Strange omission in bottle assessment

Posted by John Peterson Myers at Apr 20, 2009 06:45 PM |

Writing in the op-ed pages of the New York Times, Daniel Goleman and David Norris summarize their life-cycle assessment of stainless steel vs. plastic reusable bottles making some good points about the environmental burdens of stainless steel.  It turns out that stainless steel has many impacts along the way from iron mine to market--and beyond, to disposal--that add up to an impressive environmental cost.

But their analysis misses an important reason why consumers are choosing stainless steel over reusable plastic:  health concerns about bisphenol A.  Stainless steel bottles were one of the first products on the market positioned explicitly to appeal to consumers wanting to avoid bisphenol A exposure.

This is not an unusual omission for life-cycle analyses, which are good at incorporating energy costs and less good at worker safety. Such analyses often ignore key elements of environmental health considerations, as they have done here.

If Goleman and Norris want to do a thorough life-cycle analysis, shouldn't it include assessment of what these choices mean for the health of the consumer?

Beyond direct human health considerations, BPA is one of the biggest sources of estrogenic leachates from landfills, and from there into surface water.  Where is that in their life-cycle analysis?


Daniel Goleman responds:

I completely agree that the issue of BPA in plastic water bottles should have
been part of the New York Times  OpEd I wrote with Gregory Norris.  On the other
hand, that omission is but one of the many frustrations that come with writing
an OpEd where space is tightly limited (our original text was twice as long as
what appeared in the paper), and standard editing practice means much gets
rewritten and rewritten again by editors who are deft writers but not topic experts.
A better picture of my concern about industrial chemicals like BPA can be found
in my book ‚ "Ecological Intelligence: How Knowing the Hidden Impacts of What We
Buy Can Change Everything." Two chapters deal with the weird chemical stew
industrial chemicals have wrought in nature and in our bodies, and the glaring
need to rethink how toxicology evaluates chemical risk‚-- as well as the
imperative to reinvent the entire palette of industrial molecules along the line
of green chemistry.
Daniel Goleman