"It's not that easy being green." — Kermit the Frog
George Elvin remembers when he first began to really care about the environment.
He and a friend were hiking through a forest in Canada about 35 years ago. Across the valley, above the trees, they could see a waterfall cascading over the edge of a mountain ridge. They hiked through the dense woods and climbed up the roaring edge of the waterfall — looking forward to the pristine view. "When we peeked over the mountain top everything was completely clear cut," he said. "We had expected to see the forest, instead we saw the human capacity for destruction of nature."
Elvin is the owner of Gone Studio, a "post-petroleum design company," and an associate professor of architecture at Ball State University in Muncie, Ind. Like many Americans on Earth Day, he wants to be green.
But "green" is a vague term, Elvin said, and has become a marketing pitch. "People abuse it," he said.
Ozzie Zehner is a little blunter. He is a visiting scholar at UC Berkeley and the author of "Green Illusions" which looks at the true influence of clean energy initiatives.
Zehner said slapping "green" on a product is a way people can buy whatever they want as long as they pay more to salve their conscience. "'Green' is one of those things marketers enjoy," he said. "They translate 'sustainable' to 'ka-ching!' It is just a trick to get people to take the wallet out."
But people are beginning to wise up, he said. Marketers want people to believe greenness is something that is measurable and objective. They also want people to think green products are neutral or beneficial to the environment.
"They are both wrong," Zehner said.
The reality is more complex. Products don't appear out of nowhere and do not disappear when people are done with them.
For someone who is environmentally conscious, it really isn't a question about which purchase is the most green. "The best material consumption is less material consumption," Zehner said.
Is it green?
When looking at products, Elvin said people should consider the entire lifecycle of the item. Where do its raw materials come from? Where they mined? How? What manufacturing process was used to create it? What wastes and byproducts and energy use did that process have? How is it disposed when its use is over? Is it recyclable?
But knowing a product's lifecyle isn't easy, Elvin said. Few companies want their customers to know that much about what they are selling.
And some things are not as green as people might expect.
Zehner's book, "Green Illusions," looked at the total story of things commonly thought to be environmentally friendly. Ironically, many alternative energy technology solutions have environmental downsides.
Solar panels, for example, contain toxic materials and heavy metals, Zehner said. The manufacturing process of the panels includes the emission of gasses that are up to 25,000 times more harmful than CO2.
Wind turbines in the U.S. have little offset value against fossil fuels, Zehner said, because of what he calls the boomerang effect. When the alternative energy is subsidized, it lowers energy costs overall, which increases demand. "No matter how many wind turbines you build, as long as you are in a consumer society that is growing, all of those gains will be eaten up," he said. "When you build alternative energy capacity, it actually accelerates the demand for coal, but does not slow it down. It does more harm than good to build solar cells and wind turbines in that context."
Real green solutions
Seth Shulman is the senior staff writer at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The group is a science-based nonprofit working for a healthy environment and is based in Cambridge, Mass. Shulman is the co-author, with six other writers, of "Cooler Smarter: Practical Steps for Low-Carbon Living," which was just published last week.
Shulman's book challenges people to reduce their carbon emissions by 20 percent, but the advice is good for just about anybody. "You might not be convinced about global warming," he said, "but you might want to do some of these things just because they will save you a lot of money."
The greatest changes do not come from altering the way people act, Shulman said. "People think of shutting things off — turning off the lights," he said. "There is nothing wrong with that, but if you can get more efficiency out of what you do, it could have a much greater impact."
Take the example of shutting off lights. It can save money and energy, but if a person is using older incandescent light bulbs, the savings won't be anywhere near what that person would get using more efficient light bulbs.
Shulman said the newest LED light bulbs are about 85 percent more efficient than incandescent bulbs. This means that if a person tried to get the same amount of energy savings by just turning off the lights, the lights would have to be off 85 percent of the time. That would mean keeping the lights off for about three out of every four days.
Shulman is practical about what car to buy. Transportation accounts for 28 percent of each person's carbon emissions, he said. "Better fuel economy is the biggest single thing you can do for global warming bar none," he said.
By going from a 20 miles-per-gallon car to a 40 miles-per-gallon car, Shulman said, people would reduce their carbon footprint by 17 percent in just one step. It also saves 4,500 gallons of gas over the 15-year lifecycle of the car — which, at today's prices is about $18,000.
But watch out for hybrid cars, Shulman said. A hybrid car does not do more for the environment than a conventional car that outperforms the hybrid's gas mileage. "When you get right down to it, it is about the amount of gas the car is using," he said.
Zehner said another thing to consider is the total energy cost of automobiles. He said most of the energy used by an automobile during its entire lifecycle is not the fuel, but all of the power used in the car's manufacturing process. This means the environmental damage caused by electric cars is greater than some conventional gasoline cars. "If you are going to drive a car," he said, "the best thing to get would be a small car with good gas mileage, not an expensive electric car. The expense of a car is a reflection of the energy that went into constructing it."
Green at home
Elvin looks at the energy use in homes and buildings as a way to help the environment and save money. One of the biggest things people can do for the environment is insulation. "It isn't the sexiest topic," Elvin said, "But if people want to do something for their pocketbook and the environment, they should look to better insulate their home."
Attics are often insulated well — and it is hard to retrofit wall insulation. But people can insulate in other ways. For example, caulking around windows and doors, Elvin said.
The Union of Concerned Scientists found eating only locally-grown food has little energy difference from transported food. Only 4 percent of the energy used in the production and distribution of food is transportation — most of the energy expended takes place in growing and harvesting the food.
Choosing what type of food to eat, however, can have a greater influence. Meat production takes more energy than other foods. Cutting down on meat, especially beef, makes a big difference. "You don't have to become a vegetarian," Shulman said, "but if the average family cut its meat intake by half, that would save three tons of emissions over the course of a year. So it is pretty significant."
And it is healthier.
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Although switching to more efficient products saves more money and energy than changing behavior, those smaller behaviors can also add up. Shulman, for example, saved $130 a year in energy just by turning off his laser printer off at the end of each day.
Zehner said giving people a choice to refuse all junk mail could have a greater reduction in carbon emissions than all of the nation's existing and planned solar cells, combined.
Whether actions are taken to save the environment or just to save money, either way, a person who makes these choices will be greener. Maybe being green isn't so hard after all.