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It’s Not Easy Being Green

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Kermit the Frog had a different “green” in mind when he sang the blues about the perils of his amphibian color on Sesame Street. But for many of us, “being Green” in an altogether different way isn’t all that easy either.

These days, what exactly does “Green” mean?

Basically, it means leading more environmentally friendly and ecologically responsible lives, so we protect natural resources, ourselves and the planet. I’m sure by now, most of us have seen, heard, or read about the many ways this can be accomplished: by recycling, using solar energy, electric or hybrid cars, picking up trash, collecting plastics in our waterways, using alternate energy sources instead of fossil fuels, etc.

The long list of “easy” fixes quickly becomes not-so-easy when it comes to details. For example, in building and development, there is a system called LEED, which stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design. It’s the most widely used green-building rating system in the world. It’s also used for virtually all building projects, whether commercial, community, or home.

But is it worth it? And does it really work, or matter? As I have found out, most things in life have no clear-cut, black-and-white, yes-or-no answers, and that is true here as well. To get a building or project LEED-certified, there are courses to study, exams to take and proposals to be shown and accepted. If all of that is completed, a building or project will receive a plaque stating it is LEED-certified. The buildings must show certain levels of efficiency in resource usage such as water and electric, and none of this is cheap. The initial cost is $600 just to register and certification fees can range from $2,250 to $22,500 based on the project size. On top of that, complying with all the requirements necessary can add millions of dollars and hours of paperwork to the projects. On the plus side, LEED certification can mean tax breaks, grants, and the ability to charge higher rents.

Being LEED-certified sounds great on paper, but the bottom line is this: as in many things, reality doesn’t always live up to theory’s expectations. While some LEED buildings have shown lower resource usage rates, others have shown rate increases. LEED certification, after all, is based on proposals of anticipated resource use and not actual usage once a building project is completed. Therefore, is it worth it to have your building or project LEED-certified? A definitive answer remains elusive.

As another, more familiar example: Do hybrid cars produce lower emissions than gas-only vehicles? Obviously. Do they get better gas mileage? Sometimes. But it’s not always a significant difference when compared to the price differential of similar models. Total electric cars use no fossil fuels and produce no emissions, which are great assets. However, since there are not enough of them on the road, there isn’t an accurate way to determine the difference in electric consumption a nation of them might make. The same can be said of solar panels. As for recyclables, there is absolutely no argument of any sort that doing this is a bad thing.

Cleaning up our oceans, lakes, and waterways, plus keeping our landfills limited to those items that decompose and can/will/might be used to produce products that will go back into our soil is great. But what portion of these post-consumer materials will be reused in manufacturing? Again, theory is rosier than reality in answering this question. We have been recycling so much and have shipped so much of it to foreign countries, China being the main importer, that we now find ourselves without places to send these materials. China has stopped importing “foreign garbage,” which includes many types of plastics and paper. We also have run out of recycling plants and are now depositing what is and might be recyclable back in landfills. Recycling, however smart and necessary, remains shot through with problems, beginning with the fact that a lot of us don’t understand whether what we throw in the recycling bin is really recyclable.

So where are we in this quagmire? Does “being green” mean there’s reason for hope and change? Or is it all hopey-changey bunk? What you decide depends on your environmental outlook and what you want and expect of and for future generations. It also depends on your pocketbook. The difference in cost between hybrid cars and their gaseous counterparts can take years of driving to recoup, let alone seem significant. The same with LEED-certified buildings, electric cars and solar panels. No, being Green isn’t easy. But here’s my take in black and white: any steps forward in making this planet more sustainable, keeping our precious natural resources for generations to come, is worth whatever it takes.

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