When my family buys vegetables, either at Hannaford, the Brunswick-Topsham Land Trust’s farmers market or Six Rivers Farm stand, we think about where, how and when the produce was grown. Were the grapes flown in from Peru or grown in New England where a truck used less fuel to get them to a distribution center and then to my market? The longer the distance from the farm, the greater the fossil fuel needed to transport it to me.

Eating seasonally and locally or regionally reduces the transportation costs of your food. I realize the nutritional benefit of eating fruits and vegetables that are as fresh as possible so they retain more vitamins than vegetables imported from the warmer hemisphere. Fall storage root crops, including beets, carrots and parsnips, cabbage, winter squash and onions, have been delicious. I look forward to green salads, bok choy and spring salad vegetables, which come in the fields in mid-June and in the solar-heated high tunnels of our area farms all winter now. Produce grown nearby in organic soils has more vitamins and sugars than conventional vegetables grown farther away or on poor soils with added fertilizer made from fossil fuels.

Recently, when I felt the need for a new sweater, I checked Topsham’s Goodwill and found a lightly used, neutral color wool and cashmere sweater in my size for $5 instead of the $120 I would have spent on a new sweater of that quality. Energy as well as money were saved by not shearing two animals, carding, spinning and knitting the material, packaging and delivering it to a store. Since I walked to Goodwill while waiting for my prescription to be filled at nearby Target, no extra fossil fuel was used to make the purchase.

I often think about life cycle analysis of the energy, materials and effects on the air, soil and water of produce and clothes I wear. Life cycle of an electric car includes analyzing all the steps needed to mine minerals, process them, manufacture batteries, transport them to auto-assembly plants, assemble electric cars and transport them to dealers. It looks at the huge amounts of ground water needed to remove lithium from salt flats and separate it from other minerals. Much fuel is needed to transport lithium from Argentina or Australia to battery-manufacturing plants soon to be completed in Tennessee or Georgia. Then more transportation fuel is needed to deliver them to the assembly plant and then to the sales point.

Most electric vehicle batteries are now made not from spodumene rock but from evaporation pools. The effect on the salty wetlands in the high Andes from pumping lithium-containing groundwater up to evaporation lakes is yet to be determined. Ten percent of the ground water is removed from the water cycle, and circulation is a 60-year cycle that hasn’t yet been completed underground to determine how water loss will effect the ecosystems. Federal grant money is supporting commercial development of lithium brine concentration and separation from the Salton Sea in southern California for a shorter transportation step to southern U.S. battery plants.

Mining and extracting lithium from solid spodumene take very high temperatures and huge amounts of sulfuric acid, and so it’s both more expensive and creates air quality damage from polluting diesel trucks carrying materials and leaves over 90% of the minerals as waste.


If you are buying a new electric car, consider where the car was manufactured and assembled for life cycle analysis and also to find the few that are American made and qualify for the federal tax credit of $750 per household.

Clothing has especially large impacts on the environment, has high energy, transportation, water, air and oil pollution costs of manufacture, distribution and disposal. The amount of fabrics disposed of annually in the U.S. is huge and grossly unsustainable as people who buy clothes frequently to keep up with fashion wear them few times and then accumulate and finally dispose of them. It is so convenient to order online and have a huge UPS or FedEx truck deliver boxes to your home, but it uses large amounts of diesel fuel, cardboard packaging and labor. The impacts of buying impulsive, rarely used or luxury items on the Earth is much greater than its cost to the consumer.

Let’s all consider how we can participate in creating an environmentally friendly, Earth-caring, Dutch-style, circular economy that reuses materials and products, reducing our wasteful, linear economy. You can take your wearable clothes to Goodwill in Brunswick or Topsham. Apparel Impact in New Hampshire has added several more convenient bins at Napa store in Lisbon, Brunswick Walmart and Topsham Transfer Station, which I urge you to use when you sort out clothes you will never use again. A huge recycling industry has grown to recover value from recycled fabrics, with many qualities of cleaning materials for medical to building surfaces. Apparel Impact sorts and grades usable clothes and shoes and gets them to people who can use them. Heavily used or damaged clothes will be turned into rags and used cotton can be added to a larger portion of new cotton to make strong jeans.

Taking your own reusable shopping bags has become common, and I have started leaving washed plastic bags in my larger shopping bags to take to the grocery store to fill with vegetables. My husband uses large, zip-close bags, which do not noticeably increase the weight of purchased produce. We can purchase loose foods such as candy, nuts or snacks from large bins in grocery and health food stores and ask for more products we want to be available unpackaged. Whenever possible, buy products in paper or cardboard containers instead of plastic, made from oil which has a higher impact on the warming atmosphere.

The type of drink container you buy makes a difference on emissions since bottles and cans have different energy requirements to manufacture. High-density polyethylene number 5, used in plastic milk jugs and also individual beverage containers, has the lowest life cycle cost, using the least energy to manufacture and is also recycled widely. Polyethylene terephthalate, in many soft drink bottles, uses 37% more energy for a larger carbon footprint and is also not often accepted for recycling. Glass needs high temperatures to manufacture, so it’s carbon emissions are 75% higher than HDPE. Extracting aluminum from bauxite is the most energy-intensive process, taking 96% of the energy as HDPE to make a drink container. To save energy, we have washed and reused aluminum foil for decades, and almost never buy a new roll. However, wet cat food for our rapidly growing two kittens comes in aluminum cans only, which fill most of our recycle bin to my dismay. Look for the translucent white plastic of milk or orange juice bottles over glass or clear PET plastic when you buy a drink.

The Recycle Bin is a weekly column on recycling and sustainability. Nancy Chandler studied Animal Behavior and Anthropology at Stanford University, then received her master’s in biology education in her home state of North Carolina at U.N.C. Chapel Hill. She is passionate about teaching energy conservation and hopes to get you thinking about how to use energy use efficiently to save both money and reduce greenhouse warming gases.

Comments are no longer available on this story