Sustainability Mythbusters

by Jen Matteis

Have you heard the myth about the nickel in a Prius battery causing an environmental disaster in Sudbury, Ontario? Or have you come across articles linking the palm oil in Easter chocolate with deforestation of tiger habitat?

It’s hard to sort out myth from reality when it comes to what benefits the environment and what harms it. Here are a few common beliefs about sustainability…and the truth or fiction behind them. 

Do you need to hire a clean-up crew when a compact florescent bulb breaks?

Compact fluorescent light bulbs (CFLs) use less energy and last longer than incandescent light bulbs, but they contain mercury, a toxin that can cause brain damage. When a bulb breaks, mercury vapor comes out. The EPA recommends evacuating the room–but you won’t need a clean-up crew. Turn off forced air or air conditioning, and open a window to air out the room for ten minutes. Using cardboard or damp paper towels, collect the debris and place it into a sealed container. Do not vacuum, as that will spread the mercury vapor. Keep the debris in a protected area outdoors until you can bring it to one of Allied Waste’s hazardous waste collections.

This brings up another question:

So why are CFLs a good idea?

CFLs contain only a trace amount of mercury. They use about a quarter as much energy as incandescent light bulbs, and last ten times longer.

Coal-burning power plants in the United States pump out 48 tons of mercury each year, and incandescent light bulbs require more of that energy to operate. Overall, powering inefficient incandescents puts more mercury into the environment than using CFL bulbs.

As for the rumor that incandescents are being banned, the older bulbs have not been banned, but they must comply with new regulations on efficiency.

You might be wondering at this point if mercury emissions are a cause for concern in Oregon, which has only one coal-burning power plant.

This brings us to our next question:

Does Oregon run on clean, renewable energy?

This is an easy one, right? Nearly two-thirds of the power generated in Oregon is clean, renewable hydroelectric power. So what’s the problem? The truth is that Oregon sells its renewable power to other states…namely California. Less than a quarter of the wind power generated in Oregon is used in Oregon; most is exported.

Instead, the state runs on cheap coal power imported from Wyoming and Montana. About 40 percent of Oregon’s electricity consumption comes from coal.

Is a Toyota Prius worse for the environment than a Hummer?

It’s rumored that the batteries in the Toyota Prius include nickel from a mine in Sudbury, Ontario so polluted that the area around it is a blasted wasteland used by NASA to test moon rovers. Yes, all of the 32 pounds of nickel in a Prius battery comes from the Sudbury mine; Toyota purchases 1,000 tons of it each year. The environmental damage, however, occurred over 30 years ago. The mine has had plenty of time to clean up its act, reforesting the land and reducing its sulfur dioxide output by 90 percent. The Prius only uses a tiny percentage of the mined nickel, and its batteries are recycled. Nickel is also used in stainless steel, which is found in most (if not all) cars, especially in large engines such as the Hummer’s.

Other rumors about the Prius were generated by a report called “Dust to Dust: The Energy Cost of New Vehicles from Concept to Disposal,” published by the Oregon company CNW Marketing Research. This report declared that the production of a Prius is so energy intensive that it’s better to drive a Hummer. However, the report assumed a Prius would last for only 109,000 miles and a Hummer would last for 379,000 miles; these skewed numbers account for the high lifetime energy cost that the company calculated for the Prius. Countless follow-up papers and criticisms denounced the initial report.

Is it still better to buy a used car than a Prius?

According to Wired magazine, buying a used car adds less carbon dioxide to the atmosphere than purchasing a new Prius. It takes a lot of energy to make a Prius–about 1,000 gallons of gasoline worth, which is more than most other cars. The Prius makes up for this in gas efficiency over time. However, buying a fuel-efficient used car is the most environmentally friendly practice of all. Used cars such as the Ford Fiesta, Honda Civic, Geo Prizm, or Toyota Corolla get comparable gas mileage and don’t create the huge carbon debt of building a new car.

Is your Easter chocolate killing tigers?

This Easter, it might be worth checking the labels on your chocolate to make sure that you’re not replacing tiger habitat with candy eggs. Palm oil, a common ingredient in many snacks including some types of chocolate, is often farmed on land that used to be tiger habitat. Farmers are replacing forests in South-East Asia with palm oil plantations, destroying the habitat of the Sumatran tiger. Only about 500 wild tigers remain, and other animals such as orangutans and rhinoceroses are also losing their homes.

Finally, is toilet paper destroying old-growth forests?

Do you love soft toilet paper? Turns out that the softer the toilet paper, the more damage it does to the environment. The bigger the tree, the longer its fibers. Longer fibers fluff up into softer tissue. Thick, soft toilet paper is made from the oldest, biggest trees…such as stands of old-growth forests in Canada and the United States. Toilet paper made from recycled paper may not be quite as gentle on your butt, but at least you’re not destroying 200-year-old trees with a final indignity.