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  Sierra Magazine
  March/April 2005
Table of Contents
Where the Wild Things Are
Do You Know Nature?
Thirty-Hour Valley
Lessons in Granite
Prairie Islands
Let's Talk
Ways & Means
One Small Step
Interview: Wangari Maathai
Lay of the Land
Food for Thought
Hey Mr. Green
The Hidden Life
The Sierra Club Bulletin
Sierra Club Outings
Sierra Archives
About Sierra
Internships at Sierra
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Sierra Magazine
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Hey Mr. Green
Advice on God, Groceries, and Garbage
by Bob Schildgen

Hey Mr. Green,
In six years, my minister has never once spoken of man's responsibility to care for God's Creation. When I asked him about this, he said he spends his time on more important issues, such as feeding the poor. What should I do? — Sam in Georgia

The poor? They actually suffer most from a messed-up environment. Poor people often live where it's most polluted, with higher rates of asthma, cancer, and other diseases. In many countries, erosion, drought, and overpopulation make it hard for the poor to raise food. Polluted water and flooding caused by deforestation add to their woes.

There are now more refugees fleeing environmental problems than political ones — 30 million worldwide, and 3,000 to 5,000 more environmental refugees every day. Two suggestions: Hook your minister up with the National Religious Partnership for the Environment,, and get him Christianity and Ecology from Harvard University Press.

Hey Mr. Green,
I challenge you. Pick your poison: paper or plastic? — Barclay in San Francisco

They don't even need to ask this question in Ireland, South Africa, Taiwan, Bangladesh, or other countries with fees to discourage throwaway bags or with outright bans on the damn things. Swiss stores charge 15 to 20 cents a bag — about what it costs cities to collect and dispose of both kinds. Shoppers then switch to reusable bags, like the loyal canvas pals I've been toting for 25 years.

It's not simple comparing these two absurd means to bring home the bacon/tofu because they waste and pollute in such different ways. Making plastic bags requires energy equal to 4 million barrels of oil a year. Paper bags use up 14 million trees annually, and cause more pollution to make. And contrary to popular belief, paper doesn't biodegrade in landfills. It sort of pickles down in there, like those well-preserved 2,000-year-old corpses found in Danish swamps.

But don't get too hung up on bag ethics; it distracts us from bigger problems with our profligate consumption. Yes, 4 million barrels is a lot of oil, but that averages out to 1.5 gallons per household each yearĐa mere tenth of the gas an SUV burns in a year's worth of trips to the supermarket. And 14 million trees is less than one percent of our total timber cut — toothpicks compared with the lumber in oversize houses.

So what does Mr. Green pick when caught without his canvas? Plastic. Which he reuses.

Hey Mr. Green,
Our citizens' group is trying to limit the expansion of a local landfill into a wetland. Is there a state-of-the-art recycling/composting waste-management system in place anywhere that I can ask my local government to implement? — Martin in Novato, California

Just look across the Golden Gate to San Francisco. Yeah, people there get branded as "latte liberals," but they sure do know how to compost their coffee grounds. The city diverts 63 percent of disposable material from landfills, compared to New York's 20 percent. San Francisco sorts refuse right down to glass by color and paper by type. It collects 300 tons of food scraps and garden waste daily, which metamorphose into glorious compost. This is sold to organic farms and garden suppliers, which closes the recycling loop locally. To find out more, see

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.

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