The Chat Room

Gassed Up

Environmental columnist Brendan I. Koerner takes readers’ questions on greenhouse pollutants and other concerns.

Brendan I. Koerner, Slate’s Green Lantern columnist, was online at on Thursday, Nov. 29, to discuss the harm of the “ other greenhouse gases” plus whatever environmental questions readers had. An unedited transcript of the chat follows.

Brendan Koerner: Hey y’all, I’m here. Happy to be chatting today—first time every trying one of these. Thanks to those who’ve already submitted some excellent questions. Let’s get started.


Arlington, Va.: Thanks for taking my question. All of these suggestions you may seem helpful, but only at the margins. I think the suggestions are more useful at making people feel less guilty about their impact on the Earth than they are at actually solving the problem of global warming. Isn’t it true that all of these small measures we take won’t really do anything until meaningful national and international agreements takes place? It feels like I’m bailing out a ship with a teaspoon, while most of the other passengers are filling it up with buckets.

Brendan Koerner: Vital, vital question. To some extent, you’re absolutely correct—even if everyone in the U.S. suddenly started bringing canvas bags to the supermarket, it wouldn’t help a ton. The energy hunger of China, India, etc. is just too great. On the other hand, we have to start somewhere, and changing habits is Step One. But I’m also trying to tackle some macro issues in the column, as well as pointing out (when called for) what steps really do amount to just feel-goodery. Sure, there’s a chance all of our good intention may come to naught. But abject pessimism at this point seems a wee bit uncalled for.


Washington: I am trying to use less plastic, saying no to bags at CVS and grocery stores. I was wondering if any of those pay-by-the-pound places will allow people to bring in their own containers, or it that against health regulations? I am tired of feeling guilty about buying lunch.

Brendan Koerner: Good question. Have you tried asking one of the deli proprietors? I’ve found that such measures typically don’t occur to store owners—my wife recently brought a canvas bag to the dollar store, and they looked at her like she was nuts. But they filled up her bag regardless. In any event, nice to hear yet another example of growing awareness—even if, as our previous questioner pointed out, it may just amount to a teaspoon’s worth of goodness.


Phoenix: What are the pollution consequences of trash-to-steam projects, especially to people living near such projects?

Brendan Koerner: I’ll confess that I don’t know a ton about trash-to-stream technology. I have read, however, that one of the problems is how effectively folks can separate out their most hazardous waste. For example, what if people toss in lots of batteries that contain cadmium and other potentially harmful chemicals? Even when city’s offer high-tech recycling, too few consumers take advantage. Aside from that, though, I don’t feel well-informed enough to comment. But I’ll add the trash-to-stream question to the ideas queue for my column. Many thanks for the question.


Boonies, N.Y.: Online shopping must rank up there with the un-greenest of vices, right? Unfortunately it’s my reality, living in the boonies of New York State and being hours away from anything worth buying.

Brendan Koerner: Not necessarily, and I actually have an online shopping column in the works. Presuming your neighbors also receive goods via UPS or FedEx, it would actually seem more efficient to shop this way—just one vehicle making the rounds, instead of many vehicles hauling out to the distant mall. One point I want to examine also is land use—are warehouses more efficient users of land than retail stores? Keep an eye peeled on my column—I should have some interesting life-cycle data to share in the not-too-distant future.


FordTruck5Speed (The Fray): Now that we know that methane is going to kill us all, when will Congress outlaw the bean burrito?

Brendan Koerner: If Congress outlaws the bean burrito, I’m moving to Canada.


janeslogin (The Fray): Among the old theories from my college days a half century ago: When the carbon dioxide gets high enough, there might be an algae bloom at the surface of the oceans sucking the atmospheric carbon dioxide back down, perhaps even causing global cooling. Also, we have no clue as to how much geothermal carbon dioxide is leaking from volcanoes and the like. I have no thoughts about either, but I never have heard the discussion of the demise of these theories.

Brendan Koerner: There’s certainly been some recent discussion about abetting the growth of sea algae in order to create massive carbon sinks. But we have to be careful about such steps, since we don’t really have great data on what makes the best CO2 sink at present. For example, I’ve read reports contending that a lot of tree planting doesn’t really help our carbon situation, since those trees are too far from the Equator. We also need to give thought to what types of trees can do the best job of sucking CO2 from the atmosphere—not all trees are created equal in that regard.

