From electric cars to metal straws: how environmentally friendly are these 'green' products?

While you may be tempted to look at alternative technologies for solutions to the climate crisis, they may not be as good as you think

Wong Tsui-kai |

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Many new products claim to be environmentally-friendly, but what impact do they really have on our world?

Many people have been turning to electric cars, lab-grown meat, and reusable metal straws in an attempt to be eco-friendly – but these steps might not be as good for the environment as we are led to believe.

Electric vehicles (EVs) may sound like they’re good for the planet, but they have some “hidden” negative impacts, says Dr Nicky Lam Lun-fat, an air quality expert at the University of Hong Kong.

“Whether or not something is good for the environment depends on how you look at it,” he says. 

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“Using what we call a life cycle analysis, we look at [the overall] impacts a product will have. One factor is location. For example, if something was made overseas, then you might not [know about] the pollution it created. But from a worldwide view, it’s still damaging.

“If you asked me if EVs reduce roadside air pollution, I’d answer with a definite yes. If you asked me whether they are environmentally friendly, I would have reservations,” he adds. 

Lam explains that, on one hand, most of Hong Kong’s electricity is generated by nuclear energy and fossil fuels such as coal and natural gas, so cars that run on electricity are still indirectly creating emissions. 

Electric vehicles still require batteries, and there's no suitable way to dispose of or recycle them in Hong Kong.
Photo: Shutterstock

On the other hand, he says, most large power plants have technology that reduces the impact of the fumes they release, which makes EVs less harmful than petrol-powered cars. Lam adds that a power plant’s “smokestacks make [pollution] dispersion easier than [dispersing exhaust fumes] from the roadside, which is better for public health.”

One clear problem with EVs, however, is the batteries, as the methods used to make and dispose of them can potentially be very damaging to the environment.

 “Car batteries, like phone batteries, need to be changed every few years, and Hong Kong doesn’t have the facilities to recycle these batteries,” Lam points out.

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“So if you switch the hundreds of thousands of [petrol] cars on the road with EVs, imagine how many batteries would be going into our landfills.”

Meat consumption is another environmental issue frequently in  the news. Cows need to eat a lot of food, which produces a lot of waste. Their waste gives off methane gas, which contributes to global warming by trapping heat  in the atmosphere. 

Not only does this impact our climate, farming and raising animals also use up a lot of natural resources such as water, land, food, and energy. Agriculture expert professor Chau Kwai-cheong from Chinese University says the energy wasted during meat production is cause for real concern.

In response to this problem, scientists have found ways to produce lab-grown meat, which they claim is better for the environment. But because the technology is still new, we cannot yet measure its impact on the environment. What’s more, compared to regular meat, lab-grown meat is only being produced on a very small scale, which makes it hard to draw a conclusion about its overall effectiveness.

Lab-grown meat is so new that it's hard to see what kind of impact it will have on the environment.
Photo: Shutterstock

One of the hottest environmental topics this year has been plastic pollution. “You cannot deny we need to reduce our plastic consumption. Its negative impacts are clear, especially in terms of marine pollution,” says Lam. “Plastic [in the water] affects the entire ecosystem.”

Among the waste that ends up in our oceans are millions of plastic straws. But no one can agree on the best alternative to these plastic pests. A study has shown that a stainless steel straw would need to be reused 150 times to break even with the impact of a plastic straw purely on an energy cost and carbon emissions level, and Lam points out there are other implications.

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“Hygiene and safety-wise, steel is not ideal. You need to clean it, use detergents and so on. A better solution might be using paper straws or edible straws made of pasta. Paper can be renewable and pasta straws are biodegradable even if you just throw them away.”

So while it might be tempting to look at advanced technologies for a solution, the true core of going green is still the first “R” in the three “R”s: reduce, reuse and recycle.