineration. Recycling fared even better on other metrics, such as human toxicity and climate change. U.S. studies also show that recycling paper saves far more energy than burning it as fuel.
Dr. Tyler also points out that compact fluorescent and LED lamps contain toxic metals that may cause human harm. That is true, but again only half the story. By reducing combustion of coal and other fossil fuels, they also serve to reduce emissions of mercury and other air toxics from power plants. A life cycle analysis could illustrate whether energy-gobbling incandescent bulbs actually have lower toxicity impacts, but your article fails to mention that.
And while stating that “bioplastic is considered really good because it degrades—it’s compostable,” the article fails to point out that 1) not all bioplastics degrade; 2) degradability and compostability are not the same; and 3) degradability might not be desirable, because in a landfill, degradation produces methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Realizing the benefits of life cycle analysis requires maintaining its credibility. Focusing on outlying data points and incomplete analysis may provide entertaining or even provocative reading, but it doesn’t advance the cause of better decision-making or environmental protection.
David Allaway
Senior Policy Analyst
Oregon Department of Environmental Quality


Dr. Tyler,

I am responding to your interview on life-cycle analysis in the fall 2012 issue of Cascade magazine by showing two examples that hopefully resonates a clear message with readers….don’t believe the hype.  By digging deeper into the SUV and ceramic mug examples, it becomes clear that the ‘can be’ statements in ‘Tyler’s Top Ten Surprises’, serves not as proof, but rather as disclaimer to your premise.
You state the study supporting the claim of SUVs having a smaller impact on the environment than dogs was ‘controversial’, yet in a simple Google search, I found a detailed breakdown ( ) of the various assumptions in the study, which yield the study’s results not as ‘controversial’ but factually inaccurate and misleading.  The author of the review states, “And I’d hate to have someone conclude that buying an SUV is no big deal —if the real numbers don’t support that conclusion.” (That’s the risk of bad information: it can lead us to make choices that are in stark conflict with our values.)”
You also suggested that due to the energy required to produce ceramic mugs, “you might as well take that petroleum or natural gas . . . and make one-use disposal cups (instead)”. Your conclusion is consistent with that of a European LCA that was funded and published by a business group representing the producers of disposable products. In contrast, a study by the Alliance for Environmental Innovation, a project of Environmental Defense and the Pew Charitable Trusts, found that after a relatively small number of uses, ceramic mugs require less energy than plastic or paper disposables. The ceramics are even better when compared on the basis or air and water emissions.
Your interview is similar to other popular media responses to human-caused environmental damage…the Pacific garbage patch isn’t really that big, climate change isn’t really an issue, etc.  The reader is lulled into a sense of complacency that conflicts with their values.  Rather, I encourage you and Cascade magazine to focus on the LCA research of some of the no-brainers that hold up to an LCA’s scrutiny…actions such as ride/bike more, drive car less, reduce-reuse-recycle, reduce air travel, eat less meat, etc.
Promoting inaccurate information creates inaccurate assumptions, which ultimately produce environmentally destructive behaviors.
Ethan Nelson, '94, '07
Waste Prevention and Green Building
City of Eugene



Dear Editor,

In reference to chemistry professor David Tyler’s article in the Fall 2012 issue of Cascade, his arguments for the points he makes appear to be based almost solely on the carbon footprint made in the present for the materials, articles, and processes he describes as opposed to the lasting impact as concerns deterioration effects (his comments on this aspect are negligible in the thrust of his article).  I’m surprised he didn’t raise the positive value of creating more “energy efficient” nuclear power plants over those of other extractive-based energy production (although uranium mining would inevitably categorize such plants as well). 

While plastics production over that of paper and cotton may make less of a carbon footprint in the present, I believe his arguments for-and-against need to be a bit more holistic, especially relative to long-term impact on the environment.  The plastic “Sargasso Sea” that has been created in the middle of the Pacific, the deadly impact of plastic particles wreaking havoc, particularly in avian- and piscine-based ecological systems, is enormous. The long-lasting polluting aspects and environmental differences between the degradation of paper/cotton versus that of plastic are obvious, as are those of the enriched plutonium waste we can’t seem to safely dispose of.  As well his point concerning the long-haul of large quantities (five tons) of California produce vs. that of local-based small quantities (five pounds?) in  an “old beater truck.”  My local weekly farmers’ market vendors are bringing in far more than five pounds each of their local produce, and not in “old beater trucks,” but in fuel efficient vehicles.  Another far more environmentally friendly response is that of adopting a locavore lifestyle where I simply choose not to eat produce when it’s no longer locally available, eating seasonally instead of—yes—adding to the carbon footprint by supporting long-haul delivery of California tomatoes. 

Ultimately I am forced to ask the question just who and perhaps what vested interests might be funding Dr. Tyler’s research.  Once again, his perspective appears to boil down to sacrificing the future for the present, but is that something we can afford to ignore? I guess it all depends on just how one defines the term “green.”

Matt Henry, '95
Workforce Development Specialist
CAPECO (Community Action Program of East Central Oregon)


Dear Editor,

Taylor's critique of what is actually green left so many questions unanswered and calculations unquestioned. For instance: I have a ceramic travel mug. It is extra large size. I use that mug daily (well, several times a day, but to simplify let's say 7 times a week). In 1 year that's 365 times—10 years, 3,650 times. (I have other mugs that are 20+ years old, and I've broken a couple after 3 or so years of use). I can also microwave this mug, which I would not do with styrofoam, and which I do at least 5 times a week. That's an estimated 625 times a year. 625 styrofoam cups are more green than one ceramic mug? When they fire the kilns to make ceramics a large number of items are produced. Did Mr. Taylor have some way of telling how much energy went  into one mug?

If garbage reduction is important " might not choose the Styrofoam cup..."? This guy claims to address environmental decisions? Cripes! And Hersey Candy Co. is addressing weight loss.

You can ask these questions of almost all of the articles mentioned. A cotton sack used how many times vs a plastic sack used once? How many pounds of tomatoes do you need to haul per mile to make it green? How much fertilizer, pesticides, etc went into growing those commercial tomatoes vs what went into the locally grown ones?

And above all the idea that your SUV is better than a dog. A dog that gets you out walking, gets you exercise, gives live reactions to you, and that eats (check the ingredients) food that we generally don't take to (poultry by-products, etc.) versus a machine that makes you flabbier and is destroying the atmosphere.

Get real, Mr. Taylor. The only actually green suggestion you made was don't have another baby.

Diantha Weilepp, '68

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