Scientist Says

The Complex Web of “Sustainability” and Science Jokes

Mark Falinski, Ph.D.
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So, is every retailer getting into the “sustainability” game? We can’t turn our heads without seeing the words “sustainable”, “green”, “eco-conscious”, “earth-friendly”, “chemical-free”, “all-natural” and so on. “Sustainable” products have become pervasive, and it’s not just us — a 2020 analysis by the Stern Center for Sustainable Business at NYU found that the share of sustainability-marketed products has grown seven times faster than that of conventional products over the last five years. We think that’s incredible, and shows that more and more people want to buy stuff that is better for the planet. At the same time, we realize that while better products are amazing, terms like “sustainable”, “green”, “eco-conscious”, “earth-friendly” are really loaded words, and they could have a different definition for every person. A 2019 survey from CGS found that some consumers primarily define a “sustainable” company as one that “uses eco-friendly materials”, while others think that sustainable companies primarily “donate to good causes” or “limit animal testing,” which goes to show how differently we all define a “sustainable” product and that those definitions themselves actually mean very little.

To complicate things even further, phrases such as “natural” and “sustainable” aren’t regulated in any way, so those words legally don’t mean anything. Whenever you see those phrases, it’s pretty likely that greenwashing is afoot. Making products that are truly better for the environment is a really complicated and delicate balance involving a ton of different “metrics,” or ways of calculating impacts on the environment. There are a million nuances, and a product that is “more sustainable” based on one metric might be really rough on the environment based on another metric.

Before we dive in further, indulge us in a quick aside on two of our biggest pet peeves here at Finch when it comes to labeling products: First, the whole entire universe is made of chemicals, so “chemical-free” isn’t really a thing. Second, “all-natural” doesn’t always mean that it is good for you or good for the planet. For example, palm oil is fully natural and accounts for 40% of all vegetable-based oils. The increased use of palm-oil has directly led to deforestation, increased global warming, and has threatened 321 species with extinction. Okay, I’m happy I got those off my chest.

Being the science nerds that we are here at Finch, we thought it would be fun to spend some time digging into these trade-offs in the same way that scientists, engineers, designers, and product manufacturers do. Yes, this is what we call fun. Because these “metrics” are so important to understanding the true impact of one product from another, we will first go through some of the most common ones scientists use to calculate how sustainable something is. Then, we will think about how some environmental impacts are related to one another (Spoiler alert: all of a product’s environmental impacts are so related, they are basically a huge, Cheaper by the Dozen-style family of brothers and sisters. I stand by that corny, 18 year-old reference.)

SO WHAT’S THE (MID)POINT OF ALL OF THIS?

Let’s start by considering a product you and I use every day (or at least I hope so for the sake of our loved ones): a bottle of body wash. One of the favorite tools of sustainability scientists is called “Life Cycle Assessment” (or LCA, for short). This is a technique that uses humongous datasets and complicated models to look at every single material (like all of the plastic in the container, the chemicals in the body wash, and the materials used in manufacturing, etc.), every type of process (mixing, reacting, etc.), all modes of transportation (moving body wash from the factory to your luscious bod), and each little bit of energy (aka electricity and heat) from the factory. These major life cycle steps include the extraction of materials and chemicals, production of the body wash, the impacts from using the body wash, what happens when you throw the body wash out at the end of its life, and all of the transportation in between. You might have noticed that the Finch Rating system includes the product phases “Making It”, “Moving It”, “Using It”, and “Ditching It”. Yup, that is totally based on life cycle thinking.

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So many different environmental impacts (or “midpoints”) are studied with this tool and they can all affect human health, the environment, and the organisms within it. They can lead to consumption of resources like metals, plants, and water, which we all need to live (the “endpoints”). Some of the most common “midpoints” that scientists think about include “global warming” (aka the rapid heating of the planet as a result of the release of carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide), “eco-toxicity” (aka the impacts of chemicals and materials on plants and animals), “eutrophication” (aka the release of excess nutrients into bodies of water), and “acidification” (aka when carbon dioxide in the atmosphere gets sucked up by the ocean, ultimately lowering the pH of the water). These “midpoints” are all connected to “endpoints”, which are damage to human health, damage to ecosystems, and damage to resource availability. 

