Green your life at home, work & play

Which is better for the environment-using paper or a computer? January 6, 2012

With the rise in popularity of mobile devices, such as smart phones, tablets, and e-readers, the question of whether it is better to read something on an electronic device or in print has become even more complicated. The answer is just as confounded. To truly know the environmental impact of a product, you need to assess it from production to disposal (which hopefully involves recycling!). Although a full environmental assessment of all options is not possible here, I will attempt to give an overview of the environmental impact of electronic devices and paper.


A piece of paper releases 0.03 pounds of carbon dioxide equivalents (the amount of greenhouse gases in terms of carbon dioxide impact). If the paper has 100% recycled post-consumer content, it produces a lot less-0.017 pounds of CO2 equivalents. In terms of newspapers, 1 ton of newsprint kills 12 trees. The average recycled content for newspapers in the U.S. is only 35%. Creating wood pulp out of the trees is very energy-intensive and produces large amounts of pollution. In fact, the pulp industry is the third highest polluter in the U.S.

Farming trees specifically grown to produce paper also reduces biodiversity. Some tree species provide better quality paper, so we plant more of those and cut down old-growth trees to make space. This emits carbon dioxide into the air that had been stored for hundreds or thousands of years, and which these new trees can’t hope to recapture during their short lifespan. Pesticide and herbicide use is also a problem, since these are required to maintain the monoculture of tree farms.

The moral here is, if you are going to print something, please use recycled content paper, or better yet-reuse paper by printing on the blank side (though this strategy doesn’t really work for books).

Electronic devices

Alright, so everyone probably knew that making paper kills trees. But do you know what impact computers, e-readers and other mobile devices have on the environment?

Electronic devices are usually made out of plastic, which biodegrades extremely slowly, and also often contain rare metals like coltan that require mining. They also require a lot of energy to manufacture, ship and discard, and sometimes include toxic chemicals inside. Using a computer or other mobile device also requires a lot of electricity, which in the U.S. mostly comes from coal. The energy goes towards powering the device itself, but a significant amount also goes towards powering internet servers, even more so now that the use of “cloud computing” has increased in recent years. In terms of CO2 emissions, Apple has announced that using an iPad only releases 0.004 pounds of CO2 equivalents per hour and that over its lifetime (including manufacturing, transport and recycling), an iPad will produce 231 pounds of CO2 equivalent, which is the same as 7,700 sheets of regular paper or 13,600 sheets of recycled paper. In this comparison, the iPad comes out on top if you think of the number of pages you can read on an iPad during its lifetime without killing one tree.

However, International Paper,  a world-wide printing company, argues that the large energy consumption of devices such as the iPad makes paper a better choice. Powering a computer for five months requires the same amount of energy used to produce a year’s worth of paper for the average person. It also points out that paper has a much higher recycling rate in the U.S. (60%) compared to electronic devices (18%), which are instead often shipped to third-world countries where they contaminate landfills.

To sum up, the answer is complicated. If you read thousands of pages a year on your electronic device, then it might be better than printing thousands of pages. But then in four or five years (or probably sooner), you’ll have to buy the newest iPad, so what happens to the plastics and chemicals used in your original tablet? If you don’t read quite as many pages, then paper might be a good choice, but you would still be killing trees, encouraging biodiversity loss and increasing pollution from the pulp industry. Ultimately, whether to read print or electronic versions of your favorite newspaper or book is really a personal decision. If you already use your computer or tablet often, then also use it for reading. If you prefer the feel of a newspaper or book in your hand, then make sure to plant some trees.

Photos courtesy of Minnesota Council of Nonprofits and Building Green 


Moving Towards Zero Waste November 7, 2011

Reduce, reuse, recycle. This mantra has been publicized tirelessly in recent years, emblazoned on hemp tote bags, organic cotton t-shirts, and reusable water bottles. While it has been moderately successful in raising public awareness about the waste stream, this slogan mainly targets consumers, and most of those consumers are just recycling. In reality, the man-made waste stream is a much larger issue. Consider the Fresh Kills Landfill on Staten Island. Bigger than the Great Wall of China, the Fresh Kills Landfill was the largest man-made object on Earth and could be seen from space with the naked eye until reclamation began in 2009. Humans are the only existing species that produce non-biodegradable waste. More importantly, this waste is not only created at the consumer, end-of-product-life level. Raw material extraction, product and packaging design, manufacturing practices, sales and distribution, and government policy are all contributing factors.

