More On Greenwashing

October 26th, 2010 | Posted by cramcharran in Environment | Green Products - (0 Comments)

We wrote a couple weeks ago about greenwashing (the troublesome practice of marketing a product as “green,” when it may not be, to burnish its image)  here.

You can read more about greenwashing, and the troubling results of a market survey carried out by TerraChoice, an independent reviewer of green claims, in this highly informative article from Gwendolyn Bounds in today’s Wall Street Journal.

Share

In 1992, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency established the Design for the Environment (DfE) partnership program.  The program was created to achieve an end: to develop partnerships in the private sector and industry, with environmental groups, and with academia to reduce environmental and health risks associated with chemical pollutants found in common household products and commercial and industrial practices.

Design for the Environment’s work is significant.  Its mission is to test the safety of both traditional and alternative chemicals in a whole range of processes, industries, and products.  And, according to the DfE’s website, the program has been something of a huge success – reducing the use of “chemicals of concern” by hundreds of millions of pounds every year.

To obtain a Design for the Environment seal of approval, the EPA must first vet products according to relatively stringent guidelines and an arduous scientific review.   These guidelines take into consideration human health concerns, environmental impacts, and the performance and cost of traditional and alternative technologies.  Determining whether or not a chemical used for a product is safe(er) for people and the earth is a long process, conducted by the EPA’s Office of Pollution Prevention and Toxics (OPPT), and organization that has been testing an analyzing chemicals for more than 30 years – so their expertise is substantial.

The OPPT first uncovers masked chemicals of concern – that is, scientists determine if environmentally-hazardous chemicals appear less harmful because they are diluted with water or other less-toxic chemicals.  If the chemical’s effects on the environment and people is not known, they study the chemical structure of the compound to understand its potential effects.  The DfE program then searches for negative interactions between chemical combinations – individual substances on their own may not be toxic, but in combination can be deadly.  Fragrances and dyes are then screened to ensure they will not pose any adverse health effects, including carcinogenic and environmentally-toxic compounds.  Lastly, the product is screened to see if any safer substitutes are commercially available, and economically-feasible for mass production.

There are over 2,000 Design for the Environment-approved products available on the market, with an easy-to-identify seal in place to allow the consumer to quickly and easily identify which products are safest for their health and the environment.  Considering that there are over 60,000 commerically-used chemicals, many of which have not passed the guidelines set forth by the Design for the Environment, seeing a DfE seal on a product really means something – not only that the product is safe, but that the company that produced the product put time, energy, and resources into making it the safest it could be.  This, of course, speaks to the ethical philosophy of the company producing the product.

Green Depot Solutions: Any green product with the EPA’s Design for the Environment seal is sure to be a sound and safe product, and Green Depot in particular produces an in-house line of DfE-approved cleaners and detergents produced locally in the New York City metropolitan area, and with a refilling station located at our flagship store on the Bowery, along with a full range of other green products and sustainable building materials.

Share

Radiant heat flooring warms a room by allowing warming tubes just under the floor’s surface to send heat upwards from the floor itself. At this point, it’s one of the most energy-efficient ways to heat a building, standing far ahead of conventional forced-air central heating and radiators. In fact, it so efficient that it’s recommended by the Passive House Institute, which we wrote about recently here.

With traditional forced-air central heating, warm air is blown into the room and immediately rises to the ceiling—making for a lovely warm ceiling (which nobody needs), but cold floors. Radiant heat, on the other hand, takes advantage of heat’s natural tendency to rise, making the best use of its journey upward by starting at the lowest point in the room. This process is generally far more efficient than any other form of heating, heating the room faster, keeping it warm longer, and allowing the thermostat to be set to up to 8 degrees lower than usual to obtain the same level of warmth. This results in not only lower energy bills, but less fossil-fuel consumption to provide the power that most heating systems require.

An added benefit of radiant heat is that it doesn’t dry out the air the way radiators and forced-air central heating systems do, so there’s less need for electric-powered humidifiers. But possibly the best thing about radiant heat is that it keeps your feet warm—no more freezing tootsies when you first get up in the morning!

Among its many other green products related to keeping your home warm efficiently, Green Depot carries various components for a radiant heat flooring system. The Complete Radiant Panel is an easy-to-install, modular panel with heating tubes built in, for quick sub-floor assembly. Warmboard Radiant Heat Subflooring is plywood subflooring with grooves for heating tubes pre-cut, and Tyroc is a super-insulating overlayment for cold, damp concrete floors that you can lay your radiant heat flooring panels directly on top of. And soon to be added to the lineup is NuHeat, a system of soft mats with heating elements built in—sort of like an electric blanket for your floor. Neat, huh?