As for volcanos, you know, I get about two e-mails on that topic per week. At first I dismissed them, but now I’m wondering where the meme started, and how much truth there is to it. Another future column topic…


Knoxville, Tenn.: If excess carbon dioxide from the burning of fossil fuels is the cause of global warming, then why are we still recycling paper? Shouldn’t we be placing it in landfills to put the excess CO2 from the fossil fuels back in the earth? Also: The global economy is based on continued economic growth and expanding populations, and is fueled by petroleum. What are the implications of this on the global environment, and is the global economy doomed to fail in the near future as petroleum production declines, leaving a population demanding even more from environment than ever before?

Brendan Koerner: Two great questions. On the first, while what you say makes sense, there does seem to be a viable market for recycled paper goods. When it comes to recycling, it’s really up to the private sector to decide what they want and what they don’t. Here in NYC, for example, the city doesn’t recycle plastic takeout containers because there’s simply no market for it. But perhaps that will change as technology improves.

On your second question, there’s no doubt that the world economy will have to make a radical adjustment in the coming decades. Perhaps oil prices will temporarily retreat from their current levels, but I think it’s pretty clear we’re facing a long-term upwards trend. The easy answer to your concerns is, “Well, let’s start shifting over to alternative fuels now.” But that’s tough—we’ve built so much infrastructure to support an oil-dependent economy. That doesn’t mean, however, that we should just give up. The time to start planning for a post-oil future is now; otherwise, the economic shocks you fear will be much more severe down the line.


Anse (The Fray): I say it’s “stupid” but I’m pretty sure most of us would like to know … how do you measure atmospheric conditions in arctic ice? Is it simply precipitation in the arctic and the general water cycle that gets these compounds from our factories and cars to the arctic? Perhaps this would be a good Explainer column in the future.

Brendan Koerner: Thanks for the great question, Anse. I actually touched on this topic in this week’s column. Scientists measure atmospheric conditions by analyzing air bubble trapped within the ice. This is how they’ve been able to calculate the increase in global CO2 and methane levels since 1750—they just bore down way deep down into the ice, where air bubble have been trapped since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution. Then they compare the contents of those bubbles to ones close to the top.

Believe it or not, I actually visited one of those research sites several years back, out on the Greenland ice. The scientists who man those camps are some of environmentalism’s unsung heroes—I, for one, don’t have what it takes to spend six months on the ice.


Alexandria, Va.: I feel that even though small actions on everyone’s part to live a greener life may not make an immediate visible change, it’s more about the habit to live greener that is being developed. When I read articles about the environment, they often are belittling to those trying to make a difference, and I would like to point out that young children getting in the habit of living greener now will be the ones in the decision-making role in the future, and that these small actions really are huge.

Brendan Koerner: Agreed, and especially relevant to my own situation since I have my first kid en route. I think it’s pretty obvious that the environmental situation is bound to get worse before it gets better—we’re just barreling ahead so quickly, for better and for worse. But to bury our heads in the sand simply because results are hard to come by doesn’t make sense. I’d like to think our species is in the game for the long haul, which means looking down the road instead of always focusing on the present. It’s a tough thing for us to do, given that each human being has such a short time here. But it’s critical.


Fredericksburg, Va.: I love your idea on going through landfills for recyclables. You’re going to have to bear with me here or you will think this is idiotic: I read how skyline drive was constructed—a govenrment program for people who needed help in the depression, who went and worked and got paid and did great things. Why not have those on welfare now participate in this program?

Brendan Koerner: Believe it or not, I actually got several e-mails proposing exactly this plan after that column came out. (One correspondent also recommended assigning this work to prison inmates on furlough.) A couple of problems, though. First, it’s not a lack of manpower that makes landfill mining a lackluster business; it’s the fact that the recovered materials are often of poor quality, and that it’s difficult to locate and separate them in the first place. Also, keep in mind that companies who’ve attempted this are private enterprises. So while they’re free to hire Welfare recipients if they’d like, it would be tough to force them to.


New York: What about batteries?

Brendan Koerner: Excellent question. Some cities/counties have established voluntary battery recycling programs, but as I understand it they’re not great revenue generators, i.e. there isn’t a big post-use market for the materials. I think we’ve all heard the stories of mountains of used batteries languishing the Chinese hinterlands, and tragically poisoning local water supplies. I think there’s a good opportunity here for a public-private partnership to hammer out a way of making battery recycling both a) easier for consumers (i.e. some kind of home pick-up option) and b) profitable for investors.


feline74 (The Fray): What if you “mined” a landfill by putting the contents in a good compost heap, with linings to catch toxic chemicals and vents to catch methane? Once methane production subsides, use the remaining sludge (stripped of many of the toxic chemicals via runoff) as fertilizer for plants to make paper.

Brendan Koerner: Interesting idea. The methane capture industry is always looking for ways to improve its bottom line, and something like this could increase their revenue streams. As I understand methane capture technology at present, however, it’s more based on oil-well tech than anything else. So the solution you propose would be a pretty radical departure.


