A nuclear power plant equals 100 billion bags of potato chips
PepsiCo’s Walkers unit in the UK spent two months to figure out that the carbon footprint of a bag of chips is 75 grams (Business Week). There are about a million grams in a short ton, and at $20 external cost of a ton of CO2 that’s 0.2 cents (see my previous posting about those numbers). Of course, there are no regulations covering how this number is generated, and there is no audit, nor any liability for PepsiCo if they get it wrong. But even at face value, we have a new reference point for CO2 emissions: bags of chips.
So consumers are supposed to include this as a guide to their behavior. What’s wrong with this picture? Well, let’s look at some other alternatives a consumer can look at.
Replacing a single 75W incandescent light bulb with an energy star alternative saves 100 lbs per year (EPA estimate). That’s 600 potato bags per year.
A typical pair of cheap PC speakers (with subwoofer) that are left turned on 24/7 can on passive use pull 40W. That’s what one of mine did that I measured using the highly useful Watts Up? meter. In terms of bags of potato chips, that’s almost 3000 bags. Turning off those speakers when you’re not playing games will save you thousands of potato chip bags.
Replacing an old gas or oil furnace or boiler with a new one saves about 3000 lbs per year of emissions (again, EPA estimate). That’s about 20,000 bags of potato chips per year. Per household.
The EPA estimates the average US household emits 41,500 pounds of CO2 per year, in total. That’s the equivalent of a quarter million bags of potato chips. So consumers are supposed to approach the CO2-reduction in their lifestyle in increments of 1/250,000?
Building a single additional nuclear power plant unit (upping our national production by less than 1%) instead of coal-based power is equivalent to about 100 billion bags of potato chips each year. Those are more interesting increments in my mind.
Carbon labeling products like potato chips is a nutty approach to global warming. It’s about being eco-chic, about feeling good, not about actually doing something about the problem. Plus it’s misleading, since a price difference of 1/5 cents is more significant than whether or not you buy that bag. The only practical solution is of course a carbon tax, which will allow the market to figure out how to minimize the aggregate effects.
Still, you do save CO2 by eating the chips and then walking it off, instead of driving. By my estimates, your car emits the equivalent of six (6) bags of potato chips per mile. If you use the chips directly to fuel your own biological engine, a single bag will get you about 1 1/2 miles, so that’s about ten times as efficient.
Now that would be a smart consumer decision.