Climate Change, Part 1: It’s All About the Straws, Isn’t It?

Posted On: 
Oct 26, 2018
Climate Change: It’s All About the Straws, Isn’t It?

Climate change is happening, despite the differing opinions and facts surrounding it. It’s become quite the divisive topic, eliciting passionate debates. It’s easy to understand why those in favor of climate change argue vehemently for it, but harder to understand why anyone would deny it. Maybe one of the reasons people deny it is because they don’t understand it, especially the difference between global warming and climate change. It’s hard to process such a large issue with so many components, even for people who work in the sustainable industry. It’s also overwhelming when so many of the problems are huge and too big for one person to change, causing a feeling of uselessness.

Global Warming Versus Climate Change

Both terms are used frequently, and often interchangeably, but they refer to two different phenomena. Global warming refers to the rise in global temperatures, while climate change refers to the increasing changes in the measures of climate over a long period of time, including temperature, precipitation, wind patterns, and water levels. An article on states, “…while the physical phenomena are causally related, they are not the same thing. Human greenhouse gas emissions are causing global warming, which in turn is causing climate change.” So global warming is the why, and climate change is the what. Climate change is scientifically undeniable, but not all of it is caused by global warming. So what else, then, is affecting climate change? Does it really matter if we use straws or plastic bottles, or if we eat meat or leave lights on in our house?

Does Bill Gates Know Everything?

Yes, Bill Gates does seem to know everything. Every newsletter received via his fantastic blog, GatesNotes, teaches me something new. A recent post, Climate change and the 75% problem, outlines the main categories contributing to greenhouse gas emissions:

  1. Electricity (25%)
  2. Agriculture (24%)
  3. Manufacturing (21%)
  4. Transportation (14%)
  5. Buildings (6%)
  6. Miscellaneous (10%)

Gates expands on each category, but the one that resonates the most for the purpose of our industry is Manufacturing. He writes, “Look at the plastic, steel, and cement around you. All of it contributed to climate change. Making cement and steel requires lots of energy from fossil fuels, and it involves chemical reactions that release carbon as a byproduct. So even if we could make all the stuff we need with zero-carbon energy, we’d still need to deal with the byproducts.” Product manufacturers want the highest ROI, and focusing on the effect of a product on the environment doesn’t always produce the quickest or highest return.

In theory, this category applies more to large-scale manufacturing. According to scientists, two-thirds of all industrial carbon emissions come from just 90 institutions, meaning only a few people out of the 7 billion or so humans on this planet are really determining how deep manufacturing is affecting climate change. So, does that mean the rest of us should throw in the towel and quit trying to save the world? Obviously not. But instead of only focusing on the why, let’s look at the what.

How Manufacturers (and the Rest of Us) Can Help Climate Change

It’s not like any of this is going to be new, but equally important to what can be done on an individual level, as well as a national level, is what businesses can do to fight climate change. This is where the biggest impact will happen.

What can be done:

  • Become more energy efficient: Use less fuel, make less greenhouse gases. Streamlining the processes can cut emissions in a big way, and even if climate change is a farce, this step still saves money, increasing ROI.
  • Switch power sources: Fossil fuels will always produce greenhouse emissions, so new power sources need to be found.
  • Manage your waste: What goes in must come out, and a lot of that waste is toxic. Efficient waste removal and practicing the “ancient” concepts of reduce, reuse, recycle will make a difference.
  • Speaking of Recycling: Recycling lowers the environmental footprint and saves money!
  • Keep Your Circle Close: One of the issues Gates mentions is transportation, but this one affects manufacturing as well. Where supplies and ingredients come from, and how far away they come from, matters. The closer we spend dollars, the less energy is expended in moving those dollars and the product they buy.
  • Know your product: Product manufacturers may be sustainable in their production, but if they don’t know the life-cycle of their product or the environmental impact of all the ingredients, then the positive steps their taking in producing it will have less of an impact. One way to know this is to have a Life Cycle Analysis (LCA) done on your product, and have transparency documents done, like Health Product Declarations (HPDs) and Environmental Product Declarations (EPDs). If this unfamiliar territory, we have a few resources to assist product manufacturers. A previous blog post offers tips for developing HPDs, while another previous post covers different transparency documents that help with specification. We also offer a few courses covering these topics. Finally, we partner with Elixir Environmental, which is an ideal resource if a product manufacturer is ready to go forward with documents and would like an expert to assist them.

But the Problem is Too Big for Small Changes, Isn't It?

It’s easy to look at the list that Bill Gates made, and start pointing fingers—big industry, government, meat eaters, car drivers, etc. But the truth is, climate change is caused by people. All people. We need to press on in our efforts to do small things, so all together, they add up to large things. Product manufacturers are in an ideal position to be on the frontline of change, and as the built industry moves faster toward sustainability, these changes to positively impact climate change will be even more important toward product specification opportunities. So, in that light, yes! It is all about the straws, and all the other seemingly silly ways us tree huggers have come up with to save the earth. One less straw used, or one less steak, or one less light left on, or mile driven or plastic bottle used today by everyone will add up to something big. Just like if all the smaller companies today began making these environmentally helpful changes today, it might add up to something bigger.

What changes have you made in your business, or even in your personal life, that help fight climate change?

For more information or to discuss the topic of this blog, please contact Brad Blank