SOUTH KINGSTOWN – Dr. David R. Tyler, professor of chemistry at the University of Oregon, prefaced his presentation on recycling and sustainability titled “Paper, Plastic or Cotton Tote Bag?” at the University of Rhode Island Wednesday with a warning.
“What you think is most sustainable is not necessarily the most sustainable,” said Tyler. “The results are sometimes counter-intuitive.”
His presentation began with an explanation on what brings a chemistry professor to question the scientific data behind claims of sustainability in everyday products.
“It was 12 years ago,” Tyler recalled. “All over the University of Oregon campus they were handing out bumper stickers. I got tired of looking at it. Those bumper stickers said, ‘Think before you drink: go refillable.’ I'm not stupid; I know what that means, but I'm a scientist. I'm curious. So I went to the guy at the coffee shop at the student union and asked why I get a nickel off if I bring in my own mug. I'll never forget – the guy looked at me and said, ‘Dude, it's because it's renewable.’ I said, ‘How do you know?’”
He continued to explain that the generally implied order of sustainability goes (from most sustainable to least): a ceramic mug, a paper cup, a plastic cup, and “the dreaded” Styrofoam cup.
“At the same time in Oregon, they had a campaign in the supermarkets to ban plastic bags,” said Tyler, rolling up his sleeves. “All over Eugene we were told that we should bring a cotton, reusable tote bag for our groceries and that that was only slightly better than a paper bag, a paper bag, of course, is made from a renewable resource. Bringing up the rear in terms of sustainability would be plastic bags.”
After scientifically questioning these claims through research and rigorous data analysis, Tyler now holds the socially unfavored position that plastic bags, Styrofoam cups and plastic milk jugs have much less of an impact on the environment than their cotton, ceramic, paper and glass counterparts.