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Conflicting Green Issues

Updated on July 22, 2015


We need more clarification

Green is the new black. Everything should be green and environmentally friendly. Sustainability, recycling, off-setting, renewable energy, environmental certification, local sourcing and carbon footprint are all key ideas in the relatively new science of saving nature, and of course by implication saving humanity from disaster. Disasters such as global warming, pollution, natural resource depletion, species extinction and ozone holes are what the new green ethics are designed to counter or prevent. It is an undertaking of primary importance to insure no less than the future of life on the planet. World leaders are pretty much agreed on the need for action, of the urgency of the situation. It is only the details of how to implement effective preventative measures that the world leaders disagree upon.

For all the publicity and media attention this serious topic engenders it is hard to clearly find either a definition of ‘green action’ or a clear and scientific set of criteria and principles with which to judge the greenness or un-greenness of a product or process. Instead there are a number of indices by which we judge matters pertaining to environmental health. It is unclear how best to prioritize information so as to make it clear what the best course of action for the individual and the best product for the consumer is.

For example, renewable energy requires a massive input of materials and industrial processes. To make wind turbines and solar panels ores need to be mined, petrol will be burnt for transportation and non-renewable resources will be consumed. The factories producing the technology for renewable energy are not zero carbon. Here the imperative of using renewable energy is contrary to the demands of reducing green house gas emissions and using sustainable resources. The situation is similar with pollution. One way to stop pollution from gas burning engines is to use battery powered engines. However, making a battery and disposing of it pollutes and requires a big input of non-renewable resources.

Environmental certification is not a guarantee of lowered carbon footprint or of sustainability. Energy star which is the certifying body of the US Environmental Protection Agency judges products by their ability to reduce greenhouse emissions. Thus because uPVC windows can save up to 20% on household energy bills it has got an Energy Star certificate. The saving in fuel bills is off-set by a number of factors that make uPVC non-environmentally friendly. Firstly, uPVC is a plastic product made from the non-renewable and unsustainable resource called petroleum. Secondly, the chlorine in PVC means the production of uPVC causes pollution that damages wild life and human health. And thirdly, uPVC like other plastics are difficult to recycle and often just end up in landfills. uPVC when burnt gives off a number of toxic gases.

Sustainability is another keystone concept in green thinking. Thus, having strand woven bamboo flooring is better than having hardwood flooring because bamboo reaches maturity in 5 to 7 years; whereas, hardwoods take between 60 and 100 years to reach maturity. The quick growth rate of bamboo makes it a sustainable resource preferable to hardwood. Yet, much of our bamboo comes from China. The cost of shipping the bamboo from China to America and Europe is high in terms of carbon expenditure. The manufacture of ships needed and the petrol needed for transport cause greenhouse gas emissions. In such a situation it could be argued that locally sourced reclaimed hardwood flooring has a smaller carbon footprint and recycling, in this case, is better than using sustainable resources.

Finally, there is the idea of longevity. If something lasts for a long time than it has a certain green cachet. In the area of green interior design antique furniture free of VOCs is preferable to new furniture. Another example is the cast iron skillet. To make a cast iron frying pan requires mining, the use of non-renewable and often non-local resources. Foundries produce green house gases and need a big input of water and energy. None of this is green. But the fact that the cast iron skillet can last for 70 years and can be recycled safely makes it a green consumer product.

These are just a few examples of how we need to bring our thoughts and ideas into focus to develop over-arching principles by which we can decide what the greenest thing to do and buy in any given situation is. Environmentalism needs more scientific vigour and less sound bites.


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