CONNECTING THE DOTS

In summary, the “midpoints” feed into the “endpoints”, and a lot of “midpoints” are also connected to more than one “endpoint”. For example, global warming has the potential to damage human health and ecosystems in too many ways to list here (think, increased likelihood of pandemics, increased malnutrition, forced animal migration, and habitat damage, plus a million other negative consequences). However, what makes this even more complicated is the fact that each of these “midpoints” are also connected. In some cases, they are connected through shared chemicals or materials of concern, such as nitrous oxide playing a role in both eutrophication and global warming. Other times, one midpoint can directly lead to another, such as fossil fuel use leading to more particulate matter (aka smog) in the air, like what you see in Beijing or Los Angeles. Sometimes when one “midpoint” score goes up, so does another. But other times, it becomes more complicated than your 2013 Facebook relationship status. We thought about putting a figure right here with arrows connecting each of the related “midpoints”, but then we realized we just made a really ugly circle of crisscrossing lines… so, instead, just remember that every “midpoint” is connected.

Some of these connections are regularly discussed on the news. For example, “global warming” and “acidification” increase and decrease together. It is actually a pretty basic (or acidic *a science joke, get it?!*) concept. As more carbon dioxide enters the atmosphere around us, roughly 30% of that CO2 gets absorbed by oceans and lakes, turns into carbonic acid, and makes the water more acidic. This can damage coral reefs, dissolve animals’ shells, and degrade fish skeletons. Overall, it is really no pHun.

Another connection that the media likes to discuss is the one between eutrophication and eco-toxicity. First, nutrients like phosphorus and nitrogen make their way into the water from manufacturing waste or from overuse of fertilizer on farms. It’s a really crappy situation. As more nutrients enter lakes, it can lead to a huge increase in algae on the surface of those lakes (also known as “algal blooms” or “the most disgusting thing to find in your bathing suit”). As these algal blooms grow, they can release nasty toxins into the water that can make humans and fish sick. These blooms are also the reason that some beaches and lakes will regularly close down throughout the summer in the name of public health. That’s right… buying “unsustainable” stuff is indirectly ruining your vacation. Even worse, these algal blooms can block sunlight from getting to plants in the water, which can lower the oxygen levels and suffocate fish. All this can lead to massive “fish kills”, where thousands or even millions of fish die and wash up on shore (we will spare you the graphic images and the putrid smells). 

Yet another example is the connection between the depletion of non-renewable resources (like minerals and fuel sources) and human exposure to carcinogens. In America, the connections between coal mining and cancers have been explored for decades, but a lot of these issues also come from the mining of metals and metalloids and the related exposures to workers. It’s hard to imagine, but the smartphone you are reading this on contains roughly 60-70 different elements inside of it, each of them working in tandem when you ask Siri to tell you who that actress was in that movie starring that other guy. According to a 2019 study in the Journal of Hazardous Materials, as the number of elements in a phone has increased, so has the total mass of toxic metals. These metals won’t pose a problem to you when you use your phone since they are in such low quantities, but it is a problem for the miners who are digging up all that metal ore. Studies have found that the mining of some of these metals, especially lead, nickel, and beryllium, have been linked to increased cancer in miners and the surrounding communities. And as the world supply of some crucial and carcinogenic metals in your phone, like arsenic and silver, declines, each bit of metal becomes harder to get and the risk of exposure to carcinogens for miners increases. 

If you’re still confused by these “midpoint” connections, you’re not alone. Some people spend decades diving into each one of these gems. But, some are quite a bit more complex, and not really talked about as much. One example of this is the connection between water and energy (also known as the “water-energy nexus”). On one hand, our need for more water is leading to an increase in the energy we need to produce that water. Increasing populations and the impacts of global warming have made the demand for water go up, while the supply (especially in places like the American southwest) keeps going down. As a result, we need to keep installing more pumps and more water treatment plants, which require even more electricity to operate. As water reserves keep dropping, we may need to start using newer technologies like desalination, which require way way WAY more energy than normal water treatment. This energy isn’t a small drop in the bucket, either. The water sector in California is estimated to consume about 19% of all electricity in the state, according to a 2017 Congressional Research Service Report. Water we doing using so much energy?!

On the other hand, our energy system is totally dependent on using that same water that we just used energy to get! For example, love them or hate them, nuclear reactors are a crucial part of the U.S. energy grid, and they use a ton of water to keep cool (check out our awesome post on nuclear power). Meanwhile, fracking natural gas involves pumping millions of gallons of clean water into the ground at super high pressures, and makes the water pretty nasty when it comes back up. Even everyone’s favorite energy sources, wind and solar energy, have a water footprint (though it is much lower than the less environmentally-friendly options). When it comes down to it, it is really easy to see how this can get confusing for anyone.

