How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything

Mike Berners-Lee
How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything
Greystone Books, Berkeley, CA. 2011

"Paper or plastic?" Of course the correct answer is "neither." But on the (hopefully rare) occasions you find yourself without your personal shopping bag, what is the best response for the eco-conscious consumer? Organic food is always better, or is it?

In How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, climate-change expert Berners-Lee unpacks the wide-spread confusion around the carbon footprint of food purchasing and nearly one hundred other items. His mission is to create a sense of "carbon awareness," so for every lifestyle choice you make you will have at least a reasonable guesstimate of the carbon impact of that decision and where the impact comes from.

Just what is a carbon footprint anyway? It breaks down like this; carbon is all the different global warming greenhouse gases (global warming meaning human-caused climate change) and footprint is the total impact something has. So the carbon imprint is the full impact an activity, lifestyle, company or country has on the planet.

What's the carbon impact of a cup of tea? A roll of toilet paper? A text message? The World Cup? Engaging and solidly researched, How Bad Are Bananas considers everything from birth to death (literally, the carbon impact of both having a child and being cremated are included). It makes three basic assumptions: climate change is a big deal; it's caused by humans; and we can do something about it. While Earth's seven billion people combined obviously make an enormous footprint, understanding where carbon impact comes from can help you cut your carbon portion by a decent amount.

You need to pick your battles though, and keep things in perspective. If you're stressing over choosing to dry your hands with an electric-hand dryer or to use a paper towel, but doing it from an airport restroom before you board a trans-Atlantic flight, you might just be distracting yourself from exactly how much carbon is at stake with your transportation choices.

Similarly, if you're making the great low-carbon activity choice of cycling one mile to work, but pumping that bike by fueling your body with food that has been flown by air from across the globe, you're carbon impact goes way up. (Carbon impact-wise, you'd be better off driving a Hummer!) Two people cycling a mile on cheeseburger power have about the same footprint as commuting together in an efficient car.

So it really is all about choices, and knowing the total impact of those choices. For food choices, consider things such as farming method, transportation, packaging, refrigeration and one of the worst offenders, food waste. So how bad are bananas? Actually, they're pretty good. The only bad banana is the one you let rot. (p.s. Paper or plastic? Pick plastic.)