Hey Mr. Green Advice for campers, car buyers, and clotheshorses
by Bob Schildgen
Hey Mr. Green,
My friends and I camp out several times a year, building a significant fire each time. They smelt their aluminum cans instead of hauling them out, which appears to leave no residue the next morning. Is this practice OK? --Bill in Louisville, Kentucky
There's nothing like a primal pyrotechnic ritual to culminate a manly adventure, especially if the outing includes miles of grueling treks from camp chair to beer cooler. While incinerating a few six-packs doesn't create much of a problem, some parks prohibit the practice, and your burnt offerings doth not please the environmental gods. If the 810,000 tons of aluminum cans Americans toss (or, in this case, cremate) each year--enough, by the way, to build 46,000 Boeing 737s--were recycled instead, we'd save 730 million gallons of oil by not having to make new ones from scratch. So make sure to haul out those empties--after all, it won't be nearly as hard as hauling them in.
Hey Mr. Green,
I need a four-wheel-drive vehicle with off-road and towing capabilities for work--sorry. The Jeep Liberty diesel, which can use biodiesel, seems like the perfect green solution. Do you agree? --Seth in Morgantown, North Carolina
Biodiesel is a good choice for many drivers: It pollutes less than ordinary diesel fuel and doesn't generate nearly as much globe-warming carbon dioxide as gasoline does. If you can obtain used restaurant oil for your vehicle, it also serves as a way of recycling. (Of course, given our prolific driving habits, all the grease from all the restaurants in the land wouldn't provide even 2 percent of our fuel--probably not enough for all the trips we take to sate our fast-food cravings.)
But biodiesel doesn't go very far as a nationwide solution, and it's now so overhyped that it's become a pie-in-the-sky distraction from realistic energy alternatives like conservation. Even if we could magically change our percentage of conversion-ready diesel engines from small to all, U.S. drivers would still burn about 110 billion gallons of fuel a year. A major crop like soybeans produces about 50 gallons of oil per acre. This means we could plant every last inch of land in the Lower 48 with soybeans and still fall around 20 billion gallons short of our present level of gasoline consumption. If you think the industrialized monoculture that fattens livestock is scary, ponder the gloomy prospect of a couple hundred million automobiles feeding off the land.
Hey Mr. Green,
Should I cut dry cleaning out of my life? If so, what should I do instead? --Annie in Tucson
Unless you only lounge around in tastefully designed Sierra Club T-shirts and old blue jeans, dry cleaning is a concern. Workers exposed to a widely used dry-cleaning solvent, perchloroethylene, or "perc," have higher risks of skin, liver, and kidney damage, and possibly some types of cancer. (The residue left on clothes isn't nearly as dangerous, though it can bother customers with sensitive skin, asthma, or allergies.) Although the EPA requires the stuff to be treated as hazardous waste, it's difficult to enforce since millions of pounds are used at 36,000 dry-cleaning establishments in the United States and Canada each year. If not handled properly, a small amount of perc--which is potentially toxic to plants and aquatic animals--can contaminate a lot of groundwater. And burning it in a hazardous-waste incinerator can generate dioxins and other nasty air pollutants.
Better alternatives are wet cleaning and cleaning with carbon dioxide. (Silicone-based processes don't use perc but may pose other health problems.) The EPA's Web site has a list of greener cleaners at epa.gov/dfe/pubs/garment/gcrg/cleanguide.htm, but it's a bit dated; be sure to call individual locations and check first. If you stick with dry cleaning, liberate your clothes from that toxic-smelling plastic membrane right away and hang them outside overnight to dispel the lingering fumes.
Hey Mr. Green,
Stung by Hurricane Katrina et al., the Bush White House has apparently discovered the benefits of energy conservation, while the Sierra Club has taken to touting the wonders of SUVs. What on earth is happening? --"Mr. Blue" in Kensington, California
Fear not--John Muir isn't about to roar down to Armageddon in a Hummer. The Sierra Club isn't touting all SUVs and certainly not the gas-guzzling behemoths we have such a merry time ridiculing in these pages. But when a hybrid SUV like the Mercury Mariner gets an EPA-estimated 31 miles per gallon--better mileage than a lot of cars--it's worth encouraging. If this and other efficient models sell rapidly, automakers will be inclined to make a lot more fuel-saving vehicles. For details, visit sierraclub.org/mercurymariner/becker.asp.
Hey Mr. Green,
Recently I've read articles in Sierra telling people not to sweat the small stuff and concentrate on bigger ways to help the environment. I disagree with this philosophy. Anything anyone can do to help, big or small, is important! Some people can only start with small things because of time, money, physical ability, or other circumstances, yet starting small can lead to bigger accomplishments in the future. You should never discourage anyone from doing something for the environment, ever. To quote Edward Everett Hale, "I am only one, but still I am one. I cannot do everything, but still I can do something. I will not refuse to do the something that I can do." --Shari in Lindstrom, Minnesota
It shouldn't be a question of either/or. Doing the "small stuff," like teaching kids not to toss trash on the street, can be an opportunity to introduce broader issues: "Johnny, those bags make a mess and waste resources, but the effects of global warming are a whole lot messier." The problem is that some folks get fixated on the details and never get around to the larger concerns. And then you've got laggards like my own offspring, who opine on the big picture while the small stuff literally piles up around them. They can articulate the fiscal and environmental problems of subsidies to major polluters, but they can't manage to sort out the bottles, cans, and paper for recycling. So I end up sifting through the trash like a bag lady, cussing and mumbling while I rearrange their refuse. Clearly we need to pay attention to all things both great and small.
Hey Mr. Green,
I enjoy your column and found your advice about eating organic great (September/October 2005) but would like to fine-tune one point: You say, "Buy in bulk." Perhaps this could be misunderstood as stocking up, when I think you actually mean to recommend buying things sold in bulk form.
My, my, though! Once you get to cooking and eating whole foods, the pleasure is spectacular. I could write reams just about some locally grown green beans I had recently. --Shane in Milwaukee
Thanks for the clarification. I certainly didn't mean "Go out and buy a helluva lot," but "Buy products like beans, spices, and dried fruit at stores that make them available in bins or other bulk containers." Happy eating.
Still Steamed About Cold Air
Mr. Green's tirade about air-conditioning and the pampered whiners who love it (January/February 2005) continues to fire up readers. In the latest edition of his online mailbag, Mr. Green responds to one hot-under-the-collar critic, explaining how "a superfluous creature comfort morphed into something downright uncomfortable" and outlining his plans to study the effects of air-conditioning on the tavern industry and put overcompensated CEOs on ice. Check out this and other exchanges in Mr. Green's web-only mailbag.
Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.