Share

Check the back of nearly any conventional cleaning product, and you are confronted with an entire paragraph of confusing words for unknown chemicals – sometimes, hundreds of them.  It would take a huge amount of research to know which of those chemicals could be harmful to you, your family, or the environment.

Using conventional cleaning products in small amounts, and in well-ventilated areas, likely won’t cause any harm to the individual.  However, when we clean our homes we typically use a whole range of products for specific purposes – glass cleaners, countertop cleaners, floor cleaners, shower cleaners… the list goes on.  The more chemicals we use in our homes, the more exposure we receive to them, and that can add up over time, week in and week out.

Many conventional cleaners contain volatile organic compounds, or VOCs.  We’ve written before about VOCs in paint.  VOCs are the source of the headache-inducing chemical smell that is produced when using a cleaner at home.  These chemical compounds are used to cheaply improve the performance of a product, but can have serious consequences for human health – they have been linked to neurological disorders and kidney failure in laboratory animals, just to name a few consequences.  VOCs linger in the residue of cleaning products, even when they’re not visible – they continued to be inhaled even after cleaning is finished.  As Grist reports, home air fresheners contain significant amounts of VOCs and have been linked to a 25% increase in headaches and 19% more occurrences of depression in homes where they are used, versus homes where they are not.

Even smaller amounts of cleaner can have detrimental effects on the environment.  Dishwashing detergents often contain phosphates, which soften water and are a cheap way to make dish detergents more effective.   But the environmental cost is substantial.  When phosphates enter the watershed they enrich the water with nutrients that algae feed on, producing huge “blooms” of algae that consume all oxygen in the surrounding water.  Water that is depleted of oxygen – or that is hypoxic – is uninhabitable by most marine life.  The consequence is huge “dead zones” where there is no sea life, apart from algal blooms.  One of the largest and most infamous dead zone is in the Gulf of Mexico, which is fed by nitrogen and phosphorus runoff from the Mississippi River.  While that dead zone is fed largely by agricultural runoff, home fertilizers – and home cleaners – also contribute.

this graphic, from the new york times, depicts the hypoxic zone in the gulf of mexico -- a phenomenon produced, in part, by the runoff of phosphates, often found in conventional cleaners

There are more environmental consequences than hypoxia: conventional cleaners use chemicals that can disrupt the endocrine systems of marine life; some chemicals can affect the alkalinity of water, harming marine organisms; and others contain chemical compounds such as DDBSA that are corrosive to metal and organic tissue, including human tissue.  If cleaning chemicals can produce these harmful effects on marine life, are they products that the consumer wants in their home – that not only release the chemicals into the home environment when they are use (and inhaled!), but linger and offgas for indeterminate amounts of time?

For the sake of personal health and the environment, then, it becomes imperative to use green cleaning products, and other green products that are free of the kinds of pollutants and toxins which poison our bodies and land.

Fortunately, numerous alternatives are available.  Some are more effective – both in terms of cleaning power and in healthfulness – than others.  Some, in particular, are pure greenwash – while they profess to be “all-natural,” they are indeed chemical and potentially dangerous.  There are no federal criteria to regulate products advertized as “all-natural” and packaging can therefore be terrifically misleading.  Some “all-natural” cleaners are made from petroleum-derived products – all-natural because petroleum is naturally-occurring.

So, we should choose green cleaners because they are kinder on our health, our homes, and our environment.  And we should ensure we choose green products that are legitimately green, and not just greenwash.  There are, fortunately, truly ecologically-sound alternatives available to the consumer.

These products, contrasted to their conventional counterparts, are plant-derived, rather than petroleum-derived; they are biodegradable, meaning they won’t linger in waterways and contribute to hypoxia; and they are effective, meaning the consumer does not have to sacrifice performance for health and environmental benefits.

Green Depot carries a huge catalogue of green products, and produces its own line of green cleaners (locally-produced in the New York City area).  They are even refillable at our station on the Bowery – meaning you won’t even have to recycle your old bottles.

photo credit to flickr user hypoxia&eutrophication.

Share

Across the country, environmentalists are waging campaigns to get people to drink more tap water, to save our environment from the scourge of up to 1.5 million tons of plastic waste generated each year by the bottled water industry. According to Food and Water Watch , that plastic requires up to 47 million gallons of oil per year to produce, and over 80 percent of plastic bottles are thrown away instead of recycled–so drinking from the tap not only saves waste and protects the environment, but helps reduce our country’s dependence on foreign oil and offshore drilling, too. So it’s pretty clear: Tap is the way to go.

