Environmental mythbusters

It’s often hard to make green choices.The Journal debunks some of the most common myths about green living

While some people leave computers on hibernate thinking it saves power
Image by: Tyler Ball
While some people leave computers on hibernate thinking it saves power

1. Cigarette butts are biodegradable.

While cigarette butts may technically be biodegradable, various sources have estimated that it can take them anywhere from 18 months to 10 years to fully break down. According to Cigarette Butt Litter, a project aimed towards raising awareness about the topic, this is because 95 per cent of all cigarette filters are made out of a type of plastic called cellulose acetate. These plastic filters pose problems of biodegradability and can also be accidentally ingested by small wildlife. Although cigarette litter may seem like a minute environmental issue to the individual, the WHO estimates that there are 1.1 billion smokers, and as a result, several trillion cigarette butts are littered worldwide every year.

2. Bottled water is safer than tap water.

There has yet to be any study that has successfully proven bottled water is of better quality or more beneficial to our health than tap water. The WHO has even suggested that in countries such as Canada, where citizens are able to enjoy drinking water that is superior to most of the world’s supply, bottled water is potentially more harmful to consumers because it’s less rigorously monitored. Currently, only 65 per cent of water bottles in Canada reach recycling plants and the other 35 per cent pilling up in landfills where they can take up to 1000 years degrade once buried, according to the Niagara Region Public Health Department. Furthermore, the production and distribution of plastic water bottles requires the burning of massive quantities of crude oil and fossil fuels. David Suzuki once said “If Canadians want to do something about the environment, they can start by drinking tap water.”

3. When you turn off appliances, they no longer consume energy.

Environment Canada estimates that 40 per cent of an appliance’s energy is consumed while the appliance is turned off, which accounts for approximately 10 per cent of people’s energy bills. This is known as standby or leaky energy. As long as appliances such as TVs, laptops, microwaves and cell phone chargers are plugged in, they’re consuming energy. If unplugging appliances after each use doesn’t seem feasible, try plugging all of your desktop appliances such as lamps, printers, speakers, and chargers into a power bar that can be switched off when the items are not in use. This will help conserve energy and save you money.

4. Genetically-modified foods (GMOs) are bad for the environment.

Although the U.S. Federal Drug Administration supports genetically engineering foods to make them resistant to certain herbicides and pests, general opinion among environmentalists seems to be that GMOs are unquestionably harmful to the environment. The benefits of GMOs are that fewer crops are lost because they’re more resistant to both herbicides used to kill weeds and insect pests that feed off of them.

The WHO shows that the negative environmental impact of GMOs outweighs the benefits, though. The main problem is that GMOs have the potential to affect entire ecosystems because if the pest species dies, other species are adversely affected. This has detrimental consequences for biodiversity. Genes can also affect species other than the pests, so organisms that aren’t necessarily harmful to the crop may die along with the harmful ones.

Many farmers may use more chemicals than without genetic engineering because they don’t have to worry about killing their crops with the herbicides. Despite the problems of GMOs, though, Canadians can expect to find as many as 30,000 genetically engineered products on their grocery shelves, or about 60 per cent of the processed foods they eat, according to CBC. As a result, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) and the Consumers’ Association of Canada (CAC) have lobbied to impose mandatory labelling for genetically modified foods sold in the country. To find out more about government action on this debate, go to inspection.gc.ca.

5. It’s better to leave the lights on because it uses more power turning them back on again.

In an episode of the Discovery Channel’s hit show Mythbusters, they showed turning the lights on and off again consumed the same amount of electricity as leaving the lights on for 23.3 seconds for fluorescent light bulbs, 1.28 seconds for LED light bulbs, 0.51 seconds for halogen light bulbs and 0.36 seconds for incandescent light bulbs. In other words, leaving the lights on only saves you electricity if you leave them on for less than 23 seconds with fluorescent bulbs. It’s almost always more energy-efficient to turn the lights off. Research from the University of Calgary’s Office of Sustainability confirms this data as well. Bottom line, turn off the lights when you leave the room.

6. Putting your computer on hibernate saves energy over starting it up again.

Like the lights myth, turning your computer off completely—and even unplugging it—almost always saves you electricity. That’s because the average computer uses about 150 watts—75 watts for the screen and 75 watts for the CPU—whether you’re using it or not, according to the University of Calgary’s Office of Sustainability. If you’re going to be away for 15 minutes, make sure the monitor is turned off. If you’re away for more than an hour, turn it off completely and unplug it.

7. Planting enough trees can offset the carbon emissions from cars and airplanes.

Seen by many as the get-out-of-jail-free card for carbon emissions, companies all over the world are planting trees on a crusade to become carbon neutral. In 2002, the popular band Coldplay said it would offset the environmental costs of putting out its second album by planting 10,000 mango trees in southern India. These trees all later died. The simple argument that trees absorb carbon dioxide gives some validity to carbon offsetting programs, but environmental groups are skeptical that this is a viable long-term solution. Carbon Trade Watch says planting trees is largely a band-aid solution, since it gives companies an excuse to keep on polluting. Moreover, planting trees takes up an enormous amount of land and is expensive. Plus, as we saw with Coldplay’s tree planting fiasco, the trees have to live long enough to absorb the carbon—many don’t.

8. Polystyrene (foam) cups are better for the environment than paper cups.

The logic for this myth is that polystyrene is lighter than paper, so it takes less energy to transport it. Intuitively, however, many might see paper as better because it’s biodegradable and can be recycled unlike polystyrene in many jurisdictions (Kingston does recycle #6-labeled polystyrene). In fact, polystyrene is better than paper because it’s lighter and can be transported more efficiently. It also uses fewer total resources than paper production, according to the Environment Plastics Industry Council. Many environmental groups agree, adding that the lack of oxygen in landfills means there won’t be a whole lot of biodegrading going on anyway.

All final editorial decisions are made by the Editor(s)-in-Chief and/or the Managing Editor. Authors should not be contacted, targeted, or harassed under any circumstances. If you have any grievances with this article, please direct your comments to journal_editors@ams.queensu.ca.

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