Green is All About Making Choices

You’ve decided to go green. How wonderful! You may be looking for a list of clear-cut guidelines that tell you exactly what to do. You do those things and you’re green. Wait . . . it’s not so simple. Sure, there are obvious and simple things you can do right now that will make a difference, but one of the most important things an educated green consumer needs to know is that going green is all about making choices. You make these choices based on your priorities and your ability to make the best decision based on the information you have.

We’ll start with a fairly simple example: compact fluorescent lightbulbs. By now, you’re probably aware that compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFCs) use a fraction of the energy of incandescents and last around seven years. They cost more up front (though prices are coming down), but you will unquestionably save money over the lifetime of the bulb. The question is: Do you switch all your lightbulbs out at once, or only as each incandescent dies? If you switch them out all at once, you’re “wasting” usable incandescent bulbs. If you switch them out one at a time, your remaining incandescent bulbs are expending more energy.

Let’s say you switch them out all at once-ah, I know what you can do-you can give them away on craigslist for free! That’s a good idea-except that then someone else is using a less-efficient energy source to light their home instead of a more efficient one. But you’re helping someone on a tight budget get light for less. True enough. However, even though CFCs are more costly up front, they do save you money over time, so they’re still a more economical decision for someone on a tight budget (even when the bulbs are free). What to do, then? Well, you’ve reviewed the information you know about each and realize they each have their pros and cons. So now it’s time to look at your priorities. Is it more important for you to get energy savings right away? Or to not waste an existing product until it dies? There is no right answer-just the decision works best for you.

Let’s look at another example. You’re remodeling your home and putting on a small 10′ x 10′ addition. You love your old hardwood floors and want to reuse them, but once you put in the addition, you will no longer have enough hardwood flooring for your entire home. (You really want the entire house to have the same flooring.) You look into getting more of the same type of hardwood floor and discover it’s not a fast-growing or sustainably-harvested wood. Is it better to keep the existing hardwood floors and buy a small additional amount of the same kind, or to change out the entire flooring in the house to a sustainable material such as bamboo? Clearly, reusing existing wood is a green thing to do. The more we keep our existing materials, the less drain on resources there is. However, in order to keep the same look throughout, it requires buying more of the wood that isn’t sustainably harvested. That could mean that we run out of that particular type of wood if the demand for it exceeds its ability to grow. (This is how hunted animals can become extinct.) But it’s only a small amount. You decide you don’t want to do that, so you consider changing all your flooring to bamboo. Bamboo is a very fast-growing material, so it’s definitely a green choice. However, what about all the existing hardwood flooring you’re going to get rid of? Wasting material is certainly not green. You can give the wood away, but your ability to do so may depend on how much flooring you have and what condition it’s in. So there’s a chance it may go to the dumpster, the contents of which end up in a landfill. Hmm, you’re not so sure about the bamboo anymore. Once again, you realize that both decisions have their upsides and downsides. You’ve considered the factors that you’re aware of. Now it’s time again to review your priorities. In this case, not only are you considering green issues, you’re considering aesthetic ones as well (your desire for the same flooring throughout). In the end, both choices are green, so your best decision is the one that’s right for you.

Here is one last scenario. You’re putting in new countertops in your kitchen. You like both granite and concrete but want to make the green choice. Granite is a natural material so that would seem to make it green. Depending on where you live, granite may also be a local material. If there’s a granite quarry nearby, that is certainly greener than importing a material from another state or country. But what if you live in a place that has to import it? The distance a material travels to get to its destination must be factored in-e.g., the amount of fuel it takes to deliver it. Also, though granite is abundant, it is ultimately a finite source. It’s extremely popular, so the more people use it, the faster the resource will go away. In July 2008 the New York Times reported that granite gives off radiation. Is it enough to be a threat to your health? Who can be sure. (How a material affects your health is also part of what makes it green . . . or not green.) Let’s look at concrete. When you hire a concrete contractor, they’re making their own concrete, which means it’s inherently local. That’s a good thing. But concrete has one of the highest amounts of embodied energy of any material-that is, the total amount of energy it takes to make concrete (versus, say, extracting granite). It just so happens that concrete is much higher than many other materials. High energy use to make a product is not so green. However, concrete is extremely durable so it will last a long, long time. You can plan to keep your concrete counters for twenty years; if you break down that energy cost over those twenty years, it doesn’t seem so high after all. Like the flooring example above, you will also be factoring in aesthetics.

Feeling frustrated at this point? Feeling like going green is too hard? Wondering how you could possibly make all these choices? The truth is that we all make decisions based on whatever information we have at the moment, so this is nothing new. We do this all the time. In addition, if you consider your priorities, you will find that you most likely have a preference here as well. For some people, saving money right now is the higher priority than keeping a usable product until the end of its life. Often times, getting materials locally is the highest priority over something that has to be imported.

Hopefully someday soon, there will be an online calculator where you plug in all the variables and it tells you which choice is the greenest. This will be a complicated calculator, factoring in such things as sustainability of the product, how far it has to travel to its final destination, cost to buy, cost to use, energy expended, and so on. Until then, you’re on your own. You can rest easy, though, because now that you’ve decided to go green, you’re choosing among green options anyway! Any decision you make will be helping you and the environment. And that’s a good thing.

Good luck and kudos for going green!

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