Learn the lingo: Frequently asked questions to help you find the real (green) deal
Kermit the Frog’s famous line, “It’s not easy being green,” may still hold true today. But some developers or manufacturers who want to take advantage of a growing demand for environmentally friendly products have learned that it is easy to label something as green, even if they haven’t gone the extra mile to conserve resources. This trend, often called “greenwashing,” can make it more difficult for consumers to sort out the truly eco-friendly options from the rest. The Q&A that follows sheds some light on how to find products and building materials that live up to healthier standards.
If I’m going to shell out top dollar for a green product, I want to make sure the manufacturers are as obsessive as I am about going easy on the planet. How will I know it’s not some pretender who only cares about the other kind of green?
The Environmental Building News’ Greenspec® product directory breaks products down into a few basic categories: products made with salvaged, recycled or agricultural waste; products that conserve natural resources; products that avoid toxic or other emissions; products that save energy or water; and products that contribute to a safe, healthy built environment.
Also, consider locally manufactured, fair-trade, carbon-neutral and minimally packaged products. Finally, try to choose durable materials: If you build the greenest home possible and it has to be abandoned due to moisture problems, then you’ll only end up feeding the landfill in the end. Weighing this criteria against a product will help determine the product’s true costs and benefits.
Greenspec® product standards at a glance
Products made with salvaged, recycled or agricultural waste content
• Salvaged products
• Products with post-consumer recycled content
• Products with pre-consumer recycled content
• Products made from agricultural waste material
Products that conserve natural resources
• Products that reduce material use
• Products with exceptional durability or low maintenance
• Rapidly renewable products
Products that avoid toxic or other emissions
• Natural or minimally processed
• Alternatives to ozone depleting substances
• Alternatives to hazardous products
• Reduces or eliminates pesticide treatments
• Reduces stormwater pollution
• Reduces impacts from construction/demolition
Products that save energy or water
• Building components that reduce heating and cooling loads
• Equipment that conserves energy
• Renewable energy
• Fixtures and equipment that conserve water
Products that contribute to a safe, healthy indoor environment
• Products that don’t release significant pollutants into the building
• Products that block introduction, production or spread of contaminants
• Products that remove indoor pollutants
• Products that warn occupants of health hazards
• Products that improve light quality
• Products that help control noise
• Products that enhance community well-being
As an ultra-greenie, I want to incorporate into my home décor some materials that might have otherwise gone to waste. Any advice?
Salvaged flooring, as an example, is beautiful. Plus, it adds character to a home that new materials cannot. Also, think about using products that reduce the need for additional materials — for example, concrete floors can be stained to look very attractive, eliminating the need for an additional layer of flooring.
Here are a couple of definitions to guide you in choosing recycled materials: Post-consumer recycled content means utilizing a waste material that can no longer be used for its originally intended purpose. An example of that might be a carpet made out of old soda bottles. Pre-consumer or post-industrial recycled materials are made from waste products that were diverted during the manufacturing process.
I’ve been wondering: What’s so green about cork and bamboo?
These materials grow back quickly after being harvested, unlike hardwoods — which can take hundreds of years to return, if ever. Cork and bamboo floorings are examples of products made from rapidly renewable resources. The downside, though, is that both have to be shipped from across the world.
Any bright ideas for reducing energy consumption?
Some products are considered green not because of their raw materials, but because once you install them, they reduce the environmental footprint of the building. Examples are low-flow fixtures that save water, or insulation and light bulbs that reduce the energy needs of a building. Once you have reduced the overall energy and water you’re using, consider renewable-energy equipment that actually produces energy, such as photovoltaic panels.
The U.S. Department of Energy certifies the most energy-efficient products. Visit http://www.energystar.gov to learn which appliances, heating and cooling equipment, lighting, roofing products, windows and doors offer the greatest energy savings, or just look for the Energy Star logo. There are also a number of steps you can take, free of charge, to conserve energy. Visit the Department of Energy’s Energy Savers site (www1.eere.energy.gov/consumer/tips) for advice, or check out the in-depth information provided by the Rocky Mountain Institute Home Energy Briefs (http://www.rmi.org/sitepages/pid119.php).
I love the way finished wood looks inside my home, but I really don’t think a forest should be destroyed just so I can buy lumber. How can I find wood products that are gentle on the environment?
Some lumber has been third-party certified as having been harvested with sustainable forestry practices. You will definitely pay a premium for certified lumber, but you can rest assured that the trees in your home were replaced and managed very carefully. Look for Forest Stewardship Council (http://www.fsc.org) certified wood. And, as stated earlier, don’t forget about the option of using recycled or reclaimed wood products.
I’ve heard that many products contain harmful chemical additives, or give off volatile organic compounds that pose a health risk. What steps can I take toward a nontoxic home?
Minimally processed materials typically have less of the chemical additives that can impact your health. For instance, formaldehyde is common in many engineered products (which tend to be considered green because they are stronger and use fewer resources) because it acts as a binding agent. There are increasing efforts to replace formaldehyde with less-toxic binding agents. Cabinet-grade, formaldehyde-free plywood, for instance, is manufactured locally in Old Fort by Columbia Forest Products.
Natural and low-toxic materials also have less chemical additives, from manufacturing to end-use.
Almost every chemically based product from paints to adhesives is now available in a low-VOC (volatile organic compound) version. Green Seal (http://www.greenseal.org) is an independent nonprofit that promotes the use of environmentally friendly materials, using a certification system for paints, cleaners and other products. Also, check out Scientific Certification Systems (http://www.scscertified.com), which certifies adhesives, sealants, cabinetry, doors, carpet, flooring and paint.
I’m thinking long-term. I don’t want the products I’m purchasing today to end up in the landfill, even after they’ve lived out their use many years from now. Is there any way to put this ideal into practice?
A great way to understand the true impact of a product is to look at it in terms of a life-cycle assessment, which analyzes the product from resource extraction, through production, to use and finally disposal. A design concept called “cradle to cradle,” introduced by architect William McDonough, takes into account the entire life cycle of materials. Rather than becoming waste after they’ve lived out their use, cradle-to-cradle products are returned to industrial cycles for use as raw materials for new products. Or, in the case of biodegradable materials, they’ll decompose naturally without any adverse environmental impacts. There is actually a certification program for such products. Visit http://www.2ccertified.com for a list of building exteriors, floor coverings, surface coatings and other certified cradle-to-cradle materials.
Green building has to include an element of social justice too! How do I find materials that support people as well as the planet?
Many green materials only fulfill the environmental tenet of sustainability, but true sustainability addresses social and economic impacts. Purchasing products that are produced by companies that pay workers a fair wage, or that are made locally, can lead our own community to a brighter future. Plus, locally produced products help reduce greenhouse-gas emissions by reducing the transportation impacts. You can’t buy everything locally, but you can choose products that are making a positive impact somewhere, as in the case of fair-trade products that are helping to create social equity in developing countries. Many companies are now purchasing carbon offsets or renewable-energy credits, claiming that their products are produced with 100 percent renewable energy. This sounds great, but make sure their claims are legitimate and that they are working to minimize their impact, as well as offset it.
• Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things by William McDonough and Michael Braungart (North Point Press, 2002)
• Life-cycle assessment: http://www.epa.gov/ORD/NRMRL/lcaccess/
• EPA statistics on buildings and the environment: http://epa.gov/greenbuilding/pubs/gbstats.pdf
By Maggie Leslie and Rebecca Bowe
Source: WNC Green Building
Publication date: 2008