More Than a Buzzword

November 13, 2008 - 13:07

Many organizations are now recognizing that “going green” can save money, open up new avenues of revenue, and help keep employees, shareholders and customers happy. Often overlooked are increased tax benefits and governmental grants for sustainability efforts. Federal, state and local governments can offer a range of incentives and credits to businesses making green efforts. In large part, most businesses begin thinking about environmental issues because they’re feeling more heat on the subject. Energy costs are soaring, customers and the general public are pushing harder for eco-friendly practices, and regulatory agencies are implementing tougher rules. In this new climate, just lowering thermostats and recycling are not enough. An IBM Global survey of 250 executives found that 68 percent are looking at corporate social responsibility as a way to generate new revenue by creating new products or adapting existing ones. Making sense of all these issues and taking a realistic and objective look at where your business ranks on a sustainability scorecard can be difficult. Identifying effective and affordable sustainable efforts to implement can be even more daunting. Even the best-run businesses don’t have the expertise or manpower to develop and implement green strategies on their own. Businesses of all sizes are seeking advice from outside firms on sustainability issues, programs and certifications.

Green Roofs Take Root

When busy urban Americans grow tired of their concrete-jungle surroundings, more and more of them are taking to their roofs for a bit of greenery. “Green roofs,” actually covered in plant material, first gained popularity in Chicago and are starting to sprout up in New York and other cities. Construction of green roofs grew 30 percent in North America last year, according to results of the Green Roof Market Industry Survey by Green Roofs for Healthy Cities, printed in the Chicago Tribune. The survey estimates it reflects about 60 percent of all green roof industry activity in the United States and Canada. Because of the high costs associated with building them, green roofs appear mostly on public and commercial buildings, such as Manhattan’s Bank of America tower or Chicago’s Apple Store on Michigan Avenue, according to the Tribune. But they also are beginning to sprout on single-family homes and other private dwellings.

Other buildings with green roofs in Chicago are City Hall (see photos), Millennium Park, the Chicago Center for Green Technology and the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum.

Green roofs are made up of sedums and grasses, among other cultivars, planted in soil or a lightweight growing medium above a waterproof membrane and drainage system — more than a garden but with similar aesthetic appeal, the story says. It also can help reduce stormwater runoff and resulting water pollution, reduce energy costs, cool urban air, improve air quality, extend roof longevity and even preserve habitats for plants and birds — not to mention enhance real estate value.

“Green roofs are a wonderful technology. They have the upside of handling storm water very well but the downside of being very expensive,” says Rohit Aggarwala, director of the New York City Office of Long-Term Planning and Sustainability, in the Tribune story.

Nonetheless, for the first time, New York — Brooklyn, specifically — made it into the top five cities for green roofs last year. But with just more than 100,000 square feet of green roofing installed in 2007, it still lagged far behind the almost 520,000 square feet constructed in Chicago.

That may change soon, thanks to a new law championed by New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to encourage the construction and maintenance of green roofs in New York City. The law provides a one-year property tax credit of $4.50 per square foot of green roof to building owners who install them on more than 50 percent of their available roof space.

According to the story, New York’s tax credit program, one of the first state-approved green roof initiatives, is intended to defray about 35 percent of the cost of installing a green roof on a standard roof.

In general, green roofs cost about twice as much as standard ones but offer at least double the life span because they are less vulnerable to the wear and tear of temperature extremes. And green roofs, which soak up rain and later release the rainwater they absorb, help prevent the storm runoff that causes water pollution in many cities with combined sewer overflow systems. Green roofs also can help lower elevated temperatures in cities. But it’s not confirmed whether actual energy savings stem from the green roofs’ ability to provide passive cooling and reduce heat loss in buildings.

Getting hard data on the efficacy of green roofs is key to moving the young industry beyond pilot programs to policy positions, according to several experts.

Carbon Footprint: What Is it? How Is it Calculated?

