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Want to be eco-friendly? Right choices aren't always clear-cut

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Asked to share her new year’s resolution backstage at the People’s Choice Awards this month, co-host Beth Behrs of TV’s “Two Broke Girls” smiled into the camera and said: “To be more environmentally friendly and eco-conscious.”

Plenty of people share that goal. That doesn’t mean they always know how to accomplish it.

We know that LED light bulbs are better for the environment than inefficient incandescent bulbs or even compact fluorescent bulbs. While LED bulbs cost more, they will pay you back over time.

Other choices aren’t that easy. We know those single-serving plastic water bottles fill up landfills, but is it a good idea to reuse them instead?

If you drop food on the ground, should you eat it anyway and avoid waste?

We’ll tackle perhaps the toughest question first: If you’re not going to compost (the best option for the environment), is it better to put food scraps down the disposer, where they must be filtered from the water supply, or into the trash, where they’ll end up in a landfill?

“We have a saying around here,” said Christopher Whitley, regional spokesman for the Environmental Protection Agency. “Don’t use your toilet as a trash can. And that extends to your kitchen sink. If you can avoid putting garbage down your drain, that’s better for the water system.”

Or is it?

“I think down the Disposall is a better choice,” said Tom Jacobs, director of environmental programs for the Mid-America Regional Council. The reason, he said, is that wastewater treatment plants can capture the methane from the food scraps in the water. “After that material is treated it’s applied to the land as a fertilizer.”

Or maybe it depends on where you live, says Warren Adams-Leavitt, executive director of the Metropolitan Energy Center, a Kansas City nonprofit environmental health group.

“Particularly in the older parts of the metro area — in Kansas City and Kansas City, Kan. — they have a combined storm and sanitary sewer, and they end up having to treat anything that goes down the drain,” he said. “There are tremendous energy costs associated with water. So, in the older areas it would be better for the environment to put food scraps in the trash, whereas in the newer areas and suburbs, it would be better to put it in the Disposall.”

So there you go, eco warriors. Take your pick.

Let’s consider other choices:

Paper or plastic?

Think you know the answer?

No, you don’t. Because both options can harm the environment, said Matt Riggs, outreach coordinator for MARC’s Solid Waste Management District. The best option, of course, would be to take your own reusable bags to the store.

But just so you know, Prairie Village and some other area cities are considering either banning or taxing the use of plastic bags. Several nations and plenty of U.S. cities, including Seattle and Chicago, have done just that. California will start a statewide ban of plastic bags in July.

Reusing water bottles

First of all, drinking water in single-serving water bottles is “extremely environmentally damaging,” said Kristin Riott, executive director of environmental nonprofit Bridging the Gap. Forget that buying water is unnecessary and economically foolish, she said. Every year Americans throw away 36 billion plastic water bottles, most of which end up in landfills. That doesn’t even count all the other plastic drink bottles holding pop, apple juice, iced tea, sports drinks and more.

Well what if you reuse those bottles? Not a good idea.

Health advocates warn that washing and reusing single-serving water bottles could damage the structure of the plastic and cause it to leach a probable human carcinogen known as DEHP. And with all that contact with hands and mouths, all plastic bottles, when reused, quickly become contaminated; the moist conditions encourage bacteria growth.

“But I recycle those plastic bottles,” you protest. OK. But they can be recycled only into one other product before inevitably going to a landfill. Significant numbers of those bottles also find their way into our waterways. They accumulate into huge floating plastic islands of trash that threaten our ecosphere.

So, unless you’re reusing a plastic bottle that’s designed to be reused, the best choice is glass, which can be infinitely recycled, Riott said.

Beef, pork or chicken?

Chicken, said Bridging the Gap’s Riott.

“What we eat has a huge environmental impact, as big as what we drive,” she said. “Producing a pound of beef takes 151/2 pounds of grain and close to 2,000 gallons of water. A pound of pork takes about 7 pounds of grain and 900 gallons of water. And poultry is half that of pork. The lower you eat on the food chain, the more you are helping our environment.”

Five-second rule?

While it’s better for the environment to eat food than to throw it away, can you safely consume something that has fallen on the floor provided you pick it up quickly enough?

A 2014 study from Aston University in England found that picking up food quickly after it falls on the floor decreases chances of the food being contaminated with disease-causing germs, giving scientific credibility to the “five-second rule.”

Microbiology professor Anthony Hilton and a team of his students tested how long it took E. coli and Staphylococcus aureus to transfer when food was on the floor between three and 30 seconds. The team dropped a biscuit, pasta, toast and sticky candy onto laminate, tiled and carpeted floors. The team found that quickly picking up the food lessened the amount of contamination. Bacteria were most likely to transfer to moist foods. Carpet posed the lowest risk.

“Our study showed that a surprisingly large majority of people are happy to consume dropped food, with women the most likely to do so,” Hilton said. “But they are also more likely to follow the five-second rule, which our research has shown to be much more than an old wives’ tale.”

When it comes to making smart environmental choices, every little bit helps, said MARC’s Jacobs.

“Everybody says what does it matter if I recycle another piece of paper, or leave the lights turned on, or if I turn the sprinkler on if it’s raining?

“And it turns out if everybody’s choices reflected just a little bit more concern for the environment, that would really add up. It does matter in a very substantial way.”

To reach James A. Fussell call 816-234-4460, or email jfussell@kcstar.com.

RESOURCES

▪ For a complete list of recyclable and reusable products in the metro area, and where to take them, go to recyclespot.org.

▪ For fun facts and trivia about recycling, get the Environmental Protection Agency’s iWarm Widget at epa.gov.

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