Archive for January, 2009

So Help Me God

January 25, 2009

With these words, President Barack Obama concluded his historic swearing in. I was thinking that perhaps I should incorporate them into my prayers the next time I show up at synagogue. My synagogue, (Or Hadash) is a wonderful Reconstructionist synagogue in Ft. Washington, PA. Even better for the purposes of this blog, it has a strong environmental consciousness. And as chairman of the synagogue’s Environmental Working Group, I should know.

It has been a tough winter so far in the Northeast, and I could really use a reminder of spring. Fortunately, the days are beginning to get noticeably longer. Even better, perhaps my favorite Jewish holiday, Tu B’Shevat, is right around the corner. It is also known as the New Year for the Trees. It has to do with the trees coming back to life in the Land of Israel. The budding leaves on the trees each year is the annual sign spring is here—so a New Year for the Trees means spring is on the way (eventually). This year the actual day of Tu B’Shevat is Monday, February 9th. No matter what the groundhog says the week before, eventually is the operative word for spring’s arrival in 2009.

But Tu B’Shevat is more than spring. It also has to do with an appreciation for the environment. And at Or Hadash, we have not one, but two events for the holiday. The first is a Tu B’Shevat seder (Friday, Feb 6th after services). This seder features a variety of fruits and nuts from the Land of Israel (plus up to 4 glasses of wine). It also celebrates the upcoming transformation of the dormancy of winter into the abundance of spring and summer.

The following evening, (Sat Feb 7th), we are having a Tu B’Shevat coffeehouse. This coffeehouse is dedicated to helping the synagogue go more green (examples: more clean energy, more environmentally friendly products in the kitchen). Not only is my synagogue environmentally conscious, it is socially conscious as well. So the admission charge has 2 components—$5 for the synagogue’s greening, and a can of baby formula for a local food bank.

These events are really made possible by the fact that people across the synagogue care enough. They care about the synagogue, the community at large, and the environment. They care enough to put together a seder, and buy the needed fruits, nuts and wine. They care enough to organize a coffeehouse. They care enough to perform music and not charge. They care enough to bake goodies for the coffeehouse. They care enough to come. That’s a lot of caring.

I think God is helping.

To Tell the Truth

January 23, 2009

As I attempt to actually implement sustainability into my purchases, I have come across a huge variety of green claims and counter claims. Paralleling the multiple environmental claims are multiple organizations certifying at least some of these claims. For the consumer, the idea is that someone has checked out the environmental claims and found them to be on the up and up. But understanding who actually certifies what, and which certification is important for a given purchase, is a different question. Since I am in the midst of a construction project, my examples have a relationship to building materials.

I’ve had to decode Greenguard vs Greenseal as well as Green Label and Green Label Plus. These are not to be confused with Scientific Certification Systems–SCS. Each of these looks at things a little differently. And of course there is the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) plus the State of California. California is very environmentally progressive, and a huge marketplace. Therefore when California talks, manufacturers listen.
First, Greenguard and Greenseal. Greenguard focuses primarily on indoor air quality—most notably for off gassing of VOCs, formaldehyde and other chemicals. ( Greenseal has a wider area of focus, offering environmental standards and certifications in about 2 dozen categories ( Whether these certification labels are actually relevant to what I am buying might be another question. Even so, both of these are independent, 3rd party providers with ties to ANSI, ASTM, etc. (ANSI and ASTM are widely recognized national standards-setting organizations. Their standards are used in nearly every industry you have ever heard of.)

On the other hand, Green Label and Green Label Plus are programs of the carpet industy’s trade organization, the Carpet and Rug Institute. It is pretty easy to automatically assume that an industry-based organization is greenwashing. However, I noticed that the current LEED (green building) guidelines give credits to carpeting that meets the Green Label Plus standards. So it must be legit. I’ll look for a Green Label Plus carpet when I get new carpeting.

Another twist on the certification world is Scientific Certification Systems. Among other things, they happen to be the ones who certify vendors desiring to be part of Home Depot’s Eco Options program (look for the green signs all over the store). The base questionnaire the Eco Options vendors fill out to be reviewed by SCS is quite interesting reading. (

These organizations seem to be building awareness and usage in the professional/industrial area. I think it is only a matter of time before the consumer markets start demanding certifications like I’ve discussed above. I have. I do not rely solely upon them, but they are a great help in determining if a given product is environmentally friendly.

Mr. Leo’s Neighborhood

January 18, 2009

One of my favorite TV shows when I was growing up was Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood. The TV show’s creator, Fred Rogers, was from Pittsburgh, and so am I. (I write this post before my beloved Pittsburgh Steelers play for a berth in the Super Bowl, just like they did a lot when I was a kid growing up in 1970s Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.) I was also an avid viewer of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood in the same decade (1970s) when the show started to gain wide appeal. I liked when Mr. Rogers would show me lots of the neat things in his neighborhood. It was all new to me.
Likewise, my sustainability journey (the purpose of this blog, after all) is in many ways new to me. In my last post I discussed my disappointment because I had found insulation made from almost 100% recycled product with no horrible formaldehyde—which ended up being 10 times the price of the regular insulation available in the Home Depots of the world.
What I did not fully discuss was my happiness about the fact that I now know of not one, but two stores in the Philadelphia area (where I live now) that sell environmentally friendly home and construction products. These are (in Northeast Philadelphia) and The Environmental Home Store (in West Mt. Airy and Doylestown). I happened to have spoken to and received quotes from both of them on the insulation. But I was pretty excited to know that these stores existed in the first place.
I have not yet visited either store’s showroom, but I have scoped out their websites. The seems more oriented to the individual consumer. The seems more oriented to the contractor/builder. For example, The Home Store product pages tend to have their products displayed in the context of your home; The Green Depot had lots of really interesting information about various technical standards and terms that are applicable to environmentally friendly construction products. Nonetheless, I am sure that both stores gladly work with both homeowners and contractors.
What a happy surprise to find both of these stores in the area I live in! Last summer, my wife and I had happened across a similar store in British Columbia. ( We were thrilled that such a store existed, but we thought that there was no way such a store would exist anywhere near our neighborhood. We have since learned otherwise. Stores oriented towards sustainable home construction products did not exist in Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood, but they do in mine.