ASlyJD (The Fray): I’m no expert here, but could there be a way to process the garbage into small pieces? Then one could use centrifuges and the like to separate the valuable plastics, glasses, metals while allowing oxygen and bacteria to decompose the organic and paper materials much faster.

Brendan Koerner: There actually is some interesting movement toward one-stream recycling—that is, no longer asking consumers to separate glass/metal from paper/cardboard, but rather having everything in one bin and then using optical sensors to sort at the end. Could we someday see no-sort recycling at the consumer level? It’s going to be a challenge, because at present organic matter (esp. food) taints paper/cardboard beyond use. (This is a big reason why landfill mining isn’t economically viable.) But I’m an optimist when it comes to mankind’s penchant for technological innovation.


New York: Hi Brendan. Energy is the most critical issue facing civilization, yet none of the presidential candidates have any profound knowledge or insight on the subject—only very generic answers: “clean coal” and “more ethanol.” They tout caps on car emissions, but fail to understand the net-energy concept as a whole. How can we get them to stop with the meaningless rhetoric and answer some in-depth questions?

Brendan Koerner: I think a big part of the problem is that environmentalism is such a new political issue, so it’s not a priority when it comes to hiring top-level campaign advisers. But I also think it’s because the candidates are underestimating the sophistication of voters when it comes to energy issues. Week in, week out, I’m blown away by the depth and complexity of the energy-related questions I get from readers—people really seem to understand, for example, ethanol’s shortcomings, and the pros and cons of flex-fuel vehicles. How can we get them to acknowledge that we deserve more complex answers and proposals? Hmmmm…anyone want to volunteer to ask a really good YouTube question for the next debate?

(Also, keep in mind that the current administration has been, uh, somewhat secretive about its energy policy.)


Richmond, Va.: Out of curiosity, what kind of car do you drive daily? And do you have an energy-efficient home?

Brendan Koerner: Thanks for the question. I actually live in NYC, so don’t currently own a car—I roll the train. I also live in a typically small apartment with steam heat and only one air conditioner. On the other hand, I’ll confess that I made too few efforts to be “green” in my daily life—shortcomings that I’ve tried to be honest about in the column (e.g. confessing that I personally haven’t been using canvas bags). I’m the farthest thing from an environmental angel—just another concerned bloke trying to make heads to tails of an avalanche of information.


I read how skyline drive was constructed—a govenrment program for people who needed help in the depression, who went and worked and got paid and did great things. but the current administration and Rush Limbaugh never would allow it, and would call that socialism.

Brendan Koerner: Er, yeah, can’t see any WPA-style proposals going too far nowadays.


Waterloo, Iowa: How much recycling does The Washington Post do of office products, and how much of the paper is printed on recycled material? Do you recycle all the papers that are not sold, or leave them at newsstands for the couriers to dispose of? I can only speak for, but we have extensive in-house newsprint, office paper and aluminum can recycling programs. Most newspapers operate efficient printing presses nowadays as well—soy-based inks, recycling water, silver from negatives, etc. Here’s some bare-bones information from The Post’s corporate Web site.

Brendan Koerner: Since Slate’s all online, we’re more paper-free than their “dead-tree” comrades at the Post. Personally, I don’t print anything out—haven’t had an in-house printer at my home office for years. Actually made the move to cut down on clutter more than waste; it was weird at first, but now I can’t imagine spending money on ink cartridges ever again.


Freising, Germany: Regarding methane and CO2, in absolute terms, how much does each contribute to global warming in percent? Also, if the permafrost in Canada, Alaska and Siberia melts and sets free methane, does that ensure the end of the arctic ice caps and glaciers?

Brendan Koerner: You ask a very complex question re: absolutism about CO2 vs. CH4 contributions to global warming. I tried to get a straight answer on this while reporting the methane column, but got lots of hemming and hawing from some fine scientific minds. So I don’t think there’s a definitive answer beyond what I offered in the column; I will say, however, that CO2 is far more worrying because of its longer atmospheric lifetime combined with the sheer amount of the stuff being pumped into the air by virtue of fossil-fuel combustion.

I share your concerns regarding the release of methane from melting permafrost. It’s a nasty feedback loop, and it will doubtless contribute to the decline of the Arctic. Yet another reason not to delay in tackling our current—and woresening—environmental woes.


Brendan Koerner: Thanks a million to everyone who sat in and asked great questions. Hope to catch y’all again soon. Be sure to check out “The Green Lantern” on Slate every Tuesday, and pay a visit to my website: Have a good one…