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How can I determine if a material is green or not?

The biggest obstacle in the adoption of green materials is a lack of understanding of how to look at materials. Our old method of “price first, features second, appearance last” is short sighted and explains how we put ourselves in this environmental catastrophe.

The primary thing one must understand about green materials is to realize it is not black and white issue. There is no one perfect green material. All materials have both positive and negative environmental attributes. The key is in understanding which of these will benefit your specific project.

For example, many people will ask me if concrete is a “green” material. They want a simple “yes” or “no” answer. But the real answer is not so black and white.

If we look at the good things about concrete:

* durable, (technically) recyclable, natural, non-offgassing, made from natural sand, stone, and water, and
* we can see it casually appears to be a green material.

But on the other hand, the bad thing about concrete is it’s chief ingredient, Portland Cement. Portland Cement is mined out of the Earth, heated to intense temperatures and as a by-product this releases tons of greenhouse gas. Suddenly, the green concrete you hoped for is a potentially bad source of pollution.

So how do we resolve this? How do you take a complex issue of concrete and look at it in a black-and-white way?

Perhaps you remember a few years ago, when dolphins were getting caught in the tuna fishing nets. There was a large outcry among consumers, “Don’t buy tuna! It is killing the dolphins!” After all, dolphins are cute and deserve to be protected. (The tuna, I guess, were not cute enough for saving.)

With the news of Flipper dying in a tuna net, the public responded and tuna sales plummeted. The industry changed seemingly overnight. What would otherwise be a complicated issue of marine fisheries, agriculture and industry was reduced to the beautifully black and white dictum of “Don’t buy tuna!”

So getting back to our example of concrete. How do we make concrete appear to be a black and white issue?

If the main problem with concrete is its content of Portland Cement, we can replace up to 50% of that Portland Cement with a material called fly ash. Fly ash is a by-product of the coal industry. It is typically buried in a land fill where it seeps mercury into our water table. By putting it into our concrete mix, it turns out the fly ash makes the concrete stronger and more workable.

Is concrete a green material? Fly ash concrete is a green material.

This is how you make something into a black and white issue. This is the process you must go through with every material in your building.

Is wood a green material? FSC-certified Wood certified by the Forest Stewardship Council is a green material.
Is steel a green material? High recycled content steel is a green material.

Ask yourself these six questions when looking at any material:

1. Where did this material come from?
2. What are the by-products of its’ manufacturer?
3. How is the material delivered and installed?
4. How is the material maintained and operated?
5. How healthy are the materials?
6. What do we do with them once we are done with these materials?

This is a shorthand approach looking at the entire lifecycle of a material.

(For more information on green-materials certification programs, visit Web sites for the Forest Stewardship Council, Green Seal and Scientific Certification Systems.)

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The EBS Team

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