Week of 7/18/2004

Dear EarthTalk: Where do I find sources of Earth-friendly building supplies and materials?

—Rich Duriff, San Francisco, CA

More contractors and property owners have chosen to work with environmentally friendly building supplies over the last decade than ever before. But even though big box building supply stores like Home Depot are beefing up their environmentally friendly inventories, green building specialty stores are where you"ll find the widest selection of non-toxic and ecologically-sound products—everything from cabinetry to flooring to paints, solvents and insulation. Additionally, staff at these stores can give much needed advice, and can also provide referrals to contractors well versed in relevant techniques and technologies.

"Our definition of quality requires us to look at what happens over the entire life of a product," says Lisa DiMartino of Seattle’s Environmental Home Center, which sells non-toxic paints, natural carpets, sustainable wood products, energy-efficient insulation and organic cleaning supplies. The store’s procurement staff examines products from a wide range of perspectives before putting in any orders, according to DiMartino.

Environmental Construction Outfitters in New York City’s Bronx borough is a green building supplies retail store that prides itself on its ongoing research into state-of-the-art sustainable building solutions. "We specialize in consulting with architects, designers, developers and end-users—and finding them the best products for their specific needs," says company founder Paul Novack. The store offers environmentally friendly lighting, roofing, bedding, water filters and many other green products.

Not in Seattle or the Bronx? Many retailers have expanded far beyond their regions by going online. The Northwest Builders Network runs an Internet-based "Environmental Store" that sells construction-related books, software and calculators, as well as energy efficient lighting, recycled plastic benches, tables and yard accessories. They also carry non-toxic paints, oils, stains and many other building and design products.

Likewise, the Building for Health Materials Center, which bills itself as "one-stop shopping for healthy and environmentally sound building materials and home comforts," stocks and ships everything from landscaping elements to building supplies to interior décor. Other green retailers with a strong online presence include Phoenix Organics, Environmental Building Supplies and Living Green.

CONTACTS: Environmental Home Center, (206) 682-7332, www.environmentalhomecenter.com; Environmental Construction Outfitters, (800) 238-5008, www.environproducts.com; Northwest Builders Network, (888) 810-8296, www.nwbuildnet.com; Building for Health Materials Center, (800) 292-4838, www.buildingforhealth.com; Phoenix Organics, (541) 535-1134, www.phoenixorganics.com; Environmental Building Supplies, (503) 222-3881, www.ecohaus.com; Living Green, (805) 966-1319, www.livingreen.com.

Dear EarthTalk: How can I convince my co-workers to switch from Styrofoam cups to reusable mugs?

—Jennifer Quintana, Miami, FL

The best you can do is give "em the facts: Styrofoam, Dow Chemical’s trade name for its blown foam polystyrene product, gained widespread popularity in the 1970s as an inexpensive and effective insulating material for disposable cups and containers. Polystyrene became ubiquitous throughout our on-the-go society, holding everything from coffee to fast-food hamburgers, and functioning as insulation in product packaging.

Initially, Styrofoam manufacturing required the use of ozone-depleting chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) to blow the styrene into its final hard foam form. Today, following the CFC ban that came with the Montreal Protocol on Ozone Depletion in 1989, Dow instead uses carbon dioxide and pentane as blowing agents. That switch may be sparing the ozone layer, but pentane is a highly flammable chemical that contributes to smog, so the industry has essentially traded one evil for another.

Another problem with Styrofoam is that it does not biodegrade well and can leak toxins into the groundwater under our overstuffed landfills. Additionally, millions of tons of polystyrene get incinerated and end up as airborne toxic ash.

But just in case water contamination and clouds of toxic ash are not valid-enough reasons to convince co-workers to switch to reusable mugs, then maybe the potential health effects of Styrofoam will have an impact. As early as 1972, researchers identified potentially toxic styrene residues in a majority of Americans sampled. By 1986, styrene was found in 100 percent of all samples of human fat tissue taken as part of a U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) Human Tissue Survey. Researchers found that Styrofoam cups lose weight when in use, meaning that styrene is oozing into the foods and drinks we consume. It then ends up stored in our fatty tissue, where it can build up to levels that can cause fatigue, nervousness, difficulty sleeping, blood abnormalities—and even carcinogenic effects.

Strangely enough, it was Ronald McDonald himself who woke up millions of Americans to the environmental and health impacts of polystyrene. After many years of pressure from advocacy groups including the Citizens" Clearinghouse for Hazardous Waste (now called the Center for Health, Environment and Justice) and Environmental Defense, McDonald’s phased out Styrofoam packaging for its hamburgers in 1989 in favor of the paperboard containers we are so familiar with today.

Yet the McDonald’s decision was voluntary, and still today polystyrene does not appear to be on the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) radar screen as a potential contaminant. Without any regulation on the production and sale of polystyrene products, the only way to stave off its negative environmental and health impacts is to act locally, one office cubicle at a time.

CONTACTS: Dow Chemical, (800) 441-4DOW, www.dow.com; Center for Health, Environment and Justice, (703) 237-2249, www.chej.org; Environmental Defense, (212) 505-2100, www.environmentaldefense.org; The Polystyrene Page, www.ejnet.org/plastics/polystyrene.