Excerpted from The Wall Street Journal “Six Products, Six Carbon Footprints” by Jeffrey Ball, October 6, 2008
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A new concept is entering the consumer lexicon: the carbon footprint.
First came organic. Then came fair trade. Now makers of everything from milk to jackets to cars are starting to tally up the carbon footprints of their products. That’s the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that get coughed into the air when the goods are made, shipped and stored, and then used by consumers…
So far, these efforts raise as many questions as they answer. Different companies are counting their products’ carbon footprints differently, making it all but impossible for shoppers to compare goods. And even if consumers come to understand the numbers, they might not like what they find out.
For instance, many products’ global-warming impact depends less on how they’re made than on how they’re used. That means the easiest way to cut carbon emissions may be to buy less of a product or use it in a way that’s less convenient.
So, what are the carbon footprints of some of the common products we use? How are they calculated? And what surprises do they hold? What follows is a look at six everyday items — cars, shoes, laundry detergent, clothing, milk and beer — and the numbers that go with them.
…The U.S. emits the equivalent of about 118 pounds of carbon dioxide per resident every day, a figure that includes emissions from industry. Annually, that’s nearly 20 metric tons per American — about five times the number per citizen of the world at large, according to the International Energy Agency.
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The simplest statistic in the carbon-footprinting game may be this: For every mile it travels, the average car in the U.S. emits about one pound of carbon dioxide. Given typical driving distances and fuel-economy numbers, that translates into about five tons of carbon dioxide per car per year.
…an American-made midsize sedan emits the equivalent of about 63 tons of carbon dioxide. That number includes all emissions, from the making of the car’s raw materials, such as steel and plastic, through the shredding of the car once it’s junked.
The vast majority of those emissions — 86% — came from the car’s fuel use, the study found. Just 4% of emissions came from making and assembling the car. That means consumers can lower their footprint by buying a car with better fuel economy. Sometimes, the differences between models can be substantial….
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You may think you’re at one with nature going for a walk in the woods in your sturdy hiking boots. But those boots pack a lot of carbon. The big reason: the leather.
Timberland Co., a Stratham, N.H., shoe company with an outdoorsy image, has assessed the carbon footprint of about 40 of the shoe models it currently sells. The results range from about 22 pounds to 220 pounds per pair. Each of the shoes that has been carbon-footprinted comes with a label assessing its greenhouse-gas score on a scale of zero, which is best, to 10, which is worst.
Flip-flops tend to have footprints of 22 pounds to 44 pounds…Shoes typically range from 66 pounds to 132 pounds. Hiking boots typically pack between 154 and 198 pounds, Mr. Girard says.
…transportation typically accounts for less than 5% of the carbon footprint. By far the biggest contributor is the shoe’s raw material…The average dairy cow produces, every year, an amount of greenhouse gas equivalent to four tons of carbon dioxide, according to U.S. government figures. Most of that comes not from carbon dioxide, in fact, but from a more-potent greenhouse gas: methane…
Timberland officials concede shortcomings with their method…the calculations fail to recognize that some shoes require more electricity to assemble in the factory than do others. And Timberland’s calculations omit the carbon impact of the leather and other materials that fall to the cutting-room floor.
“No question, it’s crude in some ways,” Mr. Girard says. “But it’s a step more information than our designers were making a decision on before.”
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The recipe for a low-carbon load of laundry: Use liquid detergent instead of powder, wash your clothes in cool water and hang them out to dry…
The carbon footprint of a load of laundry done with Tesco detergent varies from 1.3 pounds to 1.9 pounds, depending on what form of detergent is used…According to P&G, the average American family does about 300 loads of laundry per year, or about six loads per week. That suggests a per-family carbon footprint from doing laundry of about 480 pounds per year, or about 10 pounds per week. And that doesn’t include running the dryer.
Solid capsules of detergent have the highest carbon footprint, according to Tesco. Powder has a slightly lower footprint; liquid has a lower one still; and concentrated liquid has the lowest of all. That’s because making solid detergent uses more energy than making the liquid variety.
But consumers who care about their carbon emissions should do more than switch detergent forms, the labels advise. Doing the wash in cooler water — 86 degrees Fahrenheit instead of 104 degrees — will shave the carbon footprint of each load by 0.3 pounds. That’s as much of a reduction as you get from switching to liquid from powder.
The biggest way to cut the environmental impact of cleaning clothes, however, is to stop using a clothes dryer. Drying laundry outside on a line, Tesco says, will cut the carbon footprint of every load by a whopping 4.4 pounds…
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Patagonia Inc.’s Talus jacket looks like a naturalist’s dream. In fact, its carbon footprint is 66 pounds. That, Patagonia notes on its Web site, is 48 times the weight of the jacket itself.
Over the past year, the Ventura, Calif., outdoor-equipment maker has computed and posted on its Web site the carbon footprints of 15 of its products. Because most of Patagonia’s products are made in Asia or Latin America and sold in the U.S., the company expected that a big chunk of the carbon footprints came from transportation. It was wrong.
The fabric for the Talus is made in China, the zippers come from Japan, and the jacket is sewn in Vietnam. Yet all that transportation adds up to less than 1% of the product’s total carbon footprint, Patagonia says. The majority of the footprint — 71%, or about 47 pounds — comes in producing the polyester, which originates with oil…
“Consumers are starting to put environmental values into their purchasing decisions, but it doesn’t always translate into their being willing to pay a higher price,” Patagonia’s Ms. Dumain says…Patagonia lays out this conundrum on its Web site, saying it “reflects the complexities involved” in balancing concern for the environment with the need for performance.
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…A recent study by National Dairy Holdings found that the carbon footprint of a gallon of its milk in a plastic jug is either 6.19 pounds or 7.59 pounds. The difference rests in what kind of cases the jugs are placed in during transport from the milk-processing plant to the distribution center. Plastic cases, because they take more energy to produce, yield more carbon-dioxide emissions than do cardboard ones.
But National Dairy Holdings’ study doesn’t count all the emissions created by a gallon of milk. It includes those from the cows themselves (more than half of the total), from the processing of the milk and from the transport of the milk to a distribution center. It doesn’t count the emissions earlier in the process: growing the cows’ feed. Nor does it count the emissions later in the process: transporting the milk from the distribution center to the store and refrigerating it there…
National Dairy Holdings measured only its piece in the supply chain, explains Howard Depoy, the dairy’s director…That’s “the CO2 that we can control and manage,” Mr. Depoy says…the single biggest chunk of emissions from milk production comes from all that action in the cow’s gut…
The dairy industry doesn’t plan to put carbon-footprint labels on milk cartons, says Rick Naczi, an executive vice president for Dairy Management. “It’s something that would be very, very difficult to make understandable to consumers,” he says.
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When New Belgium Brewing Co. set out last year to compute the carbon footprint of a six-pack of its Fat Tire Amber Ale, it figured it would find transportation was the biggest problem…The microbrewer, based in Fort Collins, Colo., has been expanding into more states, necessitating more trucking of its beer.
When the numbers came in this summer, they showed that a six-pack’s carbon footprint was about seven pounds. The real surprise was where the bulk of that number came from: the refrigeration of the beer at stores. Transportation came in fourth, behind manufacturing the glass bottles and producing the barley and malt….
Now, New Belgium is considering switching to bottles with more recycled glass, because making them consumes less fuel. It’s also considering buying barley and malt produced organically, rather than with chemical fertilizers, which are big emitters.
Refrigeration poses a tougher problem. Stores selling Fat Tire aren’t owned by New Belgium, so even if the brewer wanted them to stop refrigerating the beer, they might not do so…
Edit by SAC
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