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Jennifer Grayson

Jennifer Grayson

Posted: March 10, 2010 08:40 AM

Send all your eco-inquiries to Jennifer Grayson at eco.etiquette@gmail.com. Questions may be edited for length and clarity.

I live a pretty green lifestyle, though I'm embarrassed to admit that I have one habit that's not so eco-friendly -- my love of Diet Coke. I have to have at least one a day. Really, how bad is it for the environment?

-Marty

When it comes to going green, image counts for a lot. You may have just outfitted your entire house with solar panels, but order up one diet soda to go with your sprout-topped double veggie burger, and all of a sudden your eco-conscious friends think you're a junk food-loving slob. I'm hyperbolizing of course, but it does call to mind the paradoxical (yet all-too-common) image of the weight-conscious American hitting up the drive-thru: I'll take a double cheeseburger, large fry, and a Diet Coke, please! That's probably why my environmental consultant friend apologizes every time we lunch and she orders up a diet pop, as she calls it. She knows it looks bad, but like you, she just can't help herself.

I'm not one to harshly judge such eco-vices; even the most dedicated environmentalists among us have at least one (mine: Pantene conditioner), and an occasional indulgence in a diet soda isn't likely to break the global warming bank. But if you're drinking at least one a day, you might be surprised to know that there are some interesting environmental ramifications for your beloved beverage -- aside from the already well-publicized negative ones regarding your health, like increased risk of weight gain and a decline in kidney function.

While the arguments below may also apply to other beverages packaged in bottles and cans (e.g., regular soda and bottled water), let's, for argument's sake, give exhibit A -- Diet Coke -- a thorough eco-examination.

The aspartame: Likely genetically modified, since it's made using a fermentation process involving corn and soy, two of the biggest GM crops. Switching to regular Coke won't get you off the hook, either (at least not in the United States), since the sweetener used -- high fructose corn syrup -- is made from genetically altered corn. Think you're only polluting your own body? A study last year by German researchers found that artificial sweeteners may be contaminating our drinking water, since sewage treatment plants don't seem to be effective at removing them from waste water.

The plastic bottle: Twenty-five percent recycled polyethylene terephthalate (PET), 75 percent good old-fashioned fossil fuel-based plastic. The bottled water industry gets a bad rap (deservedly so) for the 17 million barrels of oil a year used to produce its plastic bottles, but let's not forget that your 20-ouncer of DC is packaged exactly the same way. Or that Coca-Cola also owns Dasani.

The glass bottle: Super cool looking, not so cool for the environment: Retro-style Diet Coke has twice the carbon footprint of Diet Coke in the can, thanks to heavier transportation loads (read: more fuel). And although glass containers are infinitely recyclable, US consumers recycle only about a quarter of them.

The can: Made from half virgin aluminum -- an abundant resource that unfortunately is environmentally destructive to mine: The aluminum industry uses as much electricity as the entire continent of Africa, and a ton of toxic chemicals is left behind for every ton of the metal produced.

The can lining: Contains packaging additive bisphenol A (BPA), a toxic chemical that's been linked to cancer, sexual development abnormalities, and heart disease, among other serious health conditions. A Health Canada study last year found BPA levels in soda to be below what's been deemed a "safe limit," but other studies have found even extremely low doses of the chemical to spur cancer cell growth in test animals.

The water: Comprises 99 percent of a Diet Coke -- a fact Coca-Cola has touted in its advertising, perhaps to take advantage of the eight-glass-a-day hydration craze. But all that water has to come from somewhere, and the company has taken heat in recent years for continuing its bottling operations in areas afflicted by severe water shortages, most notably in drought-stricken India.

Bringing it to you: And of course, you can't forget the energy cost -- and associated greenhouse gas emissions -- of manufacturing, distribution, and refrigeration. In its 2008 Corporate Responsibility Review, Coca-Cola UK determined that the equipment used in retail outlets to refrigerate its drinks accounted for over 70 percent of the company's carbon emissions.

While a daily Diet Coke may seem small as sustainability sins go, curbing consumption could have a collectively large impact when you consider that 59 percent of Americans drink diet soda. Can't beat the fake thing? Reduce packaging waste by only treating yourself to a fountain-dispensed glass of diet pop at a restaurant, or consider a home soda maker like one from Sodastream. How's that for (artificially) sweet success?

 

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