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5 Environmental Myths Too Many People Still Believe

The environment is everywhere. It's in the forests, and in the plains, and in the sea, and in the sky, and up in the club.

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It's behind you right now.

Now, I understand that a lot of you don't care about this, because you're not some filthy environmentalist, and that's fine. But it's hard to deny that we need air to breathe and water to drink and dirt to grow corn that we also drink, and from that observation, it's not unreasonable to conclude that activities that ruin that air, water, or dirt are something we should at least consider minimizing. Yes, there are serious differences of opinion about how much risk or impact certain activities might actually pose, but at some point, basically every one of us is an Ent-loving hippie.

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"I can hear its heartbeat! And ... feel it sprouting a new branch?"

But whether you consider yourself an environmentalist or not, you'll have at one point shouted out loud as some idiot spouted off yet another widespread misconception about the environment. These go both ways, from misguided idiots demanding we stop saving the environment to misguided idiots demanding we save it in all the wrong ways. Here are five of the biggest.

#5. Eating Local Doesn't Help Much at All

Eating locally grown food makes lots of sense, just buckets and buckets of sense.

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Sure.

Food grown far away has to ride to you on pollution-belching trucks or ships or coal-fired bulldozers, all of which result in carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere. Consequently, the theory goes, we can dramatically reduce the environmental impact of what we eat by buying food grown locally. That's sort of true, although don't look surprised when I tell you there's a "but."

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Sure.

The "but" is that it takes a lot more carbon to simply grow the food, with production accounting for something like 83 percent of the total carbon footprint. This means that a farm that's even slightly more efficient at growing might be the better choice, even if it's farther away. For example, if you're buying lamb in the U.K., one study has calculated that it's four times more carbon intensive to buy locally grown lamb than lamb shipped all the way from New Zealand. That study was admittedly performed by a New Zealand university, which might not be entirely unbiased on the subject of lamb exports, but the same thing has been found in a lot of other cases as well.

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Pictured: A New Zealand university.

Also, these "food mile" calculations elevate carbon dioxide above all other pollutants and environmental impacts. A full life-cycle consideration of the environmental impacts of food might reveal a dramatically different conclusion from "local food is better." But seeing as that kind of spreadsheet heavy-nerd-lifting is the kind of thing people don't want to do in a grocery store, here's a super simple shorthand trick you can use to reduce the environmental impact of your food:

Waste less food.

Something like 40 percent of the food we grow isn't eaten, the vast majority of that because it's thrown away by the consumer. As long as you eat everything you buy, you'll be way ahead of the guy buying local produce and letting it spoil. So eat your leftovers, kids, and please be sensible when buying food in bulk.

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If you're buying 30 burritos at Costco, you'd goddamned better be prepared to saddle up and eat 30 burritos, partner.

#4. Things Are Rarely Recycled into Themselves

We all know how recycling works. You use a thing, you throw the thing in the thing, and then it's recycled and becomes a new thing again, in an endless cycle of death and rebirth.

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Every one of these bottles was its own great-grandfather.

Except that no, that's not how it works at all. Due to all the paper, glue, dyes, fillers, leftover soda, and bodily fluids that are included in the average recycled bottle, when this stuff gets melted down, it results in a crappy, gross product. The very highest quality recycled bottles can get turned back into fresh bottles, but that's only a fraction of them. Most of your recycled Coke bottles get turned into cheaper, less fancy products like carpet or Dr. Pepper bottles.


Which is why Dr. Pepper tastes a little bit like carpet.

This is called "downcycling," and it's a big problem in the recycling world, which means a huge amount of the recyclable products we buy are still made with virgin raw materials. Paper has a similar problem; it recycles fairly easily, but that process chops up the fibers that give paper its texture, and recycled paper never feels as smooth or high quality as the fresh stuff.

It's not all bad, though. We have plenty of use for not-very-smooth-feeling paper in our packing materials and cheap napkins and such. And some recyclables recycle up real nice. Aluminum cans, for example, can be turned into fresh aluminum cans with no quality problems at all, using 5 percent of the energy required to make new cans. So please don't stop recycling. Because ...

#3. Recycling Is Far from Pointless

You see the opinion that we should stop recycling trotted out every now and then because of the problem with recyclable products (as discussed), and also because of how expensive it is. Recycling requires extra collection containers, dedicated trucks to pick them up, and dedicated facilities to sort and process them, none of which come cheap.

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Even if you reduce your labor costs somehow.

The simple form of this argument stops there, with the unsaid assumption that throwing stuff away is "free." It most certainly is not. Landfills aren't just a place where a dump truck backs up and unloads a bunch of trash. That trash has to be compacted and covered in soil (to fight the stench, and also the birds that desperately want to move that trash right back into your city), and this all has to be done in carefully engineered layers so that the damn thing doesn't collapse on the poor guys working there. And then there's the costs associated with leachate treatment and groundwater monitoring and landfill gas collection and the falconer.

Oh yeah. Landfills have falconers.

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This noble beast defends the garbage of the defenseless.

And that's all if you have an existing landfill. If you want to build a new one, you're looking at years of design and engineering and the small matter that no one wants a landfill anywhere near them, and as soon as you propose the location for a new one, everyone around it will flip their shit.

But let's say our arguer knows that and still says recycling is too expensive (they're not wrong -- landfilling is up to 50 percent the price of recycling). Even then the comparison isn't clean, as it has to account for the fact that recyclables can be sold and the wildly fluctuating market value of those recyclables, as well as the total life-cycle cost of building new products and landfilling them vs. partially recycling them. For example, those plastic bottles we discussed earlier that get recycled into crappy lawn furniture? Well, if we weren't making that lawn furniture out of plastic bottles, we'd be making it out of oil (that's what plastic is, kids), and as you might have heard, that hasn't been getting cheaper. Yes, we should probably be buying less crappy lawn furniture, but while we're not, these total life-cycle calculations make recycling far from a pointless activity.

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Although it will cost some falcons their jobs.

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