The Walls Come Crumbling Down

January 14, 2009

And the Walls Came Crumbling Down

And our big construction project of the winter began—new insulation for the 3 bedrooms in our house. They happen to be in the back of the house. They are very cold in the winter, and very hot in the summer. So we figured insulation would be a good way to help. We decided to have the drywall pulled off, and new rolls of insulation installed. Environmentalist that I am, I begin to search for environmentally friendly insulation.

I quickly find out that the insulation industry considers itself fairly green anyways because installing insulation saves energy use, which is inherently green. I’ll accept that, to a point. But I want to know what is in it. I would prefer to use environmentally friendly materials if possible.

In one corner is the old reliable—fiberglass insulation with some percentage of recycled glass. It also has formaldehyde as a bonding agent, and that does not sound good. It has been around forever, and kept plenty of people warm. It also has big warnings on the packages about dangerous chemicals inside. All the pictures have a person with a mask to install it. The masks are kind of worrisome.

In the other corner is the challenger. Apparently there is an insulation that is made from recycled cotton. (There is also blown in insulation made from recycled newspaper, but blown in insulation is not feasible here). I got pretty excited about the prospect of using insulation almost completely made of recycled materials. It also had fire and mold retardants mixed in. And it had no horrible formaldehyde.

I thought this would be so easy. I got quotes on the cotton insulation. Then I went to Home Depot and learned how to read their price tags for the regular insulation. It turns out that the cotton stuff is not the same price as the regular stuff; it is 10 TIMES the price, (that is a 1 and a 0.). I can’t afford to sustain that particular product. I spent $127 on the CertainTeed insulation I bought on Saturday. I would have spent $1,000 on the cotton stuff. I kept the extra $900 in my pocket.

I’ll have to console myself with the following:
The insulation I bought is Greenguard certified for low emissions, suitable for children and schools. CertainTeed says that they use 35% recycled materials in their product, and that their factories are ISO 14001 certified. This basically means that they have an environmental management process in place in their factories. I am not sure if this means that they actually follow it. The other major brand I am aware of, Owens Corning, has recently announced a 40% recycled content for its insulation. It (Owens) also has a fairly extensive sustainability report on its website (perhaps motivated by the fact that they went bankrupt due to asbestos claims in the 1990s). The report is pretty impressive.

And finally, our house will be warmer in the winter and cooler in the summer while using less electric heat and air conditioning. Sometimes half a loaf is better than none of a loaf.

A New Year’s Gift to Myself–Part Two

January 1, 2009

A New Year’s Gift to Myself—Part Two

I enjoyed my New Years gift to myself so much that I have decided to make it a gift that keeps on giving all year. Part one of my New Year’s gift was a definition and context for Sustainability by LeoScribe. Part two is a fleshing out of perspectives on how we can connect our actions to a broader system of sustainability.

The Whistler blueprint I mentioned in the last post was so impressive that it deserves further examination. The first 2 objectives (in the Leoscribe interpretation) concern the relative use of natural resources. Objective 1—reduce the amount of resources extracted from the Earth. So the earth is not a compilation of natural resources waiting to be extracted in service to humanity; rather Earth is something for humanity to co-exist with (here is the first perspective). This does not mean extract nothing; it does mean proactively look for ways to extract less (i.e., renewable energy sources).

Objective 2—use less artificial substances and chemicals (than you did before). The more ethereal interpretation of this is that God gave us lots of great natural materials to use on Earth for our needs. We can look for ways to use them at a rate that enables them to be preserved for future uses as well (2nd perspective). The most visible example of this is food produced via organic methods. A counter example is what happened to the West Coast salmon fisheries over the past couple of years: the federal government had to halt salmon fishing for a while near Oregon to preserve the stocks due to overfishing.

Objectives 3 and 4 are oriented to looking beyond what goes into the actual product itself. Objective 3 is to reduce (our) contribution to the degradation of the natural environment. If you think of a tree that dies and fall over, it shortly becomes the home for other plants, thus renewing itself. It does not go to be entombed into a landfill. The perspective here is to be concerned with the entire product lifecycle. Be concerned with how a product is made before you use it and what happens to it after you use it-(3rd perspective).

Objective 4 is concerned with human impact as well as environmental impact. The critical point here is that traditional economic theory assumes a hands off, disconnected relationship between buyer/consumer and seller/producer. But sustainability is about creating connections where none previously existed. Not only do I want to support environmentally friendly products, but I also hope to support businesses that value their workers and their communities- (4th perspective).

That’s a lot of perspectives to think about! These 4 perspectives seem so easy and mutually reinforcing. This is a caution sign because this whole “sustainability” idea might be too good to be true. After all, it might be a little more difficult than expected to translate these ideals into actual practice. But on the other hand, the thought processes and actions involved in actually implementing these sustainability perspectives might also lead to connections and ideals that I have never known before.

Happy New Year!

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