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By Phil Piemonte

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So how green is green?

Every year when Earth Day rolls around, just about every federal agency and department touts its successes from the prior year and reminds everyone — employees and public alike — that being “green” is a year-round objective.

But the problem is this: Trading one thing for another doesn’t always fix things.

Most obvious example: Paperless offices may save trees, but the computing and communications technologies in those offices still suck up energy generated by other natural resources – often pollution-producing coal or natural gas.

At the same time, because of continual technological advances, the microscopic switching and processing that goes on in a whole range of electronic devices today requires less and less energy. But when devices are portable, as a lot of them are, you still have to store that energy. As a result, even the most green-minded person out there owns one or more handheld, wireless devices powered by batteries that require special disposal when they wear out. There are millions of those toxic batteries out there. Ditto for those new energy-efficient light bulbs that contain mercury.

Another consideration: All sorts of electronic devices contain bits of hardware that rely on minuscule bits of rare earth material to work—stuff that someone, somewhere, is destroying the landscape to obtain.

Fact: My grandfather never heard the term “green” outside of his vegetable garden. But he used a prehistoric Western Electric landline telephone that lasted for 40 or 50 years. On the other hand, my kids grew up thinking green. But the way things look from here, they will buy 20 or 30 or 40 wireless, multifunction phone-like devices over that period, in the process consuming all the resources that the manufacture of those products will entail.

Then there is ethanol. Some people now argue that making fuel out of food (corn) is unethical, maybe immoral — especially since the rising price of oil is driving up the price of corn and the land it is grown on. But at one time, the idea that people could grow a renewable source of fuel in a corn field seemed like a brilliant solution. Wind power? What about all the dead birds piled up under them?

New fuel-efficient fleet?  Wait — before you decide, first trace your way back the supply and production chains and see how much energy and how many resources you’re going to consume to obtain them. (In the big picture, is it more environmentally sound to wear out the old fleet first?)

I've mentioned only a couple of things here. There are thousands of parts to the "green" puzzle.

So, for all our efforts, are we making any progress?

I don’t know. At noon on the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970, I was a pallbearer in a funeral procession at my high school. Like the five other pallbearers, I wore a gas mask. We carried a borrowed, open coffin containing a plastic skeleton lent by one of the biology teachers. Someone held a poster that said something about pollution, a kid from the band beat a funeral march on his snare drum, and the procession slowly made its way around the campus during lunch hour.

At the time, to a kid especially, it seemed like a few policy changes would fix the problems — which back then mostly seemed to be roadside litter, and polluted water and air. But now, more than 40 years later, in spite of countless policy and technology changes, environmental problems have become even more varied and complex. Now in addition to worrying about polluted water and air, I worry about the dangers posed by climate change, nanotechnology, biological superbugs, and other new threats.

Am I geezing? Probably. But we’ve been working on these problems for a while. The Environmental Protection Agency, for example, like Earth Day, traces its origins back to 1970. The EPA and many other agencies have been working on various parts of the problem for four decades.

In recent years, the federal government has made more of an effort to implement environmentally sound policies and practices, and when it does, to become an example for others.

But is it working? Or are we playing environmental Whac-a-Mole, where a new problem pops up every time we solve another one?

You tell me.

Posted by Phil Piemonte on Apr 22, 2011 at 4:02 PM

Reader comments

Mon, Apr 25, 2011 Tired Fed

I agree with the comment about older appliances lasting for years and years yet we are encouraged to replace them with newer, more efficient ones. I had a Kenmore canister vacuum that worked great for more than 20 years. I'd replaced a couple of(non-mechanical) parts before realizing that it probably time to get a new one. I went to Sears looking for the newer version of that vacuum. When I told the salesperson that my other was still running after 20 years, he bluntly told me 'don't expect this one to last that long'. This was not a cheap unit. So, if we really want to be 'green', how about making things last like they used to. We'd have about 1/4 of the items heading to the landfill (or where ever they go to die these days) and everyone but the manufacturers would be better off. As far as work? Remember when we were all talking about the computers putting an end to paper files? Boy, what a joke!! About the only difference is instead of using carbon paper for copies, we use the photocopier. Yes, there are recycling bins for paper, plastics, and glass, etc but they are only as good as the people remembering to use them.

Mon, Apr 25, 2011

"Buy local, think global" Is more than a catch phrase. Has anyone watched the film Food Inc? That should be a start. Maybe little by little we as a nation of consumers should consider what steps we can take day by day to lessen our need for the latest technology by getting off the 'grid.' You may be surprised how a simpler life may become a healthier one.

Mon, Apr 25, 2011

The Whac-a-mole analogy seems accurate. An example : We have a refrigerator from the 60s that still runs well, is quiet and seems efficient. It is made of metal with metal drawers and glass lids rather than plastic. But I read constantly that old refrigerators should be replaced because they are not efficient. Everyone I know who gets a new refrigerator has to replace it in a very few years because it stops working. Even the sales people say that 5 or 6 years is about the lifespan of a new refrigerator!! It is obvious that a new one is consuming a lot more energy and resources than keeping an old one that functions well (and does not use much energy, I might add). We need to carefully evaluate the full impact of what we consume before "jumping on bandwagons”. But first thing we all need to do is use less, live frugally and not listen when we are told that Americans are too spoiled to give up anything. We certainly are able to make many changes that will lessen our impact on climate change. We MUST do everything we can, if we want an intact world for us and our children and every other organism on the planet.

Mon, Apr 25, 2011 Mark Miller Wheaton IL

There will always be some pollution. The key is not to have too much. As this article states there are trade offs. New technologies create new forms of pollution, which someone may not have thought of before. Many of the older electronic devices were easier to repair. They consisted of discrete components that anyone with knowledge of electronics, a schematic, multimeter, and some other tools could fix. Imagine tube TVs and radios, reel to reel tape decks, etc. You ordered new parts and those devices worked again. Now imagine solid state TVs and radios with IC chips, digital recorders, etc. Try fixing those newer devices. It is more cost effective to replace them. What happens to the defective IC chips, hard drives, etc.? They end up in some land fill where they possibly contaminate the ground. The bottom line is something still gets thrown away. We have to think, "Have we really solved anything?" Maybe. Maybe not. We'll see.

Mon, Apr 25, 2011

The greenest thing we can do is use the resources of this earth without wasting them. That does not mean not using oil, or coal, or natural gas, that means using them all, but getting the most energy out of each of them that is available. Today, everything is labeled as disposable! I remember being told: "Waste not, want not." This phrase seems to be missing in this generation!

Recycling, how much energy does it take to reuse something? If it takes more energy then it saves, is it worth it? But this is off subject!

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