, 2000

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APRIL  13, 1999  10:13 AM
Union of Concerned Scientists
Warren Leon 617-547-5552
Michael Brower 978-749-9591
Paul Fain 202-332-0900
Consumer Impact on Environment Ranked for First Time: New Book Helps People Distinguish Meaningful Choices from Trivial
WASHINGTON - April 13 - A new book takes the first comprehensive look at the full range of consumer activities to identify which cause the least and most environmental damage. The Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices shows that only a few consumer activities--primarily our use of cars and trucks, consumption of meat, and choice of homes and appliances--are responsible for the vast majority of consumer-related environmental harm.

"Some consumer decisions, like whether to choose paper or plastic grocery bags, are insignificant," said Dr. Warren Leon, Deputy Director at the Union of Concerned Scientists and co-author of the book. "Our book shows people how to focus on those environmental choices that make the biggest difference."

UCS developed an economic model to analyze the impact of household spending on the most significant consumer-related environmental problems: air pollution, water pollution, alteration of natural habitats, and global warming. After grouping 134 consumer spending choices into 50 categories (like furnishings, clothing, computers), the authors discovered that most environmental degradation is linked to just seven categories: cars; meat; produce and grains; household appliances and lighting; home heating and cooling; home construction; and household water and sewage. Cars and light trucks (including minivans and pickups) cause the most environmental damage overall, and are responsible for nearly half of the toxic air pollution and more than one-quarter of the greenhouse gases traceable to household consumption.

"Driving less and buying a cleaner car are the best things people can do for the environment," said co-author Dr. Michael Brower, a physicist and expert on energy and environmental issues. "Because cars cause so much harm, even modest changes matter."

Food is second only to transportation as a source of consumer-related environmental problems. Red meat causes especially high amounts of environmental damage for the nutrition it delivers. According to the book, cutting the average household's meat consumption (both red meat and poultry) in half would reduce food-related land use and common water pollution by 30 and 24 percent, respectively.

"Replacing beef with grains and produce, or even chicken, can significantly improve the environment," said Brower. "People can also help the environment by buying organic foods."

Some consumer activities that are highly damaging--like lawn pesticides, snowmobiles, large powerboats, and fireplaces--did not make the "dirty seven" because they account for very small shares of total consumer spending. Consumers should either avoid using these items or take precautions. On the other hand, UCS suggests that people stop worrying about choices, like cloth versus disposable diapers, that involve alternatives whose differences are insignificant.

"The book sweeps away confusion over what matters and doesn't matter for the environment," said Leon. "No one should feel guilty about modest use of such things as spray cans, paper napkins, and polystyrene cups."

To help inform consumers about everyday decisions, UCS today launched The Great Green Web Game at The game moves players through an animated board as they face consumer choices that affect the environment. In addition, UCS is teaming up with Stonyfield Farm Yogurt on a campaign to reinvigorate consumer action to protect the Earth. The yogurt-maker is drawing attention to the UCS book and game on 8 million yogurt lids that hit stores nationwide in mid-April and May.

UCS's Consumer's Guide to Effective Environmental Choices is published by Three Rivers Press, a division of Crown Publishers.


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