Saturday, February 9, 2019

Protesting Plastic Packaging

A while ago I posted this: 

It reminds us of the hierarchy of the 3R's, and suggests a few new ones: Refuse  Reduce  Reuse →  Recycle  Rot.

Now, we can refuse disposable packaging used for other things by refusing the thing itself. (Yours truly once ordered a VR Google Cardboard from the famously-packaging-excessively-Amazon that yours truly never used... Just an example of what could be refused.) But food is something we can't live without.

Check out this aesthetic animation by kurzgesagt on the plastic pollution. 

I've been trying to cut down on my plastic waste when I shop for groceries. Although this study shows that you would need to use your cotton bag 7100 times before it has a lower environmental footprint than single-use plastic bags, I bring my own canvas bag, my own containers for nut refills and my own plastic bags for packaging individual vegetables, and I avoid most packaged products. A lot of vegetables come in packaging; I always choose the loose ones, and I never tear out a plastic bag for them. (Meat spoils faster, and needs constant refrigeration and packaging; luckily I've cut it out!)

I haven't found unpackaged corn. :(

There are a few issues here. Firstly, I prefer fresh produce, and I assume that less energy has been used compared to processed options. However, this study found that more fresh broccoli is wasted in the kitchen (20%) than if it had been processed (5%), which could result in a higher environmental impact. Still, another study found that despite processed food reducing retail-level food waste, the greenhouse gas emissions from and material and energy investments required for processing (e.g. canning) and refrigeration (e.g. freezing) mean that fresh green beans and blueberry and mussels are the better option for the environment. (On this note, I highly recommend using winter as a fridge, as my 姥姥 always does.) 

Meet this guy's fridge.

Secondly, a lot of fresh produce bruise easily (such as spinach and strawberries), which means they have to be packaged to facilitate transport and protect freshness. Food waste research found a tradeoff between reducing packaging and reducing food waste: packaging accounts directly for a small portion (10%) of the total impacts of food production, and effects of switching to recyclable packaging is negligible compared to the effects of reducing food waste. The recommended solution is not to increase packaging though, but for correct packaging and effective distribution. 

All these comparisons were done using the LCA. For those of you who don't know, LCA stands for life cycle assessment, which is an internationally recognised method for accounting for the sum of all environmental impacts at every stage of a product's life cycle.

I've also been trying to cut down on single-use containers. At my university, almost all food is displayed or served in single-use containers and utensils. Maybe the small student population doesn't justify installing central dishwashing. (This study found that the breakeven point for 1 ceramic cup is 39 uses to have the same environmental impact as 39 paper cups, and 1006 uses for foam cups.) Anyway, when I buy food, I always offer to use my own container. They do give a discount for that, which I find encouraging. 

Towards getting the most and best product using the least disposable packaging, meal kits are the worst. A while ago, I couldn't resist a meal kit promotion and ordered a week's worth, but after seeing all the packaging that went into it, I felt guilty and ridiculous. London's Abel and Cole used slightly less packaging because they loved to include hardy root and stem vegetables, but all the condiments came in tiny amounts, individually packaged. 

I sometimes wonder if my protest is too silent to be heard. But I've been challenged for my (unusual?) practices, so I know that people are noticing: I was dispensing nuts into my own container when the store manager stopped by and told me to use the plastic bags they provide; I ordered a pizza at uni and told them to put it on my plate, but they told me to "just take a [paper] plate! It's free!" 

And I'll admit that there are "bigger fish to fry". (Stay tuned for that, I'll talk about banking next!) But it gives me a little comfort to feel like I'm doing a small part to protest our industrialised ways.

I'm interested to learn what YOU do for everyday sustainability!

Wednesday, January 16, 2019

and then we'll be okay

Sometimes I think about the future (or lack thereof) of humanity and wonder what's the point of anything. And sometimes I sink into paralysis. 

Some time ago, my boyfriend sent me this.

Meanwhile on Facebook...

