EarthTalk: Where can I find non-polluting alternatives
to those foam “packaging peanuts” used for shipping
fragile merchandise? --Brian Smith, Lynwood, WA
little white polystyrene-foam packaging peanuts are nearly
ubiquitous in our pack-and-ship culture, but they are no good
for the environment, let alone human health. The basic building
block of polystyrene is the non-recyclable chemical compound
styrene. Chronic exposure to styrene is associated with central
nervous system damage as well as skin, eye and respiratory
irritation, depression, fatigue and compromised kidney function.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and the International
Agency for Research on Cancer both consider styrene a possible
who occasionally deal with foam packing peanuts shouldn’t
worry too much over such intermittent exposure, but should
be alarmed at the health effects on the workers making the
material and on the quality of the soil and groundwater near
landfills where most of it ends up. Some locales—including
Portland, Oregon and Orange County, California—have
even banned the use of polystyrene foam in homes and businesses.
what’s a conscientious shipper to do? Luckily alternatives
abound. For starters, old newspapers, which are inherently
recyclable and biodegradable, make for great padding when
scrunched up and used liberally inside boxes. Another smart
choice is PaperNuts, an alternative to foam peanuts made from
recyclable, biodegradable post-consumer corrugated cartons
and post-industrial paper processing production waste.
starch-based peanuts, such as those available from Starch
Tech’s Clean Green Packing, protect and pad fragile
items during shipping but can be dissolved in water and washed
right down the kitchen sink. Or, like their chemical counterparts
they can be re-used in the next outgoing package. Some other
manufacturers of biodegradable packing materials include Minnesota’s
NatureWorks, Italy’s Novamont Spa and the German industrial
sometimes it’s not up to you what kind of padding is
protecting the products you mail-ordered and had sent to your
home or business. If the box contains polystyrene foam peanuts,
you can call the company that sent it and ask that they switch
to a more environmentally friendly alternative. With more
and more companies looking for ways to “go green”
these days, they might just take heed.
the best way to prevent such peanuts from contaminating the
environment is to reuse them in an outgoing package, and include
a note asking the recipient to do the same. If you have no
use for them, many businesses that do shipping will take them
if they are in good condition. And most managers at UPS, Mailboxes
Etc. and other pack-and-ship shops will gladly save a little
money and accept a donation. And if no local businesses will
take your foam peanuts, those staffing the phones at the Plastic
Loose Fill Council’s Peanut Hotline (see contact info
below) will be happy to help find one that will.
Loose Fill Council Peanut Hotline, (800)
COURTESY OF CAMBRIDGE DEPT. OF PUBLIC WORKS
best way to prevent foam peanuts from contaminating the environment
is to reuse them in an outgoing package, and include a note
asking the recipient to do the same.
Do buildings with various “green” features
cost more to build and operate than traditional buildings?
-- Chris Wiedemann, New York, NY
It is difficult
to do an apples-to-apples cost comparison of a “green”
structure against one that is not due to differences in design,
materials and other factors, including the location. But the
general consensus is that a green building might well cost
slightly more up front, but it will very likely reap the rewards
of lower operating costs going forward.
The U.S. Green
Building Council’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental
Design (LEED) program is the standard-bearer used today in
evaluating the relative green-friendliness of building projects.
A 2004 nationwide study conducted by Greg Kats of the research
and consulting firm Capital E found that structures that qualified
for the lowest LEED rating (“LEED Certified”)
cost builders less than one percent more up-front than equivalent
non-green buildings. For projects with more ambitious green
features that qualified for higher LEED ratings (silver, gold
and the highest, platinum), the cost premiums went up from
between 1.9 percent and 6.8 percent, still surprisingly low.
Kats even more, though, was the value of the payback. Overall,
Kats found that the average cost premium for building green
was about $4-5 per square foot, while the financial benefits
derived over 20 years from incorporating sustainability features—such
as lower energy and water bills—was in the range of
$49-65 per square foot, or about 10 times the value of the
initial investment. Another 2004 study by Lisa Matthiessen
of the consulting firm Davis Langdon came to similar conclusions.
According to Matthiessen, incorporating sustainability elements
in a project’s design from the get-go—not layering
them on later in the process—is essential to keeping
the costs down.
Despite these financial
benefits, Kats points out that there is unfortunately a “consistent
disconnect” in peoples’ minds between the higher
up-front costs of building green and the ensuing savings in
operating costs. He says that overcoming this is fundamental
to understanding the value of green building.
And, of course,
money is not the only issue. Transitioning to a greener built
environment is important for the conservation of natural resources
as well as for reducing pollution. According to statistics
gathered by the U.S. Green Building Council, the 76 million
residential and five million commercial buildings in the U.S.
collectively consume 65 percent of America’s electricity,
37 percent of its energy, 25 percent of its water supplies
and 30 percent of its wood and materials. Likewise, buildings
account for 35 percent of the nation’s solid waste,
36 percent of carbon dioxide emissions, 46 percent of sulfur
dioxide emissions, 19 percent of nitrous oxide emissions and
10 percent of fine particulate emissions.
such as those that qualify for LEED certification, consume
fewer resources, generate less waste, cost less to operate
and provide healthier living and working environments for
everyone—both indoors and out.
Building Council; Capital
E’s “Green Building Costs and Financial Benefits.”