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Being Green is Not Black and White

2009 October 16

Since people know I work for EPA I sometimes get asked, “What can I change in my life so that I’ll be living in a way that’s more environmentally friendly?” Or, sometimes people ask more specific questions like, “Here’s what I do when I …. Is that the best thing?” They often just want a simple answer like — do this, but don’t do that.

But the environment is not black and white but a full spectrum of colors and choices. Often, there’s not a best answer, and sometimes the answer you might think is best really isn’t when you look at the situation more closely.

Here’s an example. A local environmental non-profit put out a short quiz on how to live green. One question was, what would be the best way to commute to work in Philadelphia? The possible choices were:

  1. Ride your bike
  2. Walk to a train station and then take the train in
  3. Drive a hybrid car

They said the right choice was 1) Ride your bike. I disagreed and here’s why. The area I live in is a first tier suburb of Philadelphia. It would be impossible and probably illegal to ride your bike on the Schuylkill Expressway. Instead you’d need to ride on the 1 or 2 -lanes-in-each-direction streets. There is hardly ever a designated bike lane since the roads are so narrow. That means during rush hour a person riding their bike on say, Montgomery Avenue in Lower Merion Township, would back up traffic in a major way, causing those vehicles to use more gasoline and spew out more fumes. Plus, you would put wear and tear on the bike and resources would need to be used to keep it in good working condition.

My best choice instead was 2). Walking and then riding the train into the city wouldn’t use any additional fuel and the money paid for tickets would help support public transit. You may disagree, but for my area I think that’s the best choice.

When making environmental choices it is important to look at the “life-cycle costs” of what you do. Cradle to grave, what are the impacts? One of my favorite books on this topic is, Stuff, the Secret Lives of Everyday Things by John C. Ryan and Alan Thein Durning. They walk you through what it takes to make things like a cotton-polyester blend t-shirt down to the pesticides used on the soil to grow the cotton and the transportation costs involved in getting the raw materials to the factory and getting the finished product to you. Even if a t-shirt sports an environmental message, buying it is probably not the right answer if you already have enough t-shirts.

To get you started, here are some helpful questions to ask yourself before making a purchase, even a purchase of something that’s already been used.

  • Do I need it?
  • How many do I already have?
  • How much will I use it?
  • Is there anything that I already own that I could substitute for it?
  • How long will it last?
  • Could I borrow it from a friend or family member? Could I rent it?
  • Am I able to clean, maintain and/or repair it myself? Am I willing to?
  • Have I researched it to get the best quality for the best price?
  • How will I dispose of it when I’m done using it?
  • Are the resources that went into it renewable or nonrenewable?
  • Is there excess packaging?
  • Is it made of recycled materials, and is it recyclable?
  • If it uses energy, is it energy-efficient?

For other tips on going green, please visit our mid-Atlantic “Go Green” website.

About the Author: Nancy Grundahl has worked for the Philadelphia office of EPA since the mid-80’s. She currently manages the web for the Environmental Assessment and Innovation Division. Before getting involved with the web, she worked as an environmental scientist. Nancy believes in looking at environmental problems in a holistic, multi-media way and is a strong advocate of preventing pollution instead of dealing with it after it has been created.

Editor's Note: The opinions expressed here are those of the author. They do not reflect EPA policy, endorsement, or action, and EPA does not verify the accuracy or science of the contents of the blog.

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13 Responses leave one →
  1. armansyahardanis permalink
    October 16, 2009

    The show must go on. Great idea always rising from a little problem. Perhaps every state has it. Choose one state becomes pilot project for example the others that environmental friendly. All target to enter it. Next , not only the other states follow it, but all country in the world.

  2. Lina-EPA permalink
    October 16, 2009

    Liked your blog post. You’re right. It’s rare to find a clear-cut answer to most environmental problems.

  3. Mike P permalink
    October 16, 2009

    A very sensible approach that often gets drowned-out by those pushing a specific agenda. I drive to the train station because riding a bike or walking for 11 miles to catch the train wouldn’t make sense. And local mass transit just isn’t practical for any but a few in my greater community. Likewise, neither would driving 80 miles one-way each day make any sense for my vehicle, my health & sanity, or the environment.

    I buy computers that are EPEAT-Gold certified and I love the fact that the aluminum unibody is the easiest material to recycle over and over and over and over and over….

    If more was done to educate people on the little things they could do rather than taking on a high-and-mighty snobbish attitude (that the loudest take) to push people to a vanilla lifestyle that won’t work for everyone, then we’ll see real improvements.