First came the buzzword organic, then fair trade. Now “carbon footprint” enters the vocabulary of everyday business. Everyone from auto makers to milk producers are beginning to calculate and tout their carbon footprints. What is it? Simply put, the carbon footprint is the amount of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases that are released into the atmosphere when goods are manufactured, shipped, stored and used by consumers. Defining the term seems simple enough; agreeing on how it should be calculated is more complex. Manufacturers calculate the carbon footprint of their products differently, making direct comparisons confusing. And even if consumers come to understand the numbers, they may not like what they discover. One thing that many do not take into consideration is that many products’ total impact on the environment depend more on how they are used and less on how they are manufactured. The result? The way to reduce the carbon emissions of these types of products usually ends up meaning buying less of the product or using it in a less convenient way.

The United States emits about 118 pounds of carbon dioxide per person, per day. Annually, that’s 20 metric tons per American, about five times the amount emitted per world citizen. So let’s look at six commonly used products and their carbon footprint.

Autos. For every mile the average U.S. car travels, it emits 1 pound of carbon dioxide. That translates into about 5 tons of CO2 per year. Using 120,000 miles as the average life of an auto, the emissions from a mid-size sedan equals about 63 tons of carbon. This total includes emissions from the processing of raw materials and the manufacture of the vehicle through the energy consumed to dispose of the auto. The majority of the carbon produced — 86 percent — comes from the car’s fuel use. Only 4 percent comes from the manufacturing of the vehicle. Reducing mileage driven or acquiring a more fuel-efficient vehicle dramatically impacts the total emissions.

Shoes. Depending on the size and model, hiking boots produce somewhere between 154 and 198 pounds of carbon dioxide. Although most shoes are produced in Asia, transportation to the United States accounts for only 5 percent of the carbon footprint. The biggest contributor is the raw material of leather. The average dairy cow produces 4 tons of carbon dioxide annually. Remember that animals used to produce leather have another primary use: milk or beef.

Laundry detergent. The carbon footprint of a load of laundry varies from 1.3 pounds to 1.9 pounds depending on what form of detergent is used. Liquid forms generally produce less CO2 than powder forms. That’s because making the liquid form uses less energy than manufacturing the powder form. The average family doing six loads of laundry per week produces about 10 pounds of carbon per week. But the best way to decrease the carbon footprint is not by switching forms; lowering water temperature does as much as changing forms. The best way to reduce carbon from laundry is to eliminate the use of a dryer. Dryers represent on an average 4.4 pounds (almost 50 percent) of carbon per load.

Clothing. Most of these garments are made in either China or Latin America and shipped to America. They average about 66 pounds. It’s expected that a lot of the carbon dioxide produced comes from transporting these garments. Not true: About 71 percent (47 pounds) comes from polyester, which originates with oil. Switching to fabric made from recycled polyester would go a long way in reducing the footprint.

Milk. When you take into account all the energy consumed in producing a gallon of milk, from growing the cow’s feed to transporting it to the retailer and refrigerating until sale, the total footprint averages about 14 pounds of carbon. The two largest contributors to carbon are the methane produced by the cow and the type of container — plastic or cardboard — used to contain the milk and packaging of the containers for shipment.

Beer. Again, you would assume that with all the transportation that takes place in making beer and getting it to a retailer, the majority of carbon would come from transportation. Transportation came in fourth, behind manufacturing the glass bottle or aluminum can and producing barley and malt. The No. 1 carbon producer was refrigerating the product until sale. Of the roughly 7 pounds of carbon produced from a 12-ounce bottle or can, switching to recycled glass and aluminum can help. Reducing refrigeration at retail is much more difficult.

Almost everything we do and every product we use produces carbon. Reducing the amount of carbon produced, whenever possible, is the right thing to do on a number of levels. Reducing carbon doesn’t always mean reducing costs — at present, it usually means increasing costs. The balancing act between business actions that are environmentally correct and actions that are fiscally sound pose a huge dilemma. Implementing changes that only reduce the carbon produced can be positive for the environment but can negatively impact your business costs — not an easy or necessarily correct decision. Reducing carbon is only one aspect of overall sustainability. A well-designed and correctly implemented sustainability program can actually lower overall costs in many areas. Reducing fossil fuels, energy and chemicals consumed, along with decreased waste disposal costs, increased recycling, a stable, productive workforce and high quality, value-added products can be the immediate results of an effective sustainability program. The long-term effect of creating an efficient, profitable and sustainable business that enhances the environment is the ultimate result.

About The Author

Visions Group LLC is a solutions group providing marketing, management and production assistance to the green industry. They can be reached at (440) 319-2458.

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