Leyla Acaroglu busts common environmental myths

How do we know we’re making the right ecological choices? Sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu has been working to answer this question. She joins reporter Andrea Vasquez to bust a few common eco-myths.


Paper or plastic?

It's a question we've grown accustomed to, and for many people, the answer is automatic.

But how do we know we're making the right ecological choices?

Sustainability strategist Leyla Acaroglu has been working to answer this question.

She joins reporter Andrea Vasquez to bust a few common eco-myths.

Environmental folklore -- you say it's based mostly on our experiences, on hearsay, not always on science.

What's going on?

Well, to start with, it's only been in the last few decades that we've actually really started to understand and analyze how our choices in the economy are having impacts on the planet.

So it's really quite a new science to know, if we make packaging from plastic and it ends up in the natural environment, what's gonna happen?

So this means that a lot of the information that's available to us is quite new, and, also, humans really like fuzzy feelings.

And so I like to think of environmental folklore as that little voice in your head that says, 'Pick the paper bag.

It's so much better.'

But what we've started to discover with this new scientific analysis technique, new within the last 20 years, life-cycle assessment, it's really started to show us how activities in the economy aren't actually playing out the way we think.

So, how do you make a paper bag?

Well, you have to go and cut down trees and you have to, obviously, process them, and then the same with plastic.

You have to extract materials.

Now, they both have impacts.

We know that.

But that's in the production stage.

A lot of our decisions about environmental impacts are based on our assumptions around the end of life.

So, what happens when we no longer want them?

And we see plastic bags strewn on the street, and we think a paper bag is better because it will just biodegrade, right?


Unfortunately, that's not what happens.

Because when you take these two products, and you look at their entire life, most of them end up in a landfill, and a landfill is what's called an anaerobic environment.

It basically means it's got no air.

Now, in that environment, what actually happens is these little microorganisms break down cellulose material.

So anything that's made from an organic material -- so your food waste --

Anything from the earth.

Exactly. Yeah.

So it starts to break it down like little guys munching away.

Kind of like if you left a piece of fruit in a plastic bag for a few days, opened it up, doesn't smell so good.

Right, you get that gas release when you open it up.

That's right.

And that gas is methane, and methane is a by-product of this environment.

Now, the thing about this is that it's a 25-times-more-potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

So, if you have this landfill environment, the paper bag is actually contributing to this negative environmental impact, but the critical issue with the bags has to do with the weight of them.

Up to 10 times more material is used in order to create a paper bag with the same functionality as a plastic bag.

So when you look at the whole life, and you look at one bag versus another, the paper bag has a bigger impact because you need more material to achieve the function.

So there's a volume issue here that we're not considering.


What are the other questions that we're just not thinking to ask in our well-intended effort to be green and eco-friendly?

Well, the bag example basically isn't saying, 'Everyone rush out and use plastic bags.'

What it actually is telling us is that our predisposition to disposability is the issue -- right? -- the fact that we do think that having disposable objects and that one alternative over another is gonna make things better.

The same applies to coffee cups, for example, you know.

The average New Yorker uses 500 disposable coffee cups every year.


Which is crazy, right?


And the thing is, is that most of those paper cups are lined with a plastic film that make them unrecyclable.

But, unfortunately, what we're really looking at here is a crisis of consumption because somehow, collectively, we've all said, 'Disposability's fine.

I'm gonna take that plastic bag, and I'm use it once, and them I'm gonna throw it in the trash, and I'm gonna feel guilty about the few that I see out in the natural environment, but I'm not gonna be really thinking about the whole picture.'

So, to start with, we have to think about our choices day to day and how they impact the planet.

And so a simple one would be, obviously, reusable bags, but the other thing is, like, having your coffee the coffee shop with a nice ceramic cup.

Very small micro-changes can help influence the bigger system, because once customers start asking their local coffee shop for nice, reusable cups, they start responding to the customer demand.

What are some of the other myths and environmental folklore that you see as being very prevalent and what's the data behind why we're so wrong about them?

I think that some of the biggest myths are that these terms, like 'biodegradability,' 'recyclability,' 'renewable' -- they're all the, like, strong titans of the environmental movement.

And they're amazing terms, but what they are are material properties, right?

They just describe what something can do.


So if you don't have the right system set up -- So, if have something that's compostable, for example, and then you don't have a composting system, then you have that thing that I mentioned earlier about the landfill and the methane and the 25-times-more-potent greenhouse gases.

So we have what's called a double negative.

So really we need more efficient systems so those material properties -- the renewable and the biodegradable -- they actually have that benefit, rather than accidentally causing a bigger environmental impact.

So we need to be looking at the larger picture and also filtering some of the popular science and science tidbits that are giving us small pictures of things?


I mean, in any case, what we know is that simple and painless activities don't create big change.

The easier it is, the less likely it's going to actually have the kind of change that we need.

And so when it seems like an easy, quick-fix solution, like all you have to do is change your light bulbs, and suddenly we've solved climate change, I think that we're all smart enough to know that it's not as simple as that.

Changing your light bulbs is a great first step, but if you then go and buy two televisions and leave them on half the night, you've actually created a bigger rebound effect, where your choices have validated a bigger impact.

So, I mean, I don't want people to think that I'm saying everything's bad.

I think what's really important is that we have a bit more of a curiosity about the way the world works, about systems and the choices we make, and that we don't fall into the trap of believing that some simple solution like a paper cup is gonna somehow absolve all of the environmental impacts that come down to us using disposable items and us thinking that we're gonna be able to solve the world's problems by just changing a light bulb or eating less meat.

And drinking our coffee out of a paper cup.


Well, we'll try to look at the bigger picture, then.

Thanks for being with us.

Thanks for having me.