Another even more complex “midpoint” relationship is the one between your trash and global warming. We have all heard about how great composting organic waste is for the climate, and we are here to tell you it’s true. Go out and compost more! A well-maintained (the key word here is “well-maintained”) compost bin will release way less potent greenhouse gases into the atmosphere than a landfill will. But unfortunately, composting just isn’t possible for a lot of people, which shows in the stats (less than 10% of all waste in America is composted). A lot of garbage ends up in landfills, which contribute more than 15% of all methane (a super-potent greenhouse gas) released in the U.S. every year. And the same thing happens with the waste we… um…. “expel” into the porcelain throne. Treating that waste in wastewater treatment plants releases methane and the even more potent nitrous oxide straight into the atmosphere, which is pretty crappy (yes, I used the same joke twice, and I stand by it). As you can see, creating waste can be directly connected to global warming. 

Sorry to tell you, but it gets even more complicated. If you read our blog post on the Sustainability Paradox, you know that unless you plan on using your metal straws hundreds of times each, you can actually have a lower climate impact by choosing the more wasteful single-use option (FYI, we suggest buying one reusable item and using it over and over and over, forever). The connections and tradeoffs between waste and climate also extend further into products that we think of as “sustainable”. Let’s take something commonly thought of as “sustainable”: compostable plastics, such as polylactic acid (PLA). First, we should note that most biodegradable and compostable plastics don’t naturally degrade, and will only break down under super intense, highly specific industrial conditions. If you are interested, next time you get a biodegradable coffee cup, see if it says “industrially compostable”. If it does, that one won’t naturally break down for you. Since industrial composting facilities are few and far between (there are currently only around 85 across the United States), almost all biodegradable and compostable plastics are sent to landfills. In extremely rare situations, compostable plastics can degrade in landfills, either breaking down into smaller pieces (called microplastics), or breaking down into their chemical components, reducing the total amount of waste. However, this comes with a catch… the potential release of our potent enemy, methane. That’s right, by decreasing the waste, we could actually increase global warming!

And, the story gets even weirder. A 2020 LCA study found that even when PLA is properly composted so its waste impacts are reduced, its global warming impacts are still higher than some fossil fuel-based plastics. Crazy, right? The only way for the compostable PLA to lead to fewer global warming impacts was by not letting it degrade at all (which kinda defeats the purpose of a biodegradable plastic). So, in this case, increasing waste could actually decrease global warming. I feel like these relationships are getting even more confusing, so let’s bin it for now and come back to these in future blog posts.

🧐 

At this point, it’s possible we have created more questions for you than answers. Trust us, we get it, and we think about these questions all day, every day. Finding “sustainable” products isn’t just about global warming or waste or health, like a lot of people think. It’s complex and interconnected, and covers everything from oxygen reaching fish to the likelihood of the next pandemic, even if companies don’t realize it. Parsing this information is pretty hard, so it is tough to share a hard and fast rule with everyone on how to traverse this complicated path. Instead, we want to offer up a few pieces of advice that have helped us over the years:

  1. All of this complexity doesn’t give you license to give up… it gives you the power to make mistakes and the knowledge to keep trying! You may have trouble finding the most perfect environmentally-friendly thing, but you can always do just a little better. Collectively, we can make a big difference. A dozen people doing a little bit better will always be more impactful than one person trying to be perfect. 
  2. Recognize the part(s) of the environment you care the most about and prioritize them. For some, it is limiting global warming, for others it is clean air, some want to see animals living their best life, and for others, it might be something totally different. You do you. If your passion is global warming, find “more sustainable” products that try to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, even if they don’t perform so well in some other metrics. Personally, my passion is maintaining clean water, so I always make sure to look for products that tout their low water footprint.
  3. When buying from a company that claims they sell more “sustainable” stuff, look for the proof that backs it up. Companies that are more willing to share the metrics they use to define “sustainable” tend to be the ones we trust. 
  4. Stay tuned for future updates to this series to learn more about how scientists calculate “sustainability”. We will share some of the newest science and some really weird and interesting stories about each of the “midpoints” above. 
  5. Download the Finch Browser Extension on Google Chrome, so we can help you take a little bit of guesswork out of how “sustainable” something really is.