Sunday, January 13, 2019


Last week, I explored the reaction to environmental crisis from a place of fear

What if we come from a place of empathy?

That was hard to watch. 😭 

This video of a turtle with a straw stuck up its nose was quite frequently referenced when the plastic straw campaign first took off. 

Plastic straws suck!

I remember friends all over Facebook posting about saying "NO" to plastic straws and wondering, "why the sudden hype?" 

Nas Daily's hot take on the plastic straw dilemma echoed my thoughts. (Linked: Facebook video that I can't embed here.) In short, he points out hypocrisies in the environmental PR policies of some big companies. Specifically,
  1. he criticises McDonalds for banning plastic straws but still using plastic spoons, cup covers, and other disposable plastic;
  2. then goes on to criticise McDonalds for wanting to save turtles, while being responsible for  millions of other animals dying every year - pigs, cows... basically, the meat we eat. 
  3. He calls this selective empathy
Meat?                                       Pet?

Selective empathy is when we care about some plastic, some animals, and some humans. Nas concludes that saving one plastic straw is good (Practice the new and improved 5R's! Refuse, Reduce, Reuse, Recycle, Rot.), but caring about the actual problem is even better. 

Yes, the plastic straw campaign could encourage people to begin to care more about environmental issues. On the other hand, it's also a form of virtue signalling, or greenwashing. 

Back to empathy.

WWF trapped a man indoors for a week and filmed his experience as they introduced pollution, global warming, and habitat loss to his living quarters. (Linked: another Facebook video.) The man, Francis, narrates his experiences, which helps us empathise with the suffering we have brought upon wildlife. The video invites us to empathise with our future too: "But we can't leave the planet."

Brené Brown on Empathy

Perhaps, in order to better respond to our self-sabotaging trajectory of damage to the environment, we would do better to feel it first. 

Thursday, January 3, 2019

The Apocalypse

Happy 2019! What better way to start off the New Year than with The Apocalypse!

I really like how this video shows that the "the world is going to end so let's give up and enjoy ourselves while we can" mindset is just another form of climate denialism. Good stuff.

One critique I have for ContraPoints ("Oscar Wilde of YouTube") is that (at the risk of catastrophizing) an environmental refugee crisis may eventually lead to Total War.

The last time that happened, someone dropped 2 nuclear bombs somewhere.

SIPRI (The Stockholm International Peace Research Institute), a think-tank that does research on security, conflict and peace, has a research programme dedicated to Climate Change and Risk. Together with SEI, SIWI and SRC (the Planetary Boundaries folks), they try to encourage institutional reforms in the UN Security Council to better manage security risks of climate change.

Linking climate change to security is a "survivalist" approach in environmental discourse. It may be more effective - more Realistic - than the other approaches identified in Dryzek's book (which are environmental governance, sustainability, and activism).

A few reasons why I'm restarting this blog:
  1. New Year New Me 
  2. Academia can feel alienating from big picture concerns 
  3. To explore a wider range of environmental discourses than my thesis. "Alternative theses", if you will. (Amber, 2018)
  4. Engage in discussion and debate with readers 
  5. It's a regular thing, so I won't forget 
A few principles I'll blog by:
  1. Short and sweet
  2. Use memes
  3. Link to other content creators - there's so much information out there already
  4. Catalogue resources - tags 
  5. Document personal communication - I've talked with so many people about environmental issues, it's a shame our conversations don't have a wider reach 
  6. I'm left-leaning (duh), but I'll try and keep things balanced

Uh... I'll try, ok Regina George? 

Monday, January 8, 2018

Ending Note

This coursework has pushed me to examine the central question of my educational pursuit. Why did I want to study this, here, and what do I want to achieve? I like how this evolved from a space where I explored different questions I have while toying with Mean Girls memes, to a space where I provided serious answers to my own questions, and even began answering others' questions.

In my learning process, I've made key changes to my blog, such as toning down on ecofeminism, because I believe in reformist rather than radical environmental discourses.

