How to think critically about environmental solutions?
Year of production: 2022
How to think critically about environmental solutions?
We now live in a world where sustainability is no longer a niche interest of activists but is instead something that almost every stakeholder is talking about. It is now also one of the horizontal priorities of the Erasmus+ programme. This means everyone is trying to present some solution that they claim to be green, circular, sustainable, etc. And it’s not always as straightforward as it seems.
Perhaps the most important element in understanding if the proposed solution is truly sustainable is to first look at how the problem is described, meaning is the right problem being addressed?
For example, let’s take a look at this video ‘The Exciting Journey of Trash!’ by Nas Daily:
This video has garnered over one million views on YouTube and about 47 million views on Facebook.
First of all, think to yourself: would you consider this a good or bad solution and why?
Before judging the solution, we need to look at how they are talking about the problem.
What is the problem they are solving there and how?
There are several points in the video that could raise questions for waste management and environmental experts, but let’s look into the core of this. The video says the main problem is that waste takes too long to decompose and we don’t really have room for it. According to this logic, it could even sound reasonable that our solution then would be to make that waste disappear. But, if we think on a larger scale: what are our biggest environmental problems?
Climate change, loss of biodiversity and destruction of ecosystems, right? And they are the result of our production and consumption patterns. We use up too much natural resources, we extract them in harmful ways, we use them for too short a time and we dispose of them in a nature-harming way. Our problem is unsustainable production and consumption, a so-called linear economy model. If you want to know more about why the linear economy model is problematic, check out the oldie but goldie The Story of Stuff video, which explains the main principles behind our current economic model.
Does the solution offered in the video help us solve this problem? Does it help us extract less materials for our stuff and use them for longer so that we would have less waste in the first place? Not really. So this is a viral video spreading false information that could be considered greenwashing. Read more about greenwashing here.
As mentioned above, there are several questionable things in the video, such as forever concealing toxic waste in special water. Imagine how many special designated water places we would need if we all keep on consuming new stuff every day that needs to be burned? Although the amounts of ash are smaller than the unburned waste, this is still something that is being created every day. And can it really be stored in such a totally isolated way? Not to mention that incineration plants are actually not as clean as the video would make us believe. And once we burn discarded materials, they are destroyed forever, meaning they are lost for any potential reuse and recycling.
Questions to ask
Although there are often tiny details in environmental technologies nowadays that we cannot know about without being an expert, we can always judge the solutions by these questions:
- Does this solution make us extract less raw materials for the things we use?
- Does it help to make materials remain in use for a longer time?
- Does it create less waste than we need to dispose of?
So what would be a good solution in the case of the video? What do you think?
We can start by thinking why we have products in packages (the snack bag in the video), which are only used for a short time and cannot be reused or recycled? Perhaps we should create more packaging and products that we can use for longer and out of materials we can recycle into new products. Then we wouldn’t have such a big problem with waste in the first place.
There’s another example: road surfaces made with recycled plastic. Good solution or not?
If we can use less raw materials for the road and more recycled plastic instead, then it could be good, right?
It’s important to think of the original purpose of the material. If we make single-use bottles or tableware out of plastic, use it for a short time and then recycle it into roads, then it still leaves us needing more plastic to produce new bottles and tableware. So, again we should be focusing on solving the problem of how to use less plastic in the first place and how to use it for a longer time, so that we wouldn’t need to find new ways of dealing with the leftover plastic. Not to mention the fact that we don’t really know how much microplastic can leach into the environment from these plastic roads. Read about the threat of microplastic pollution here.
So, when looking at new green solutions, always consider:
- What problem are they solving?
- Are they addressing the core environmental problems?
- Is the solution helping to restore ecosystems, pollute our environment less, extract less raw materials, consume less and make our products more durable, long-lasting and reusable?
Also, ask yourself the standard critical thinking questions too, such as:
- Who created this message?
- Why has this message been created?
- What is the motivation behind the creator of the message?
- What creative methods are being used to tell that specific story? Etc.
And a final thing: as mentioned above, these days environmental technologies can be complex and the devil tends to be in the detail. Here is where finding reliable sources and checking facts become essential. As a youth worker or young person, it’s not always possible to research all the complex issues yourself, but we recommend that you try to add good experts to your contact list, from whom you can ask about the details and seek feedback to verify your understanding of the issue. When starting a project that tackles sustainability, it would be wise to partner with experts and organisations who currently work closely on the topic.