Being Green is Not Black and White

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 views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.