But there’s a downside to drinking tap water, which is that it’s usually at least somewhat polluted—at least in the U.S. and most of the Western Europe. Some of that pollution is simply left in after insufficient purification by municipal water supply utilities, but some of it is added in by those same utilities in the name of protecting our health–fluoride (to protect our teeth) and chlorine (to kill bacteria and other organisms) are two of the most common additives. Most states require water processing plants to add both to our water, so they’re pretty much impossible to avoid. But they’re both associated with elevated risks for certain illnesses, including cancer, with the evidence for a chlorine-cancer link emerging as the strongest.

Numerous studies published in the American Journal of Epidemiology, the Journal of the National Cancer Institute and other widely respected medical journals around the world have documented a strong, significant increase in the incidence of bladder cancers among people who drink unfiltered, chlorinated tap water on a regular basis–with higher cancer rates among those who have been drinking it for the longest periods of time.

And bathing in tap water isn’t too much better. We not only absorb chlorine through our skin, but breathe it in as chloroform in the steam from a long hot shower, where it irritates our lungs and can cause asthma. Yes, chloroform is the stuff evil criminals in movies make people breathe to knock them out. And for one more scary fact, a study conducted by Dr. Niels Skakkebaek of the University of Copenhagen documented a nearly 50 percent decrease in male sperm counts in areas of Denmark where the water supply is chlorinated. Yikes.

Fortunately, however, it’s possible to enjoy the environmental (and political) benefits of using tap water and avoid the health hazards of the toxic chemicals in it, by using some form of home water filtration. A wide range of water filtration options can be found among the many other green products carried by Green Depot, ranging from simple filter pitchers to whole-house water supply filtration systems. A popular one among design junkies is the Aquaovo Ovopur system, a nifty ceramic giant egg that uses carbon, ceramics and quartz to remove not just chlorine but a host of other toxins naturally. See it and many more here.

Share

(Well, for one thing, some are due to expire!)

While retrofitting a house or apartment can provide substantial energy savings – and, by extension, ecological benefits – many people worry about the initial costs of retrofitting a home.  The cost of insulating a home, buying new energy-efficient appliances, or even installing a renewable energy system, can entail a substantial investment that is sometimes beyond the means of the average person.

Acknowledging this dilemma, however, both state and the federal government have in place numerous rebates and tax exemptions to incentivize homeowners to upgrade their homes and appliances.  Utility companies and state agencies – like ConEdison and NYSERDA – also have incentive programs.  The kinds of rebates for homeowners are diverse – there are literally hundreds of them, and the process of wading through them can be daunting, to say the least.

But why care? Why are rebates important, and would it be worth the effort to determine which rebates a homeowner is eligible for, considering the overwhelming number of options available?

Of course, the answer to this question is that it is entirely worth it.  Put frankly, these programs are free cash for investment.  In the short-term, rebates and exemptions save the homeowner up-front costs for buying green products like high-efficiency washers, driers, and other appliances; and they can bring the cost of installing even the most advanced systems, like photovoltaic panels, within the reach of the average American.  In the long-term, having these products in the home not only saves money, but natural resources like water and fossil fuels used to power appliances.

One incredibly important reason to care about the ENERGY STAR federal tax credit for energy-efficient green products, in particular, is its expiration date: December 31, 2010.

This federal tax credit is a comprehensive one and covers a number of products, some of which are carried by Green Depot, like the GeoSpring Hybrid Water Heater or the Solatube Solar Star Attic Fan.  So many products are eligible for tax credits through 2010 – including biomass stoves, central A/C, electric heat pumps, furnaces and boilers, main air circulating fans; insulation materials or heat control systems; metal and asphalt roofing; water heaters, electric heat pumps; exterior windows, doors, and skylights.  The federal tax credit can cover up to 30% of the cost of these products, up to $1,500.

State rebates and incentives exist too, and some can cover the additional costs of installing the above products.  Some incentives go even further than federal incentives – for example, New York State includes a tax break of up to $2,000,000 (million!) for green building.

There are so many rebates and tax breaks that apply to so many different products that everyone can benefit from – proving that rebates are something anyone can and should care about!

There are numerous resources available for the homeowner looking to upgrade their homes and appliances to green products:

DSIRE to see which rebates and tax breaks are available federally and in your home state.

U.S. DoE Energy Savers Program with information on incentives.

ENERGY STAR’s compendium of rebate-eligible products.

Share