How to answer the question, what is more sustainable, leather from cows who emit carbon gas and drink like 200 gallons of water a day and ruin land, or, plastic, which never degrades? Where are the value judgment reports on such things?
This is the kind of question that most parents with any kind of environmental consciousness -- and maybe most people in general -- are asking themselves these days, in different forms. It's a huge part of the disposable vs. cloth diaper question, for instance.
I have an answer in my own mind, which I'd like to share, at the risk of taking this blog way off message.
There are various kinds of pollution: air pollution, water pollution, soil pollution. And there are various kinds of losses: loss of topsoil, loss of wilderness and forest, loss of animal life (i.e. fish populations), loss of human life and health. All of these are bad, right? But some are reversible. Fish populations are way down, but if we get smart, they will be able to rise again. The things that worry me are the non-reversible losses of something that is definitively valuable.
If Elliot gets a high level of lead in his system because of a nearby factory emitting something into the air or the water, that affects his brain development, and it's completely irreversible. And BAD -- the value of Elliot's brain, to me, is inestimably high. He is affected and I am affected.**
Or take my car. It puts a bunch of CO2 into the atmosphere. We don't know how to take it back out again. And everyone is affected; everyone values and shares the atmosphere, an item of which (like Elliot) we have only one.
But you know what has relatively minor effects? A landfill. Compared to every other kind of environmental impact I can think of, a properly constructed landfill is largely innocuous.
Will plastic in a landfill affect Elliot's brain? Break an ecosystem? Change the climate? Vacate the oceans? Cause our topsoil to run into the sea? No. It just costs some money, and some land. (Which we can eventually use again.) (Some landfills do leak -- those should be fixed or removed.)
So my basic position, as someone proud to be an environmentalist, is that we need to do a LOT MORE about Every Single Environmental Issue . . . except landfills.
In "The Skeptical Environmentalist", Bjorn Lomborg calculates that the entire trash-dumping requirements for the United States through the next 100 years could be met by a single landfill of 18 square miles. However controversial that book has been, the landfill number has not been challenged, as far as I know. (Maybe MAC can correct me here.) 18 square miles, while large, is actually an impossibly tiny piece of America. Anyone who has driven across the country knows that the continent is, in real terms, basically empty. 85% of Nevada is owned by the federal government, mostly because no one has ever been able to think of a use for it. You could hide the 18-mile landfill somewhere in America, and, not knowing where it was, a person might spend 10 years driving around the country and never find it.
So that's my deeply felt answer to your deeply felt question. The paper vs. plastic, reduce/reuse/recycle media blitz is more or less a carny sideshow, while the real environmental crises are happening under our noses, and being ignored. (For example, American farmers continue to raise their crops in such a way that the runoff creates a dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico the size of New Jersey. It's right there in the Times.)
Having said these heresies out loud, I'm going into hiding (somewhere in America).
** Check out Bill Bryson's "Short History of Nearly Everything" for a fascinating (seriously) chapter on all things lead. Today Americans have 625 times as much lead in their blood as they did a century ago. Atmospheric lead levels are 200 times higher.