Week of 03/18/2007

Dear EarthTalk: Where can I find non-polluting alternatives to those foam "packaging peanuts" used for shipping fragile merchandise?

—Brian Smith, Lynwood, WA

Those 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 human carcinogen.

Consumers 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.

So 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.

And 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 behemoth BASF.

But 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.

Regardless, 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.

CONTACTS: PaperNuts; Starch Tech Inc.; Plastic Loose Fill Council Peanut Hotline, (800) 828-2214

Dear EarthTalk: 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.

What surprised 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.

Sustainable buildings, 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.

CONTACTS: U.S. Green Building Council; Capital E’s "Green Building Costs and Financial Benefits"