If you are looking to find some eco-friendly holiday gifts and decorations this year, be careful what advice you follow. Intentional or not, many suggestions about “eco-friendly” products are faulty because they are driven more by political preferences than scientific realities.
In the words of Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises, there’s an “anti-capitalist mentality” among people on the Left, including many environmental activists, who operate under the assumption that free markets deliver nothing but “mischief and misery.” It’s an ideology that presumes humans were better off during the “good old days preceding the ‘Industrial Revolution,’” explains Mises in his book.
Many environmental activists embrace this mentality, exhibiting disdain for the fruits of private enterprise, particularly modern consumer products. They call for a return to more “natural” (preindustrial) alternatives, regardless of any environmental impact.
Sound far-fetched? Consider some facts related to popular “eco-friendly” advice.
A good number of “eco-friendly” shopping suggestions harken back to a more primitive, less industrial age. “Natural” materials such as wood, cloth, and metal products are preferred to plastics, shiny and colorful paper, and anything synthetic. Reusable cloth-wrapping materials are a suggested alternative to traditional wrapping paper and bows. Plastic products in general, from toys to cookie containers to plastic party cups and straws, are on the naughty list. Alternatives include wood toys, rag dolls, reusable coffee mugs, wooden toothbrushes, organic cotton bags, tin food storage containers, and metal straws.
Yet there is no good reason to believe that these less technological materials are environmentally friendly. In fact, life-cycle studies that assess the environmental impacts of various products (including plastic, paper, cloth, and ceramics) find that single-use plastic and paper products have better environmental profiles.
Plastics, in particular, often far outperform cloth or other reusable products when it comes to environmental footprints. Plastic consumer goods such as straws, foam cups, and plastic bags are much less energy-intensive to produce and ship (because they are lightweight) than alternatives like metal straws, ceramic cups, or cloth bags.
In fact, one study found that reusable cloth shopping bags require more than 100 uses before they actually use less energy, make less waste, and produce less pollution than their plastic alternatives. A Danish government study found that organic cotton bags would need to be reused 7,100 times. A ceramic cup requires more than 1,000 uses before it becomes more energy efficient to use than a plastic foam cup. And more often than not, these items are disposed of long before they attain an equal environmental footprint with plastics.
Plastics are also more sanitary and safer, reducing risks related to pathogens or accidents. For example, environmental activists suggest gifting metal water bottles and straws instead of plastics. Not only is it more energy-intensive to mine and transport metal than it is to make plastic, but metal water bottles and straws may also harbor pathogens if not cleaned properly. And they can be dangerous, particularly for the disabled. Last year, one disabled woman tripped while holding a Mason jar with a metal straw affixed to the lid. The straw went into her eye, then into her brain, and killed her.
When it comes to disposal, much of these materials will eventually end up in a landfill — be they cloth, paper, plastic, or wood. Since landfills are basically designed to mummify trash, none of it decomposes. To top it off, plastics also take up less landfill space than the other alternatives.
Because they are very resource-efficient, plastic products are less expensive, which reflects the fact that market pricing is a better indicator of the value of resources than politically driven advice.
Of course, all trash (plastic, wood, or cloth) needs to be disposed of properly, keeping it out of oceans and the environment. Fortunately, modern industrial economies are far superior to socialist or less developed ones when it comes to trash disposal. About 1% of plastic waste in the ocean comes from the United States, while more than 95% comes from less developed places in Asia and Africa. The largest contributor to ocean pollution is the socialist nation of China.
That’s no coincidence. It’s evidence that market economies are better for the environment.
Still, there’s nothing wrong with wood toys, food tins, or cloth wrapping paper if that’s what you enjoy and can afford. There’s a certain charm one might get from presents wrapped in fancy fabrics or beautifully carved wooden toys. But don’t think it’s greener than the more affordable, modern alternatives developed by enterprising capitalists.
Originally published at the Washington Examiner.