Expand Oil Capacity With Awareness
While scaled-up biofuels and wind power are far off, we do have the ability to immediately increase oil capacity -- through reduced consumption in our everyday lives. Time recently ranked the "American driver" among the Top 10 culprits in the gulf spill. I would add the "American consumer" as well.
Everyday choices made by American consumers impact our nation's oil demand. Over half of a 42-gallon barrel of oil is used to produce things other than gasoline. According to Ranken Energy Corporation, 6,600 products contain petroleum, from footballs to shampoo to plastic dry cleaning bags. I happen to have a huge pile of dry cleaning bags in my closet. Eliminating the use of dry cleaning bags should be an easy, low-tech approach toward expanding oil capacity. Yet, like driving, the greatest obstacle to eliminating the bags comes down to behavioral choices.
I put non-green consumers into two basic categories when it comes to eco-friendly behavioral economics -- "don't care" and "care, but don't know." The successful transition away from petroleum-based plastics like dry cleaning bags requires better awareness to realize a change in behavior for many of these consumers.
One reusable dry cleaning bag manufacturer, Green Garmento, notes that its success requires a change in thinking among both consumers and cleaners. Plastic bags have been unchallenged because both parties choose convenience over the environment. People just want to pop-in to get their clothes, and the cleaners don't want the extra labor of keeping track of all those reusable bags.
As with any green argument, it must focus on the earth and the pocketbook. Consumers and towns save money when they produce less waste, and dry cleaners save about five cents per plastic bag, helping keep costs down for consumers as well.
Those pushing away from oil must better inform their audiences to succeed. The impact of this simple shift toward reusable dry cleaning bags would be significant if made along with other oil-free choices. According to the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, 1.4 billion pieces of clothing are professionally cleaned in the U.S. annually, adding up to about 700 million bags, or 131 million pounds of plastic.
The San Francisco Department of the Environment says it takes 430,000 gallons of oil to produce 100 million plastic shopping bags. So extrapolating for plastic dry cleaning bags, eliminating the bags would free up about three million gallons of oil.
Bioplastics Nation, a Facebook page I follow, is helping to educate consumers about these facts and the ubiquity of petroleum in our everyday lives, while challenging people to consider alternatives. In the context of the oil spill, I believe many in the "care, but don't know" category would be happy to pick up a reusable dry cleaning bag if they were better informed.
As our country tries to clean up the mess in the gulf, let's remember that we don't need expensive clean technologies to begin moving off oil -- we can start right now by convincing consumers and businesses that it is in their power, and interest, to do so today.