The Common Good

Going, Going, Green

Date: August 6, 2006

If skyrocketing oil prices, the booming world population and the threat of global warming hadn't already grabbed people's attention, last week's record power demand and air-quality warnings certainly served as a reminder that the world faces pressing questions about its climate and energy use.

While "doing something for the environment" once meant tossing a newspaper in a recycling bin or buying organic lettuce, now nearly every aspect of daily life -- from the toilets we flush to the flowers that decorate our dinner tables -- is being radically rethought. Entrepreneurs, scientists and thinkers are working to transform industry so that it functions more like nature, lessening pollution and inefficiency while propelling the economy forward. Here are 13 ideas -- some far-fetched and far-off, others thriving right here, right now -- that can make the world a greener place.

PLASTIC FROM PLANTS


Plastic is one of the most useful materials, but also one of the most environmentally problematic. While its light weight saves fuel in cars and during shipping of goods, most plastics are produced using petroleum and toxic chemicals. When burned, as some garbage is, more toxic compounds are released.

The new breed of biodegradable and plant-based plastic containers and tools offer almost all of plastic's benefits and few of its ecological drawbacks. They are usually derived from non-genetically modified corn and wheat, which means they can be composted or will biodegrade (though in tightly sealed landfills, they might not). One polymer, developed at the University of Warwick in England, biodegrades into soil in which plants can grow. Biota ( http://www.biotaspringwater.com/ ), the first spring water with a biodegradable plastic bottle, launched in the western United States in 2004.

Locally, bioplastics are available at Future Green (1469 Church St. NW, 202-234-7110) and Java Green (1020 19th St. NW, 202-775-8899, http://www.javagreen.net/ ), a cafe that serves organic coffee, runs on wind energy and uses biodegradable takeout dishware.

SUSTAINABLE NIGHTCLUB

Energy can be harvested from just about anywhere: rivers, the sun, wind . . . and hyperactive club kids. The latter is the rationale behind Club Double Dee, which dubs itself the world's first sustainable dance club.

Scheduled to open in Rotterdam, the Netherlands, the club is a cooperative project between Enviu, an international organization promoting sustainable entrepreneurship; Doll Lab, a Dutch architecture firm; and Off Corso, a local dance club. Not only is Double Dee considering serving organic beer and using a rainwater collection system for toilets, but it may actually be powered by dancing: Springs beneath the floor would capture motion energy to be converted into electricity. Enviu is remaining tight-lipped about the specifics of the project until its public presentation on Oct. 7, an event that the organization's Web site, http://www.enviu.org/ , touts as "the beginning of a new era; an era in which sustainability will be hip and trendy."

CLOTHING SWAPS

The EPA estimates that more than 10 million tons of textile waste went to U.S. landfills in 2003. Why contribute to the problem? Swaporamarama, the brainchild of Wendy Tremayne, is an innovative series of events designed to bring people together and reuse unwanted clothing. Show up with a bag of old clothes and $10. Then, you can roam around, pick as many items as you can carry, and take them to sewing stations, where designers and artists will customize or tailor them -- or teach you to do it yourself. A fashion runway, open to all, only adds to the fun.

Swaporamarama hit D.C. on April 22 (Earth Day), but another one is in the works for Baltimore (go to http://www.swaporamarama.com/ to join the mailing list). Or, if you can't wait, visit Clothesswap.meetup.com to connect with like-minded swappers in the area.

"The thousands of pounds of free clothing demonstrate the fantastic surplus that we live amongst," says Tremayne. "And once we imbue our objects with meaning, the byproduct of adding our creative energy to it, these objects are far less likely to wind up in the trash."

BIOFUELS

Biodiesel -- one of the green movement's biggest buzzwords -- is diesel fuel derived from a combination of alcohol and animal or vegetable fats, instead of petroleum. Diesel cars and trucks can run on it without any conversions, and while burning biofuels still produces carbon dioxide, the levels released are much lower, the exhaust contains fewer carcinogens and growing the crops to produce it actually absorbs carbon dioxide.

Commercial biodiesel may be more expensive than regular diesel or gasoline, but the fuel economy is significantly better. In smog-choked Los Angeles, there's a new full-service biofuel center, Lovecraft Biofuels (Mandy Moore is a customer). Unfortunately, there's no one-stop shop yet in the D.C. area; for fuel stations that sell biodiesel in Maryland and Virginia, go to http://www.biodiesel.org/buyingbiodiesel/retailfuelingsites .

Even cheaper than commercial biodiesel is straight vegetable oil -- some restaurants will even give it away for free (though, technically, using it hasn't been approved by the EPA). This option requires a conversion kit, which should be installed by a mechanic. "From the Fryer to the Fuel Tank" by Joshua Tickell (Tickell Energy Consultants, $24.95) is Amazon's most popular how-to guide.

