Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Between Starbucks and a Hard Place

with 9 comments

Tonight I finished a container of hummus. That is possibly the least enticing lede in the history of journalism, but for any environmentally-conscious resident of the American Southwest this mundane occurrence catalyzes a dilemma: rinse and recycle, or dump?

Because the container is plastic, and because hummus sticks to plastic, even if you are not above (which I am not, when alone) wiping the container with your finger after whatever it is you’ve been dipping into the hummus is no longer mopping anything up, the container requires rinsing. Either by you or by whatever entity handles your recyclables, but it needs to be rinsed.

Here’s the dilemma: does one conserve more resources by using water — an increasingly precious resource in the Southwest as the current cyclical drought becomes a chronic one with increased global warming — to wash the container out, enabling it to be recycled, which saves fossil fuels? Or does one throw it in the garbage, saving water but relinquishing the opportunity to reduce energy consumption?

The current socio-political, eco-econo climate is rife with these dilemmas, and they shall be a focus of this blog.

I once knew a guy who was such a strict vegan he said he used no animal products whatsoever: no meat or dairy entering his body, of course, but also no wool and no silk covering it. Animal welfare was the environmentalist cause he’d chosen to try to affect as a consumer. Yet he made his living as a DJ, buying copious quantities of vinyl LPs— a petroleum product— and he drove a 1960’s model Cadillac, which got about 12 miles to the gallon. So while he was protecting animals with one pocket of his wallet he was contributing to their extinction with another.

Coast to coast, conservation-minded consumers are tying themselves in knots trying to do the right thing every time they reach for their wallets; never before have so many thought so hard about spending so much. With all the evil corporations to boycott and imperiled indigenous organic farmers to sponsor, how does a self-respecting environmentalist navigate the marketplace? Can a socially responsible marketplace benefit anything besides the guilty consciences of bourgeois white liberals (of which I am, admittedly, one)? Would we be better off not wasting energy on it all and just writing a check to the NRDC (or whomever) every year? What’s the line between the easy things you can do to help the environment, like buying organic or taking shorter showers (if you live in a drought-prone region), and living in a cabin like Ted Kasczinski, staying warm by a dung fire?

It’s not just at the individual level that this takes place; it’s also happening at corporations as they seek to draw trendy, wealthy, early-adopter enviro consumers to their products by improving their image. (E.g., Starbucks’ attempt to convince people to spend additional money on their coffee during a massive economic adjustment.) Socially-responsible investing funds’ assets were at all-time highs until the market meltdown last year; 2007 set a record for the number of social and enviro stockholder resolutions. Yet as the BP pipeline accident showed in 2005, sometimes the company that’s better in one regard, e.g. admitting global warming is real, is worse in another, e.g. worker safety.

And attempts to go green are fraught with concerns and contradictions: Should soy-beverage maker Edenfoods include a straw with their drinks and thereby make it more convenient for people to generate demand for their recycled packaging? Or ditch the straw and save plastic? What do the organic farmers with roots in the 1960’s think of the fact that Dole Foods, wholly owned by a billionaire who made his fortune developing urban sprawl, is helping to increase the amount of certified-organic agricultural land? There’s a host of bullshitting going on in green marketing and other efforts to go (or to be seen as going) green, and I’ll be investigating it.

What are your personal enviro/enviro-consumer dilemmas, like the example with the hummus container above? What green marketing efforts are you suspicious of? Comment below, or write me and I’ll look into it.

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Written by ptullis

April 29, 2009 at 8:26 am

Posted in Uncategorized

9 Responses

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  1. Paul, you are an excellent writer and the subject of this blog is of special interest to me, but I’m going to give you the following unsolicited blog advice, and I’m going to do it in public, because that’s the kind of transparency the blogosphere is all about:

    1. Short paragraphs. One sentence per graf is fine and is recommended for readability. If you don’t believe me, go read a ‘professional’ blog and look at how they paginate. It’s weird until you get used to it, at which point your print clients will ask you not to do it in pieces for them.

    2. More short declarative statements. Shorter, in general.

    3. Lists. Bullet points. Bold text and summaries.

    4. Imagine you have 5 seconds to justify my attention. OK now stop imagining – that’s the situation you’re actually in.

    5. Learn how to write link-baiting headlines. And link-baiting posts, in general. Good blogging is a little bit vaudeville, and informed by the style if not always the substance of what ends up on the homepage of

    Christopher Mims

    May 12, 2009 at 4:10 pm

  2. Oh, and if you’re not posting links to these posts on Twitter, you’re cutting out half the conversation. Even if that’s the *only* thing you’re doing on Twitter.

    Christopher Mims

    May 12, 2009 at 4:12 pm

  3. Oh, and one last thing – all the problems with eco-label b.s. and knowing the net impact of your consumer choices are being solved right now, mostly by a site called I wrote it up in the context of summarizing the book Ecological Intelligence, here:

    Christopher Mims

    May 12, 2009 at 4:59 pm

    • I know Good Guide, it’s good stuff and I hope they can figure some of this out. Still, green isn’t the only consideration (ok, for some it is). Where things get impossibly individualized is where concerns contradict, and this can happen even within enviro considerations.

      Paul Tullis

      May 12, 2009 at 5:24 pm

  4. When will we wise up and follow the example of France and other EU countries, where packages are wrapped in micro-thin brown paper, takeout (if any) in waxed paper or aluminum wrap, grocery stores offer thin plain paper bags if you ask for them, and supermarkets require that you bring your own bag or buy one of theirs (you can buy for a pittance large reusable shopping bags, replaceable for free when they wear out). As for take-out, I wonder if old-fashioned Chinese food paper containers would be a better choice than plastic, but then there are the trees to think of…either way, we’re generating mountains of stuff. The obvious answer to hummus packaging would be simply to make our own hummus, and use real chick peas instead of canned, but we’re (myself included) addicted to the convenience of prepared foods.


    May 13, 2009 at 7:14 am

  5. …(continued from previous) Which isn’t to say that France doesn’t generate tons of takeout containers anyway. They are the kings of individual portion containers…those cute little indie yogurts have made their way here in yoplait and activia. Large containers seem to be a better choice, but the plastic is thicker grade. Little indie juice boxes for kids definitely involve more packaging per serving, but are people willing to make the extra effort to buy in bulk and forego the convenience of individually wrapped portions?


    May 13, 2009 at 7:26 am

  6. Good discussion fodder. As conscientious recycler (and an obsessive speculator) I often find myself facing the hummus quandary. It seems to me that a good, thorough finger wipe (which has its own incentive) should be sufficient. Particularly since those handling the recycling can’t assume everyone is as thorough as you and are likely rinsing stuff en masse anyway. Keep em coming, Paul.

    Paschal Fowlkes

    May 13, 2009 at 7:28 am

  7. France’s thing with packaging may be a function of their very different relationship with food in general. They treat mushrooms like cocaine over there. So most things are fresher, therefore requiring less protection from damage during shipping. Generally speaking, though, I don’t think the waste issue is that huge (I’ll be writing soon on what’s wrong with the plastic bags bans sweeping the globe); it’s more a matter of the energy used to produce the packaging.

    Paul Tullis

    May 13, 2009 at 12:16 pm

  8. […] a genius example of what I was talking about in my first post: Chinese land and water is being polluted, and Chinese workers are getting poisoned, because of […]

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