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Am I Drinking Oil?

Oil rig at sea

As professionals in our respective industries, we tend to become very isolated in our own bubbles, often causing us to take seemingly simple things for granted, or to lose sight of the bigger picture. As an LCA practitioner, I often find myself consumed with little details about which data to use, how to model a certain scenario, or deciding how much an allocation decision really matters. As professionals who wish to inform policy and change the world with our work, getting these details right is certainly important; however, a recent experience that I had at my son’s elementary school was a vivid reminder to me that it can be equally important to get out of our bubbles from time to time and learn to appreciate the broader insights that come from our work.

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of being invited to speak to my son’s grade 4 elementary school class. They had been discussing nature and different types of ecosystems and wildlife as part of their science curriculum, and I was asked to talk to the kids about how human activities can impact these natural systems. I was excited, yet somewhat worried about how to approach this guest appearance! I spend my days talking to engineers and government policy-makers about complex issues; what would I say to a class full of 9-year old kids?

Ultimately, I prepared some material about ways that our day-to-day activities affect the natural world, such as when we displace habitat by building freeways, or harm wildlife directly when we pollute. But of course, being an LCA practitioner, I had to bring life cycle thinking into this talk somehow! I decided to walk the kids through the life cycle of a plastic water bottle, and this led to one of the most honest and interesting discussions I’ve ever had with a group of kids!

Initially I showed the kids an image of a plastic water bottle and asked them to give me some ideas on what happens to that bottle when a person is finished using it. Hands went up across the room, and it was clear the kids were well-versed in product end-of-life, as they knew that the bottle could be recycled, it could go to a dump, or it could be disposed of as litter. We talked for a while about what effects these different disposal pathways could have on wildlife and ecosystems, and again, they essentially understood many of the potential impacts. But then, I asked the class if they knew where plastic water bottles come from, and the room went silent. I walked them back up the water bottle supply chain, showing them that the bottles are made from plastic in a manufacturing plant, and that made sense to them. Then I asked if anyone knew where plastic comes from? Silence again, and many heads nodding that they had no clue! So, I clicked to the next image in my presentation and showed them images of ocean-based and land-based oil drilling facilities and explained that plastic is ultimately derived from oil.

The buzz that this revelation created in the classroom was remarkable. I will never forget it! The kids were talking amongst themselves or just openly talking out loud, trying to make sense of this information. Then one of the girls in the class summed up what everyone was thinking with one simple question: “But my lips touch that bottle, am I drinking oil??” It was such a sweet, innocent question, yet it was so profound at the same time!

Once the kids got past their visceral reaction to this new information, they immediately started to point out the concerns we might have about the environmental impacts of making plastic water bottles from petroleum products. I then asked them, knowing all that they now know about the life cycle of a plastic water bottle, how necessary did they think it is to even use plastic water bottles at all? They all immediately pointed out that there was really no use for them, and that they can get clean water from the tap or from the water dispensing systems that the school had recently installed.

After my presentation to the class was complete, I walked around to their desks to check out the great dioramas they had made depicting different types of ecosystems. I observed that in the children’s dioramas, which were constructed inside of shoe boxes, they had depicted their chosen ecosystems as pristine environments with no human presence, just plants, wildlife, and natural features. This is the way many of us think about nature, but in reality, our human systems are increasingly intertwined with natural systems, so we should encourage kids to recognize this at a young age.

Children's diorama of earth

As I walked around the room, many of the kids were still talking about the water bottle example, and one of the students brought her reusable hard plastic water bottle over to me and asked me if it was also made from oil. It was such a great question, and it hit me that by putting these kids into the mindset of life cycle thinking, it had opened up a whole new world of inquiry for them that they could apply to many other products and activities in their lives. I was also reminded that as LCA practitioners, our clients can benefit from our work in multiple ways, not just in the hard numbers. We should be mindful to draw their attention to these bigger picture insights as well, in addition to the more detailed quantitative results of our work.

So, while I would never have presented quantitative results on an LCA of water bottles to my son and his classmates, there was tremendous value for them in just learning to think about this ubiquitous product from a life cycle perspective. I walked out of the classroom that day with a big smile on my face, and the thought that we should start introducing the idea of life cycle thinking at a much younger age. Someday they may become scientists and crunch the numbers themselves, but life cycle thinking can serve them for a lifetime in whatever career they pursue.

About the Author: Nathan Ayer, Senior Sustainability Advisor

Nathan brings an interdisciplinary approach to his work at EarthShift Global as an analyst, consultant, researcher, and instructor.
He is a certified life cycle assessment (LCA) practitioner under the American Center for Life Cycle Assessment (ACLCA) and has been working as a senior LCA analyst for Canadian and U.S. clients since 2009. He leads EarthShift Global’s consulting services by conducting LCAs, chairing ISO critical reviews, developing and delivering LCA training courses, and contributing to software development. Nathan is also experienced with other environmental management tools, such as Environmental Impact Assessment, and has previously worked for government environment departments in Canada.