This is where the concept of zero waste comes in. Zero waste practices seek to tackle our “throw away” attitude by emphasizing resource conservation, reduction in pollution, increased economic opportunity, and quality over quantity. Mimicking nature, zero waste initiatives promote a cyclical manner of resource use over a linear approach. Zero waste perspectives perceive waste as a resource going in the wrong direction. Many discarded materials or resources often viewed as “waste” can be used to make new products, effectively cutting infrastructure costs, creating new jobs and revenue opportunities, and encouraging innovation. Rather than targeting only consumers, zero waste efforts employ system wide principles, optimizing resource use and keeping producers, consumers, and policy makers accountable. The overall goal? To eliminate waste as much as possible. Below is a step-by-step breakdown of zero waste fundamentals and their existing counterparts:

  • Raw Material Supply: emphasize recycled material use, sustainable harvesting and non-toxic materials over exhaustion of virgin resources and piecemeal toxic material management
  • Product and Packaging Design: encourage waste minimization, durability, repairability, recyclability, and longer product lifespans over manufactured obsolescence in the interest of maximized sales
  • Manufacturing: reform operations to abate emissions, minimize resource use and account for end-of-life product management instead of skirting compliance costs
  • Sales and Distribution: instill an active sense of environmental responsibility in wholesalers and retailers and support regional distribution and sales rather than large-scale, mass distribution
  • Government Policy: promote and incentivize conservation industries, maintain accountability at the producer stage, and institutionalize efficient strategies to control environmental, economic and social impacts in place of subsidizing uneconomical virgin extraction industries and managing waste at the expense of taxpayers
  • Consumption: select products on basis of quality, price, and environmental impact and increase participation reuse/recycling programs instead of overconsumptive behaviors

Clearly, zero waste initiatives require a significant shift in societal awareness and dedication. Informing and educating the public is crucial to this process of surmounting existing barriers. In 2007, director Louis Fox, filmmaker Annie Leonard and Free Range Studios released a 20 minute documentary trying to do just that. Titled The Story of Stuff, the animated film takes a critical stance on excessive consumerism and the materials economy, explaining the impacts on environmental, economic and social health. Since its release, the documentary been translated into 15 languages and viewed in 228 different countries and territories.

Pick Up America is a more interactive, hands-on approach to raising awareness about reducing waste. In 2010, co-founders and University of Maryland alumni Davey Rogner and Jeff Chen and the rest of the PUA crew embarked on nation’s first coast-to-coast roadside litter pick up. From its starting point in Assateague Island, Maryland, PUA will span thirteen states in its journey to the San Francisco Bay area, picking up trash, coordinating volunteers, and educating communities about zero waste practices along the way. So far, the PUA team has collected 109,796 pounds of litter over 1,000 miles.

And what about implementation? Since the birth of the zero waste concept, numerous district councils and city divisions have adopted waste reduction and recycling strategies to enable a transition to a waste-free future. In 1998, the Opotiki District Council in New Zealand became the first local authority to endorse zero waste practices. Canada has also been a leader in blazing the zero waste trail, developing more sustainable methods of waste management and diversion in multiple municipalities spanning the provinces of Ontario, Alberta and Nova Scotia.

To find out more about what “zero waste” really means, check out the following:


Begin Reducing Your Company’s Electric Bill September 19, 2011

Building waste accounts for 72% of the United States’ electricity consumption. In particular, office spaces consume the most energy of any type of commercial building1, emitting a significant amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) into the atmosphere. At present, there is no price for carbon, but this is bound to change as carbon taxes gain more support. By reducing your energy usage now, you will decrease operating costs and relieve your company’s vulnerability to increases in prices or CO2 regulation later.

If you have not yet taken steps to improving your energy efficiency, begin by determining your carbon foot print (note – this is one of many calculators and is provided as an example only). Track it through different installations and changes made in your office space so that you can see the difference impact measures make on your greenhouse gas emissions. Start with simple improvements, such as upgrading lighting systems, beforemaking large scale improvements.

