EarthTalk: The term “sustainable”
seems to be the new green buzzword. What exactly does it mean,
particularly when applied to such things, say, as transportation
or agriculture? -- Steve Nezhad, Portland, ME
“Sustainable,” quite simply, is the positive result
of conducting economic, social or environmental activities
in such a way that current needs are met without compromising
the well-being of future generations. A sustainable activity
also does not despoil the here and now, in part because of
how it may affect the future.
For example, cars that run on oil and gasoline are unsustainable
on both counts: They make use of a non-renewable resource
(that is, one that will be completely depleted at some point
in the future); and they pollute the environment right now.
Thus they negatively impact the present-day as well as tomorrow.
What, then, is sustainable transportation? Any option that
moves people or goods while impacting the environment minimally.
Walking and bicycling are the most sustainable, using no energy
except for leg power and consuming very little or no resources.
And public transportation moves large numbers of people at
once while also saving space, as one negative impact of cars
is that activities tend to spread out through the process
of sprawl, creating the need to travel greater distances to
obtain goods or get to work.
As such, to a large extent transportation can be made more
sustainable through urban design. The closer together we locate
shopping and entertainment centers, the easier it is for public
transport to get us there, and the less reliant we are on
cars. And cars themselves can be more sustainable by running
on clean fuels or on technologies, like hybrids, that use
less fuel. Better yet, cars of the not-too-distant future
will be powered by fuel cells, which run on hydrogen and spew
no pollution. Ideally, that hydrogen will be made from water,
using power from solar energy, thus creating no pollution
at that point in the process, either.
In the realm of farming, sustainable agriculture in its ideal
form provides a living for those who farm and supports the
local community’s needs while maintaining the natural
ecology of the farm and its surrounding environment. According
to the National Safety Center (NSC), a “sustainable”
farm produces crops without damage to the farm’s ecosystem,
including the soil, water supplies and other adjoining resources.
Sustainable agriculture is also “intergenerational,”
says NSC, in that it seeks to pass on to future generations
a conserved natural resource instead of one that has been
depleted or polluted.
examples of sustainable agriculture include avoiding chemicals,
rotating crops, and choosing crops that suit the climate,
so as to reduce the need for chemicals and preserve the long-term
fertility of the soil. In light of modern developments, some
might add that avoiding genetically modified crops would also
fit with the sustainable model, given the uncertainty of their
impact on ecosystems and personal health.
Robert Gilman of the Context Institute defines sustainability
as “extending the Golden Rule through time…Do
unto future generations as you would have them do unto you.”
Meanwhile, Paul Hawken of the Natural Capital Institute offers
an equally concise summary: “Leave the world better
than you found it, take no more than you need, try not to
harm life or the environment, make amends if you do.”
CONTACTS: Context Institute, www.context.org;
Natural Capital Institute, www.naturalcapital.org.
COURTESY OF GETTY IMAGES
transportation is a sustainable choice because it moves large
numbers of people at once and gets us out of our polluting
and sprawl-inducing cars.
In a public restroom, which is the more environmentally
sound and healthy option for drying your hands: a paper towel
or an electric hand dryer? -- Dee Janis, Binghamton,
Most experts would agree that wall-mounted electric hand dryers
are preferable to paper towels from an environmental standpoint.
Though they do use energy, they shut off automatically and
therefore don't waste energy--and they eliminate the need
for paper while also keeping paper out of the waste stream.
But the answer may depend upon whom you ask. World Dryer Corporation,
which supplies wall mounted dryers, prepared a study for the
Topeka, Kansas public school system, which concluded that
switching from paper towels to 102 of its wall-mounted dryers
system-wide would save annually 587 trees, 690,000 gallons
of water, 34.5 tons of solid waste, 103.5 cubic yards of landfill
space, and almost $90,000 per year (including electricity
costs), with less than a six-month initial payback period
for the cost of installation.
Others are not so quick to give the nod to dryers, and cite
sanitation as the reason. The Handwashing For Life Institute
(HFL), an association of food service suppliers that includes
paper makers, argues that hand dryers have “no place”
in restaurant or cafeteria washrooms or in other situations
where food is being handled. “Most users walk away with
wet hands and wet hands transfer bacteria 500 times more readily
than dry hands,” says the group’s website. HFL
advocates paper towels over dryers because they “remove
bacteria from hands and reduce general bacterial counts by
an average of 58 percent.”
Many hand washers would agree that wall dryers do not work
as effectively as paper. After all, who hasn't given their
hands a final swipe across a pant leg after using a hand dryer
for a few minutes? California State University facilities
manager Gary Homesley was one of those, but in assessing whether
or not to replace paper towels with electric dryers at a campus
student union, he was shocked to learn of the significant
amount of resources used to make paper as well as the large
amount of pollutants that paper-making was responsible for
discharging into the atmosphere.
Ultimately Homesley chose the Xlerator hand dryer. The manufacturer,
Excel Dryers, claims that it will dry hands in 10-15 seconds,
and that it addresses the effectiveness issue with a high-velocity
air stream that actually blows most of the water off the hands,
leaving the thin remaining film of water to evaporate more
quickly. The product is the first electric hand dryer to be
awarded the Environmental Building News GreenSpec designation
for conserving energy and reducing waste, and is also the
first to qualify for the U.S. Green Building Council’s
Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) program.
Despite the prevalence of recycled papers and the increased
efficiency of electric hand dryers, it may still be disheartening
to know that no matter what you are offered at the conclusion
of your public restroom visit you are having some environmental
impact. For those losing sleep over that, there is always
the truly green fallback of carrying your own reusable washcloth.
CONTACTS: World Dryer Corporation, www.worlddryer.com/environment.html;
Handwashing For Life Institute, www.handwashingforlife.com/US/english/Integrated_solutions/paper_towel.asp;
Excel Dryer, www.exceldryer.com;
GreenSpec Directory, www.buildinggreen.com/ecommerce/gs.cfm.