I intend to continue blogging, because I truly enjoyed the process of writing to engage a wider audience. Blogging has helped me learn a lot more than exams have, and it has created "intellectual output" that I'd actually revisit when I've forgotten about it. Since I'm writing for a topic I care deeply about, too many things were left unsaid. I also have a punny blog title, which is handy.

I'm left with many more questions to ponder. Ultimately, it's important to remain optimistic and proactive.

That was my Prom Queen speech. Thank you for reading!

Wednesday, January 3, 2018

Book Review: Doughnut Economics

In Doughnut Economics (2017), Kate Raworth explores limitations of modern economics theories. (A prominent female academic!)

Merging social boundaries into the planetary boundaries structure, she introduces the Doughnut for social and and planetary boundaries for development. This video, by Oxfam International, summarises her key ideas. Here's the full paper, published in 2012.

In the 2017 update, social boundaries have 12 dimensions, derived from internationally agreed minimum standards for human wellbeing, as established in 2015 by the Sustainable Development Goals. They are jobs, education, food, networks, gender equality, social equity, political voice, peace and justice, and access to health services, energy, water, and housing. Together with the 9 PBs, they encompass human well-being, and promote inclusive and sustainable economic development.

It also quantifies human transgression on these boundaries. Just like overshooting PBs concern ecologists, shortfalls under the social foundation concern social development.

(Source: The Lancet)

The Doughnut answers to the criticism that PBs only focus on biophysical aspects of resilience. It provides the social dimension of what a safe space for humanity means.

This is another instance where, instead of criticising the PBs for oversimplification, or disagreeing with the actual boundaries or the extent of human transgression, researchers have used the framework constructively by tying in other important aspects of sustainable development.

Friday, December 29, 2017

Wrong Model, Useful Framework

"All models are wrong, but some are useful." - George Box

(From Mean Girls to models. Source: Dailymail)

The Second Law of Thermodynamics states that "The entropy of the universe tends to a maximum." In other words, the world is (increasingly) chaotic: this much I understand from Physics. The desire for simplicity motivates us to model it. The need to make decisions motivates us to simplify complex problems. The urgency to solve complex problems pushes us to make informed decisions. 

Hence, I argue that even if the PBs are "wrong", whether it is the way they quantified anthropogenic perturbations, the numerical boundaries they proposed, the way they linked regional and global scales, the actual PBs selected, or even the tendency of their hard science preoccupation with quantitative methods to oversimplify and distort complex problems (and there are many more ways they can be wrong), the framework it provides us is useful. Science has never been about being right. It has always been about dialogue and debate.

Professor Anson Mackay has contributed to a paper that reinforced my belief in the PBs' usefulness. This paper provides empirical evidence on the positive contribution of the the safe and just operating space approach for regional social-ecological systems. Its starting point is the PBs framework, and it examines two Chinese localities by mapping their regional safe and just operating spaces to determine the current status of key ecological services/processes. Instead of PBs, regional processes can exceed an "environmental ceiling" of sustainable use of ecological processes. They selected 6 "environmental ceilings". Both localities are experiencing "dangerously" compromised water quality due to unsustainable practices, but sediment regulation is considered "safe". The statuses of "Dangerous" (red), "Cautious" (yellow) and "Safe" (green) are determined by qualitative evaluation of ecological records.

This paper is one instance in which, despite criticising PBs for not being current for regions that already occupy dangerous operating spaces (like China, a LDC), it made use of the framework constructively, by adapting and applying it into the regional safe and just operating space (RSJOS). Considering regional-scale boundaries also enhances the global environmental governance objective of PBs.

It's inspiring to see the PBs concept taking up a different permutation.

This paper also makes reference to the Oxfam Doughnut, which I will discuss next.

Protesting Plastic Packaging

A while ago I posted this:  It reminds us of the hierarchy of the 3R's, and suggests a few new ones: Refuse  →  Reduce  →  Reus...