Margaret Wente on coffee cups and plastic bags

Margaret Wente has written a column for the Globe and Mail in which she criticizes Toronto's recycling plans as "not based on economics, or feasibility, or anything that resembles common sense, but on the simple belief that the more we recycle, the faster we will go to Heaven." Her major objection is to a proposal that would have retailers give a twenty-cent credit to customers who use reusable coffee cups. Saying that "[i]t never occurred to [her] that choosing a coffee cup for my double-double is an ethical decision", Wente goes on to argue:

I have now spent many hours researching this matter on your behalf, and I have found entire websites, engineering reports, and university student subcommittees devoted to the environmental impact of coffee cups. The classic of the genre seems to be a study called Reusable and Disposable Cups: An Energy-Based Evaluation, by former chemistry professor Martin B. Hocking, who, I am proud to say, comes from our own University of Victoria.

To perform a proper lifecycle analysis of coffee cups, Prof. Hocking began by calculating the embodied energy (MJ) in each type of cup. Not surprisingly, he found that it takes a great deal more energy to manufacture a reusable ceramic cup than it does to manufacture any kind of disposable cup. For every paper coffee cup you use, you'd have to reuse your ceramic mug at least 39 times to break even, energy-wise (assuming that you wash it once in a while). For every polystyrene cup, you'd have to use your mug a whopping 1,006 times to break even.

I trust that clears things up.

Well, no, not really. First, it's not so unreasonable to expect to reuse a ceramic mug 39 times. That's a little over a month of once-daily use. Using the same mug 1006 times seems a bit less likely -- but then, that's less than three years of once-daily use. Shouldn't a ceramic mug last for three years? Further, the numbers that Wente gives address only the energy costs of production. Recycling and waste disposal both use additional energy. I'd like to see some numbers that take into account the differences at both ends of use. And of course, there are other issues to be considered: landfill space, pollution from production, etc.

Wente also objects to actions dedicated to reducing the use of plastic bags, on similar grounds:

Everybody likes to point to Ireland, which slapped a hefty tax on plastic shopping bags a few years ago. Voila! People practically stopped using them. But then they started buying plastic doggie poop bags and plastic kitchen bags and plastic wastebasket bags to replace all the plastic shopping bags they had formerly recycled.

Here's the thing: I don't use plastic liners in my garbage baskets, except for the large bin in the kitchen. They're actually not necessary. (The dog issue is different, but I don't have a dog). So the argument about shifting around waste doesn't really make sense for me. I also *like* my reusable bags better. They hold more, and they have sturdier, more comfortable handles. Of course, I notice this difference because I carry them myself when I walk back home from the supermarket, or sling them on the handlebars of my bike. I'm betting that Wente still throws her plastic bags in the trunk of her much-loved SUV.

I don't want to make this a virtue contest. Wente is probably correct that plastic shopping bags are not going to push us over some kind of ecological tipping point. But the bigger issue, the one she overlooks because it's the thing she really doesn't want to confront, is the issue of attitude. Why on earth should we defend our 'right' to generate more waste than we really need to? Superficially, Wente is defending single-use coffee cups and plastic bags; dig a bit deeper into this argument, though, and you'll find that she's defending her right to overconsume. Focusing on individual bits of garbage might allow us to justify a wasteful lifestyle. Considering a really different lifestyle, however, makes ours (mine included) seem simply absurd.

My grandmothers would never have thought twice about reusing anything reusable. My mother, for instance, tells me of her mother making aprons out of flour sacks. Why? Simply because you wouldn't waste a perfectly good flour sack if you'd grown up in pre-Confederation Newfoundland. I remember my father's mother reusing Red Rose tea bags through cup after cup, because it was the economical thing to do. (I also believe that she never bought a car she couldn't pay for outright -- on a teacher's pension.) Perhaps instead of defending our 'right' to generate garbage, we could start questioning why we allow ourselves to look at unnecessary waste as anything but a mistake. Perhaps rather than splitting hairs about whether or not we use more energy by buying a ceramic mug than a paper one, we might simply accept that it's decadent, and a bit obscene, not to make the best possible use of everything that we're lucky enough to have.

Of course, my current irritation with Margaret Wente might have something to do with her recent column about "savages".

Near the end of a long social studies unit about the Miq'Maq, my sixth-grade teacher used that word, too. She only let it slip once that whole year, and mumbled it a bit -- but I can still remember her glimmer of satisfaction, and her apparent relief. I have no doubt that she'd been saving that slur for weeks.

Does it surprise you, hearing that, that my sixth-grade teacher was a truly awful woman? She was nasty and smug and more than a bit stupid, though somehow able to keep a lot of people on her side. The sliver of hate that pushed through to the surface in that mumbled slur was an absolutely integral part of this woman's nasty, smug stupidity. It was not some coincidental bit of ignorance.

Even though a full fifteen years have passed since the sixth grade, I still wish that I'd spoken up in that moment, instead of swallowing my discomfort -- so I'll speak up now. Wente's column doesn't have the bluntness of a simple slur. It pretends to be reasonable, and it pretends to rest on fact. But -- it doesn't. It simply asserts something that Wente believed before she started her research, and pretends to back it up with some selectively gathered bits of information. (Two of the authors that the cites have since written in to object to her characterization of their work.) It also assumes an unsettling degree of intellectual authority, and rests on an incredibly uncritical appraisal of value and reason and truth. Today's column, not coincidentally, does the same thing.

Perhaps the ugliest utterances are also the most revealing.


Katie said...

Reminds me of my grandma's Auntie Muriel (who is still alive in her 90s, amazing woman that she is). She refused to throw anything away. When she had to move into a nursing home, my grandma's sister had quite a time trying to get her to part with her many yogurt containers that she had washed and neatly stacked in the pantry.

All of the waste...there are a number of things I don't like to buy for this reason.

BTW, I always enjoy reading your entries! :-)

Cid said...

This reminds me of a discussion I had with my brother. I told him that my philosophy towards food was to try to eat local, natural and if possible, organic, since organic isn't always local, especially when you live in southern Ontario. He replied that he had read an article that said that my farmer neighbours made a much bigger carbon footprint than shipping organic food halfway around the world. Whether that is true or not, I'd still rather eat local and support my neighbours whenever possible so that someday they can afford to buy a more fuel efficient tractor and my kids can see that carrots come from the ground not in a plastic bag from Argentina.

cancrit(at)gmail.com said...

Katie, your Auntie Muriel sounds a LOT like my grandmother. :-)

Cid, I think that's the point exactly. Rather than trying to sort out conflicting 'life cycle analyses' of this or that product, why not just make the common-sense choice, and trust that it will have some real impact? Supporting your neighbour and consuming close to the point of production are both good common-sense choices.

Katie said...

Technically, she is my great-great-auntie Muriel, because she's my grandma's aunt and my Dad's great aunt. But I'd call her Auntie Muriel if we ever met in person I suppose, since the "greats" are cumbersome. And yes, it does sound like she and your grandmother would have much in common, although they live on opposite sides of the country (Muriel lives in British Columbia).

Katie said...

Just got this link from a friend today, so I thought I'd share it by posting it here.

None of it surprised me, I have to say. Am I just cynical? I think I'll go with educated.