  4. Betty Hansen permalink
    October 16, 2009

    My comments are about things we can change and in doing so help the environment today. Each one of us dump gallons of toxic chemicals in our water each year. We do this by using toxic chemical household cleaners. Not only does this affect our water but, we are doing harm to ourselves, our families and pets.
    Some of us are trying to do the right thing and buy products that say they are green, but in reality they are not. We must read the ingredients and check these products out on their MSDS sheets. There are truly non-toxic household cleaners available to us.
    You see even choosing green cleaners is not black or white.

  5. Jackenson Durand permalink
    October 16, 2009

    About the Author, this topic is powerful.
    I find something common about it.
    In my understanding “Going Green” is having a positive behavior and manner life style towards environment in daily basis.
    I can advance for environmentalists: “Equality is the quality”.

  6. Alan Gregory permalink
    October 17, 2009

    Well said. The average person around here (I live amid the wasted landscape of the middle anthracite coal region south of Wilkes-Barre) has no idea of their environmental impact. They put their garbage out weekly and a crew comes along and takes it away. Gee, where does it go? That person has no idea. Then, he gets his lawn mower out and spews both noise and air pollution (carbon dioxide!) while clipping his biological desert (the lawn). Even the borough in which I live is becoming less walkable with every passing month as more motorists pass through on their way to and from the big sprawling suburbs that have destroyed land in neighboring townships.

  7. Michael E. Bailey permalink
    October 19, 2009

    Your list is great for helping people make the right choices when they buy things. But corporate marketers doing mass media campaigns to convince people they need things they don’t or more of the same thing would tend to defeat your concept. For your concept to work well, it requires that people be able to think for themselves and ignore the subtle and not so subtle cues they get from mass corporate advertising. Some people can do it, many fall for corporate advertising. Best wishes, Michael E. Bailey.

  8. Emily B. - EPA permalink
    October 19, 2009

    Coming from a city without a solid public transportation system, I can appreciate the time, money, and environmental resources saved while I commute to work every day in Washington, D.C. I walk to the Metro and then take the train into the city. Although waits may be long and you may not always get a seat, the ride is definitely worth it. I am not sitting for hours in traffic, spewing out harmful emissions as you stated and it also saves me money on maintenance for the vehicle that I would otherwise be using. I agree that ‘going green’ isn’t something that can be accomplished just by walking everywhere. In my hometown, riding a bike to work would not only cause potential harm to myself and other drivers but also delay their commutes, just like your example. There is much excitement about ‘going green’ these days but your blog brings up a much needed discussion about what is ‘green’ and what can actually be feasible for your lifestyle. Utilizing your questions before making a purchase is an excellent way we, as consumers, can think about reducing our environmental impact. Thanks for bringing up these issues. Best, Emily B.-EPA

  9. Jason Estes permalink
    October 20, 2009

    The most important thing to remember here is that no matter what you’re doing to promote green living it’s a good thing. We need to educate our friends, and family that going green is the only way to keep our environment healthy. The more we teach the more we learn.

    Go green!

    Jason Estes

  10. Johnny R. permalink
    October 21, 2009

    A question implicit in your green technology, but constantly avoided, is HOW MANY people are going to work every day. Green or not, the slowly shrinking Earth absolutely cannot support a relentlessly growing economy and its relentlessly growing population. Yet, that is the presumption that both business and government operate from, and it is a tragic mistake, the reality of which is happening now in our lifetimes.

  11. Steve permalink
    November 6, 2009

    Have less kids. Seriously. Think of all the waste and pollution that it takes to make a car for a person to drive, a house for them to live in, rugs for their floor, clothes for their bodies, electricity to light their way. Then… the same for their children.

    It has been estimated that having 1 less child is a decrease in environmental impact more than double ALL of the other changes that you can make in your life to decrease your impact.


  12. Grace G. permalink
    November 9, 2009

    Environmental impact is something each person should think about, and this blog shows that it’s not always the obvious answer as to what the most “green” way to do something is. Public transportation is often overlooked in many cities. This blog post is great it shows that public transportation is a great option because whether you utilize it or not, it still runs, so it will not have a greater harm on the environment than it already does. Also, I know I certainly do not think about the environmental impact when I shop, but that is something I can consider now. The things we buy really do have an effect on the environment and smarter shopping can help in the “going green” process. Thank you for your blog post!

    Regards, Grace.

  13. Pepper Evans permalink
    November 19, 2009

    I saw in the news last week that some brilliant guy in the Philippines had invented an alternative to gasoline for jeeps. Nowadays commuters there prefer the said type of jeeps over those fueled by gasoline. It won’t take long when an SUV limousine in New Haven would do the same.

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