Improve Your Lighting: Upgrading the lighting system of an entire building can have dramatic effects on your yearly operating costs. Make changes to the lighting system in your building before you make changes to the HVAC system since inefficient lighting produces a lot of heat waste, adding to the cost of air conditioning during the summer. Replace incandescent lights with more efficient compact florescent (CFL) or light emitting diodes (LED) lights. Encourage employees to turn lights off when leaving a room, but utilize dimmers and sensors in the office building to regulate lighting usage since it is difficult to change habits overnight.

Improving Your HVAC System: Before overhauling the HVAC systems in your building, reduce your heating and cooling requirements. Take simple steps such as cleaning and maintaining preexisting equipment, installing window treatments to block direct sunlight during the summer, and caulking cracks that let heat escape during the winter. Only after taking steps to reduce the amount of conditioning your space requires, look into more efficient systems. Investigate renewable sources of heat generation such as geothermal and solar heating, and make sure upgrades to the air conditioning units are appropriate for the size of the space.

Buying Energy Star:  Companies today need many different types of electronic devices in order to keep business running smoothly. Office equipment like computers, printers, copy machines, and digital displays shoulder much of the burden for the company’s carbon foot print; many of these products can be found with an Energy Star certificate. In particular, because of the immense amount of time workers spend on computers, ENERGY STAR computers are required to meet high standards while running, as well as while they are on standby and sleep mode. Use the Power Management settings to put the computer in to a lower-power state after business hours. For help selecting the best products for your newly green business, visit, the EPA Electronic Product Environmental Assessment Tool.

Visit other posts to learn about saving energy in a particular field of business: Greening RestaurantsSustainable Companies Achieve 200% ROI Per Bloomberg,  Eco-Friendly Conference Centers And Where to Find ThemBenefits of TeleworkCar Rental Takes A Turn For The SustainableWhat Do You Know About Clean Energy


An Overview of Eco-Friendly Shipping August 18, 2011

Shipping is an inherently carbon-intensive action. When we send or receive packages they are likely transported by an airplane or road freight vehicle, both of which use large amounts of energy and produce substantial carbon emissions (especially in the case of air freight). Some things are also shipped by rail or by sea, both less carbon-intensive methods but also much less common. Shipping and transportation contributes to about 20% of worldwide total energy consumption (source). So what steps can we take to reduce our shipping carbon footprint?

One easy thing that every one can do is purchase carbon offsets. Carbon offsets are basically the reduction of greenhouse gas (GHG) in one area to offset the carbon emissions in another (in this case, shipping). A business or individual pays for a carbon offset, and that money is used to fund projects that reduce GHGs. These projects commonly include renewable energy (e.g. solar, wind, geothermal), methane collection, and carbon sequestration.

If you use UPS, FedEx or USPS, you can use Green Shipping as an easy way to offset your package’s carbon footprint. Take the tracking number of your package and enter it into Green Shipping’s calculator to determine its carbon footprint. Then you can purchase the right amount of offsets to make your purchase completely carbon neutral. Accounts are free for individuals, and they also offer business tools for any business that wants to offset the carbon emissions produced by their shipping. Green Shipping uses Bonneville Environment Foundation as their offset partner, certified by Green-e and endorsed by the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Another great option is to purchase eco-friendly shipping supplies. The number of companies that use recycled materials is on the rise, but here are just a few to get you started:

  • USPS priority mail boxes: In 2007, USPS became the first shipper to get Cradle to Cradle certification at the silver level. This is a third-party certification that reviews specific criteria to assess the environmental attributes of materials used in products. MBDC examined a total of 1,4000 individual ingredients in 60 packaging items before awarding the certification, and based their decision on criteria such as toxicity, renewable energy, water stewardship, and recyclability.
  • Caremail: All of Caremail‘s products use recycled materials, in a range from 50 to 100% post-consumer recovered fiber. Most are recyclable and/or biodegradable, and several are re-usable. Their packaging peanuts are also biodegradable, because they use potato starch instead of styrofoam.
  • Globe Guard products: Globe Guard products carry a variety of shipping materials that use recycled materials; for example, their corrugated boxes are made from 100% post-consumer waste material. Globe Guard also donates one percent of each online purchase to 1% For the Planet, an organization that brings together over one thousand eco-minded businesses that contribute to its qualified environmental organizations.

