Anyone making a conscientious effort to scale back, consume less and live “green” has probably met with an irritating setback: It’s not that easy. Advertisers may portray earth-friendly living as a kind of Zenlike simplicity, but the questions people must confront when attempting to make the greenest choices are often more likely to induce a headache than a feeling of oneness with the planet.
Consider, for instance, the question of whether to install a bamboo floor. The U.S. Green Building Council, the nonprofit that developed the Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design green-building standards, considers bamboo an eco-friendly product, so builders enrolled in the LEED program earn credits for using it. Because the treelike grass matures in just three years, harvesting it is deemed far more sustainable than logging hardwoods. Bamboo also regenerates without the need for replanting, and it can be grown without fertilizer or pesticides.
Yet the fast-growing grass also has its detractors. “The only thing really ‘green’ about bamboo is its color,” wrote Asheville resident Charles Leahy in a blog post on his company’s Web site. Leahy, whose business is called Eco-Panels, backs up his assertion with some disheartening information about the bamboo industry, referencing a study by tropical-deforestation expert Jim Bowyer. China’s booming bamboo business is fueling deforestation, erosion and a loss of biodiversity, the study found, because producers are clearing more and more forestland to grow the highly desirable crop. And then there’s the issue of shipping. “I will always remain dubious of low-impact ‘solutions’ for our society that are primarily shipped in from the other side of the world,” Leahy opines. “It’s kind of like claiming that going to your neighborhood big-box store is ‘buying local’—in my mind, it’s akin to greenwashing.”
Many green builders consider Leahy’s own product—structural insulated panels—to be superior to conventional framing because it offers excellent insulation, uses less lumber and generates less waste on the job site. The panels consist of a thick layer of polyurethane foam sandwiched between two slabs of engineered wood. Homes built with SIPs use much less energy, since the tight thermal seal created by the foam prevents heat loss. At the same time, some green purists point to polyurethane—a petroleum product—as being environmentally unfriendly, since it doesn’t biodegrade. Engineered wood is also sometimes frowned upon.
In the world of “going green,” it seems, opinions abound—and there’s a trade-off around every corner, with layers of considerations to weigh. To try and make sense of it all, Xpress asked a green-building expert, a sustainability-savvy writer and an avid recycler/cyclist to share their thoughts. Here’s what they had to say:
• Matt Siegel, green-building director, WNC Green Building Council: “For every choice we have, there is not only a paper versus plastic, there’s a paper versus corn-based plastic versus petroleum plastic versus reusable thicker petroleum plastic versus conventional local cotton versus organic cotton from India. Wow, all that just to get groceries home ‘cause I forgot my backpack.
“No, it is not easy being green. It also gets to a point where you can drive yourself crazy weighing the choices. My advice is to figure out what is most important to you and to educate yourself about the choices you make. Is supporting the local economy the most important? Energy independence? Farmland preservation, global climate change [or] community building? Greening your lifestyle isn’t about feeling guilty all the time, and it’s also not about being blind to reality. It’s about taking responsibility for your choices you make every day.”
• Joseph Crawley, co-founder, Asheville Recyclery: “We are currently bombarded with ‘green’ consumer options, but buying things is never going to be the right thing to do. As long as you have the option to find something used or make something yourself, that is the ‘greener’ path.”
• Cecil Bothwell, author of Garden My Heart: Organic Strategies for Back Yard Sustainability and other works: (Note: Bothwell will lead a workshop on “Back Yard Sustainability” at the Southern Energy and Environment Expo on Aug. 24.) “Conservation, once the prerogative of those who embraced a global ecological ethic, will become a matter of survival for technological cultures. Life is going to get more complicated. More of us will be growing food. Less of our tasks will be automated. Local transportation will shift more and more to self-propulsion on bicycle or foot. The idea that we should “live simply” sounds good but is a fraud. Hanging clothes on a line is more complicated and more time-consuming than using a dryer. Arranging one’s errands to fit with mass-transit schedules is a lot more complicated than jumping in a car. It doesn’t have to be grim, and it may be good old-fashioned fun, but the reason we have gotten by with so little manual labor in the past half-century has everything to do with plentiful oil, plentiful water and a stable climate. That is all about to hit the fan.”