How Green are Green Products?

Earth Day is this Wednesday, and from the celebration of all things “green” in San Francisco, I knew I had arrived at the right place for a week of vacation. In order to reduce our carbon footprint this year, we had decided not to fly to exotic destinations for our spring break but instead drive up to the city from the south Bay, about a 45 minute drive.

Of course, we could’ve taken the Caltrain to be carbon neutral, but we are not backpackers any more with three kids in tow. Anyway, besides feeling nostalgic, a week in the city set my mind rolling on the topic “Green” and what this means to me as a consumer.

My greening efforts had started years ago before climate change and global warming had become buzz words and long before Obama mandated the reduction in our energy use from fossil fuels. Green has now become the new black and everyone is trying to join the bandwagon and ride the wave, afraid of being left behind. Years ago our “green” ways were considered to be quirky by some but I find it encouraging to see more of my friends join the movement. More of them are visiting farmer’s market and buying organic and local. I’m still trying to convince others on the benefits of “pay more, eat less” and vegetarianism.

Even NASA is stepping up to the plate for Earth Day this year with events at centers all around the country, where media and the public can meet scientists and researchers, ask questions, watch presentations, and listen to panel discussions. I discovered this while visiting the Academy of Sciences last weekend with my 5 year old which, by the way, has interesting exhibits on climate change. Now, NASA is a bit of an environmental paradox. On the one hand, they are sending massive rockets into space blasting holes in the stratosphere, not to mention littering the final frontier with busted spy satellites and dropped astronaut screwdrivers. On the other hand, without data from all those satellites, we would be missing a huge amount of invaluable information on deforestation, global temperature changes, and other issues of enormous environmental significance. I guess that balances out the bad environmental impact with the good they are doing.

With temperatures hitting record highs even in San Francisco, I reached for my eco-friendly reusable stainless steel bottle. I have one for my 5 year old daughter too. Anjeli has a cute little bottle from SIGG with a dust cap on it. What I like about them is that they sell the caps as accessories. So, if you happen to lose a cap, you don’t need to retire your stainless steel bottle and have it end up in a landfill. That set me thinking – how green is really a stainless steel reusable bottle?

The answer lies in a method called a “life cycle assessment”, that evaluates the environmental and health impact of consumer products — from the extraction and processing of its ingredients, to its manufacture, distribution, use and final disposal. Producing that 300-gram stainless steel bottle requires seven times as much fossil fuel, releases 14 times more greenhouse gases, demands the extraction of hundreds of times more metal resources and causes hundreds of times more toxic risk to people and ecosystems than making a 32-gram plastic bottle. Surprised? We only hear the environmental impacts of making more and more plastic — the electricity needed to form polyethylene terephthalate resin into bottles, the fossils fuels burned to produce this electricity, the energy used and emissions released from mining the coal and converting crude oil to fuel, and on and on.

Thus, one stainless steel bottle is obviously much worse than one plastic bottle. So, how many bottles of water do I have to consume before I begin to see the benefits of carrying around my eco-usable bottle instead of the throw away plastic bottle? It finally boils down to this: if your stainless steel bottle takes the place of 50 plastic bottles, the climate is better off, and if it gets used 500 times, it beats plastic in all the environment-impact categories studied in a life cycle assessment. Now, if you average drinking 5 bottles of water a day, then you need to keep your eco-reusable stainless steel bottle for at least a 100 days!! Don’t lose that cap .. not just yet!!!

An important tool in the effort to live greener lives is the selection of products that were made using environmentally friendly processes and are used in environmentally friendly ways. Green products are available for just about any daily need, and the ways they are green are many and varied – they are energy or water efficient; they use healthy, non-toxic materials; they are made from recycled or renewable sources; they make current products you use more efficient or more durable; and they are recyclable or biodegradable, among many other things. But among all the truly green products comes the risk of “greenwashing;” that is, products that are advertised as green without truly offering environmental or health benefits.

Here is a green product checklist to characterize what makes a product “green”:

Manufacturer Commitment to Sustainability:

  1. Is there a written, working environmental policy in place?
  2. Is it easy to find on their web site or product literature?
  3. Does this policy strive to make important improvements in manufacturing, reducing and reusing first, then recycling?
  4. Do they comply with their industry’s voluntary testing programs?

Examine the product’s composition:

  1. What are the raw materials used to create the product?
  2. And where do they come from?
  3. Did the materials come from renewable resources?
  4. Is the manufacturing process energy efficient?
  5. Does the manufacturing process release harmful substances?
  6. Are adhesives needed to make the product viable? What are they using?
  7. Are coatings or finishes needed to make the product viable? What are they using?

Examine other aspects of the product:

  1. Does the product nurture the health and well-being of its occupants?
  2. Does the product do the job well?
  3. How much energy does it use?
  4. Does the product release VOCs? At what rate?
  5. How is the product packaged and transported?
  6. How is the product installed and maintained?
  7. Can the product be maintained in a benign manner? Using safe cleaning products?

Examine strategies for disposal:

  1. Is the product durable? Biodegradable? Recyclable?
  2. Can the parts be separated for recycling?
  3. Can it be made into something else?
  4. Can the product be returned to its manfacturer at the end of its useful life?

Cost considerations:

  1. What is the price range for the product?
  2. Does the manufacturer provide life cycle cost analysis on this product?

In honor of Earth Day we invite you to share your ideas for protecting the planet. Post a statement, draw a picture or enter our “Save the Planet Contest


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