Fuel Economy Standards May 5, 2011

In the United States, transportation accounts for 28% of greenhouse gas emissions. Within transportation, light-duty vehicles contribute 60% of those emissions, with the rest coming from heavy-duty vehicles, aircraft and other smaller sectors. The Corporate Average Fuel Economy (CAFE) program aims to address and reduce the transportation industry’s emissions.

Source: Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “Inventory of U.S. Greenhouse Gas Emissions and Sinks: 1990-2007, April 2009

Phase I – The first phase of the National Program was announced by President Obama in May 2009. It governed both CAFE and greenhouse gas emission standards for cars and light trucks of model years 2012-2016. The final rule was adopted in April 2010 and was a significant step since it was the first time the U.S. has strengthened fuel economy standards since the 1970’s. The final rule of Phase I requires an estimated fleet wide average of 34.1 mpg and 250 grams of CO2 per mile by 2016.

Phase II – In October 2010, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) issued a joint Notice of Intent that identified a range of proposed standards for cars and light-duty trucks of model years 2017-2025. The agencies projected an annual decrease in carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 3% to 6%. This correlates to a range of 47 mpg to 62 mpg in 2025. They are expected to propose the new standards by September 2011.

According to a recent study, even under the most stringent standards being considered (6% decrease or 62 mpg), variable profits in the industry would likely increase. Also, the Detroit Three (General Motors, Ford and Chrysler) actually would gain more of the profit increase than the rest of the industry, since they are more invested in trucks and larger cars and therefore likely to be required to make greater fuel economy improvements than their competitors. Improved technology doesn’t come without its costs. But these higher fuel standards are actually cost-effective as long as fuel stays above $1.80 per gallon, and with gas currently hovering around $4 a gallon it’s not hard to imagine it staying this high.

Many companies are improving their own fleets ahead of the anticipated fuel economy regulations. For example, in 2004, FedEx launched the first street-ready hybrid trucks. They increased fuel efficiency by 57%, decreased particulate emissions by 96%, and reduced smog-causing emissions by 65%. As of 2010, FedEx was operating one of the largest fleets in the industry. They use nearly 2,000 alternative energy vehicles worldwide, include natural gas, all-electric and biodiesel vehicles.

Instead of trying to roll out hybrid vehicles across the entire fleet, which would not have been cost effective, FedEx instead has focused on managing the fleet to reduce emissions. They have set a goal of improving efficiency of the entire fleet by 20% by 2020. This includes a variety of methods such as optimizing routes, using smaller and more fuel-efficient “sprinter” vans, and delivering by foot or bicycle in large cities like New York City and London. Other companies, such as UPS, are
also looking to reduce their fuel consumption and improve the management of their fleet, as are companies that own fleets.

FedEx image source: Autoblog Green


Eco-Friendly Hotels and Where to Find Them April 8, 2011

At a recent Hampton Inn stay, I noticed that the coffee cups were marked with the Sustainable Forestry Initiative logo. According to their website , this label is applied to wood and paper products that are from a certified source according to third-party certification audits. The goal is to promote sustainable forest management, supported by professional foresters, conservationists, and scientists, and the program addresses key environmental, social and economic forest values (e.g. water quality, biodiversity, regeneration). That being said, Forest Stewardship Council is another organization with the same goals and is arguably a better known and more accepted program.

It turns out that a lot of hotels are taking the initiative to make their establishments more “eco-friendly”, addressing a wide range of issues from overall energy-saving measures to water conservation to reducing the use of paper products such as telephone books (and going above and beyond the ‘leave your towel on the hook if you don’t want it washed, which most hotels are doing). But how do you know if the hotel you’ve selected is actually committed to sustainability and conservation?

There are several different resources that you can use as a resource for planning your next personal or business trip. The Travelocity Green Hotel Directory is a great place to start. Travelocity works with second- and third-party green hotel certification programs whose standards align with the Global Sustainable Tourism Criteria (GSTC). Some of the certification partners include Green Seal, EPA’s Energy Star, the U.S. Green Building Council, and the Rainforest Alliance. To find a hotel that fits this criteria, search through their directory and look for the “Eco-Friendly Hotel” symbol next to a listing. Some examples of eco-friendly hotels in the Washington, D.C. area include the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, Sofitel Lafayette Square, and Embassy Suites. The Kimpton hotels are also known for their efforts in sustainability, as is Marriott.

