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  • Getting to Green

    An administrator pushes, on a shoestring budget, to move his university and the world toward a more sustainable equilibrium.

Flowers in a bowl
February 15, 2009 - 9:55pm

I like to buy my wife flowers when it's cold out. Not on Valentine's Day -- I'm too cheap to pay twice as much as the same flowers would cost me a week earlier or a week later -- but a few times each year, and for no apparent reason. (It's not altruism, it's enlightened self-interest.) And not during the summer. During the summer, she can grow her own flowers. And does. (Self-interest includes not competing with the family gardener.)

Anyways, given that it was Valentine's Day this week, I ran across a story about how rose-growers in Kenya are draining the lakes dry to grow cheap flowers which, after being sold at auction, are labeled as coming from Holland. The local Kenyan ecology is devestated, local food production is down, the government can't enforce environmental regulations, and a few exporters are getting rich fast while creating a long-term problem for the whole region. It's a nutshell version of how globalization creates national problems along with international profits.

I'd always thought of Fair Trade as being about food products. Now I have to start looking for Fair Trade labeled flowers, too. Probably won't be able to afford them as often next winter. On the other hand, my wife had started to figure it out, anyways.

On a totally unrelated subject, I was looking at some glass bowls we use for informal meals. Stews, soups, curries, stir-fries, chili, that sort of thing. They're tempered glass, made by a French company which focuses on institutional and commercial tableware, and we've had them forever. I mean, we've broken maybe one in the past twenty-five years. Our every-day china has been replaced twice -- once with that Corelle stuff that's supposed to be indestructible (tell that to my kids) -- in the time we've had these bowls. Sure, they're marked up a little bit, but they're not chipped or scratched or cracked. Tempered glass is durable stuff.

Which got me to thinking about Coke bottles. When I was a kid, Coke came in refillable bottles. Heavy suckers which would last a long time. Caps that required a bottle-opener or a really strong set of teeth. If I recall correctly, there was a manufacturing date encoded on the bottom, and we used to check to see who had the oldest bottle.

Then came the lightweight glass bottle with the twist-off cap, then the can with the pop-top and the plastic bottle (which has absolutely no heft, and doesn't stay cold worth a damn). I'm sure each of these is cheaper to manufacture than the old refillable bottle, probably by a wide margin. But I wonder -- given the full life-cycle of a recycled glass bottle (not to mention plastic, which can only be recycled a limited number of time) -- is the current way really more energy efficient?

I'm no expert, but I'll bet that recycled glass bottles travel quite a ways to get crushed and melted and reformed before they ever get back to the bottling (refilling) plant. The old refillable bottles just went back from the store (where we kids returned them, back when a nickel was worth five cents) to the local bottler who washed and sterilized them, refilled them, and delivered them again. Sure, it's better to recycle bottles than to landfill them, but it's better yet to refill them. And I'm not sure it would be any more expensive, even at the current (based on reset expectations) low cost of motor fuels.

It would be interesting to do a comparative study of the industrial ecologies of recycled and refilled glass bottles. If anybody knows of one (or has a student in need of a research project), drop me a line: g[dot]rendell[at]insidehighered[dot]com.

I'd do it myself, but I've got to see if I can find some Fair Trade roses at after-Valentine's-Day sale prices.


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