Hotels achieve a high level of credibility if they are certified by an independent organization. There are several different types of certification, but some of the most common are listed below.

  • Green Seal hotels and lodging properties: Green Seal focuses on hotel operations rather than building structure. They have set standards for lodging facilities, but they allow a range of solutions for many of those standards. Properties are listed by state.
  • Energy Star for hospitality: Part of the U.S. EPA, Energy Star facilities must be certified by a Professional Engineer (PE) and certification can be renewed on an annual basis. Properties can be searched by location or label year. Their website also has some excellent resources for property owners including strategies, online training sessions, success stories, and energy information services.
  • LEED certification: Part of the U.S. Green Building Council, LEED promotes a whole-building approach to sustainability by recognizing performance in five key areas of human and environmental health: sustainable site development, water savings, energy efficiency, materials selection and indoor environmental quality. View their certification process or browse the directory for more information. The directory includes all properties, not just hotels and lodging, but can be searched by project name, location, and level of certification.

There are many more resources that don’t involve certification. The iStayGreen website includes a wide range of properties, including some that claim themselves as “green” without independent certification. Their search results indicate whether a property has completed the iStayGreen Environmental Self-Audit and gives a “green eco-leaf rating” on a scale of 1 to 5. Properties include lodging and hotels both in the United States and in other countries around the world. That being said, a self-certification does not bear nearly as much weight as one that is verified by a recognized third-party non-profit. Other programs include the Green Hotels Association and EarthCheck.

Here are a few eco-friendly hotels in the United States that you can keep in mind for your next trip to San Jose, Seattle, or New York. To find more lists like this, check out Out Traveler’s Top 5, Travel and Leisure’s Top 20, and Via Magazine (AAA)’s Top 10.

Fairmont — San Jose, California
Features: Replaced 5,900 incandescent bulbs with CFLs, recycled 8,600 pounds of old telephone books, offers free overnight parking to guests with hybrid vehicles

Hilton — Vancouver, Washington
Features: Water-efficient landscaping, a heat-reflecting roofs, CO2 sensors that adjust temperature and light when rooms are vacant

Hotel Monaco — Seattle, Washington
Features: Includes an eco-friendly kitchen with recycling, composting food, using local organic foods and sustainable seafood, and switched to recyclable to-go containers

Marriott — Bethesda, Maryland
Features: First hotel and conference center in the United States to win LEED certification for its environmental design

70 Park Avenue — New York, New York
Features: Part of the Kimpton Hotels’ EarthCare eco-program; Repurposes kitchen oil in biodiesel, provides discounts for hybrid drivers, offers an eco-concierge


What’s next after sustainability? December 6, 2010

The question has emerged at conferences, talks and sessions that I have participated in recently. Environmental sustainability is recognized to be important and necessary. Sustainability refers to surviving in the current state of the world, and neutralizing our impact on the planet. But, once we have managed to do this (and we have a long ways to go, so I am not suggesting this has already happened), the question is – how do we not only survive but thrive? This is where the concept of resilience comes into play. Resilience is defined by the Merriam-Webster dictionary as ‘the capability of a strained body to recover its size and shape after deformation caused especially by compressive stress’. Depending on whom you ask, resilience is a key component of sustainability or it is the next step after the sustainability. It refers to adaptability, ingenuity,flexibility – a certain ruggedness that will enable us to thrive in changing circumstances. I believe it is a necessary next step after sustainability, and that we should look to it even as we are aiming to achieve environmental sustainability.

The concept of resilience in the environmental arena is not new. It was discussed in the 1970s in the context of ecosystem dynamics.  It has recently re-emerged as a topic of discussion as some ecologists and economists have focused on it, looking at it from an economic, social and environmental perspective. It has been a theme at past conferences, such as the ICLEI conference in Korea in October, and will be the main theme of a conference in early 2011.

Resilience is evident in the natural world, where evolution has favored those who can adapt to new circumstances. It has also been adapted by the business world, where companies must respond to changing market demand, new competitors, and new technology. Systems that are not designed to adapt quickly will fail (some examples that come to mind are our banking system and energy infrastructure). The question is whether they will be able to learn from their failures and rebound. Resilience has also been adapted by communities, as can be seen in the example of Transition Towns, which have been in existence for many years overseas and in the United States.

There are increasingly more books written on the topic. To learn more, take a look at some of these:


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