COMPOSTING TOILETS

Though you probably want what's in your toilets to go far, far away, composting toilets -- which trap waste to produce fertilizing mulch -- make a lot of environmental sense. Instead of sending waste into the sewer system, the air-suction driven, mostly waterless toilets store it in a hidden, sealed chamber, where air circulates to decompose the material in a peat moss base. Microbes and worms help with the process. Users remove the final product -- rich, garden-ready fertilizer -- every few months. While the toilets (which range from about $1,000 to $2,000) are frequently used for homes, camps and resorts in remote locations where running water and sewer lines are expensive or prohibitive, they're also suitable for local homeowners (some municipalities may have special regulations governing their use). And the suction of air, the companies claim, makes them odor-free. Try http://www.envirolet.com/ , http://www.biolet.com/ , http://www.sun-mar.com/ or http://www.compostingtoilet.com/ .

CARBON NEUTRAL

However we try to reduce our energy consumption, as human beings in the industrial age we still produce carbon dioxide -- from driving, using electricity at home and flying on airplanes. The "carbon neutral" concept lets individuals do their part to slow the process: Your carbon dioxide emissions -- whether for a year of driving, your household's annual use or a flight -- are counterbalanced by an investment in renewable-energy initiatives (such as wind power) or by planting trees.

Al Gore buys credits to neutralize the flights he takes for his global warming speaking tour (as seen in "An Inconvenient Truth"), and festivals such as Bonnaroo went carbon-neutral this summer. The World Cup did the same through its Green Goal Initiative, which sponsored sustainable-energy projects in rural India.

Carbon offset credits are purchased through a third party such as the Silver Spring-based nonprofit Carbonfund.org. On most sites, the amount of carbon dioxide an individual produces is determined by a "carbon calculator," which then offers up the appropriate package to clear your conscience (or someone else's: The certificates can be given as gifts). At Carbonfund, the cost of offsetting an individual's energy consumption for one year is $55, or $99 to be "Zero Carbon" (this factors in the carbon emitted to grow and manufacture things you consume).

NOT-SO-OBVIOUS ORGANICS

Organic food has hit the mainstream, but your dinner plate isn't the only place that can go green. Conventional household cleaning products can be noxious, especially in confined spaces, and brands such as Seventh Generation and Ecover (both available at natural food stores) offer an alternative. Too busy to do the work yourself? D.C.-based service Little Green Men ( http://www.littlegreendifferent.com/ ) uses nontoxic products, and rags instead of paper towels, to clean homes and offices.

Cut flowers are often produced under less-than-green conditions, even though they seem to embody the very essence of nature: The industry makes heavy use of pesticides and fertilizers. Flowers grown without chemicals and harvested under ethical conditions can be ordered at Organicbouquet.com, or choose stems marked with the Veriflora organic certification symbol at your local florist.

HOLY GREEN

Some religious groups are focusing their considerable clout on ecological issues, arguing that the planet and its species are, after all, God's creation. The Evangelical Environmental Network, a Pennsylvania-based group, has orchestrated such initiatives as "What Would Jesus Drive?" (a touring church discussion about the perils of reliance on oil) and protests against mercury pollution, which disproportionately affects unborn children. Equal Exchange's Interfaith Program has supplied about 8,000 U.S. churches and synagogues with organic, shade-grown coffee during the past two years.

Locally, Greater Washington Interfaith Power and Light works with congregations to help their facilities convert to renewable energy. Sojourners, a D.C.-based progressive Christian magazine, published a special issue about the environment in 2004 and regularly covers the topic. And the national organization Coalition on the Environment and Jewish Life is now sponsoring a drive to install efficient compact-fluorescent light bulbs (it's subtitled "How Many Jews Does It Take to Change a Light Bulb?"). Shomrei Adamah, Hebrew for "Guardians of the Earth," is its D.C. affiliate.

REUSEABLE E-PAPER

The environmental argument is familiar enough: Paper comes from trees, and trees are worth preserving. (And even though paper can be recycled, it still requires energy to produce and transport it.) The Internet was supposed to kill the printed word, but the tactile pleasure of holding a book, newspaper or magazine has remained inimitable -- that is, until recently.

At Frankfurt's Plastics Electronics trade fair last fall, German tech giant Siemens unveiled computer screens that are paper-thin -- quite literally -- and can transmit moving and still images. The technology can be used for magazine advertisements and computer games, and could eventually replace paper: Publications could take the form of chips or even wireless transmissions, allowing the reader to continually reuse the same set of pages.

FECAL MATTERS

It may seem a mere nuisance to city dwellers, but animal waste needn't go to waste. In San Francisco, dogs produce as much as 6,500 tons of the stuff per year; what doesn't end up wrapped in plastic bags for all eternity can leach its unfriendly bacteria into the bay or the water supply. The city, through a company called Norcal Waste, is initiating a pilot program in which droppings from one busy dog park are collected with biodegradable bags and processed by a machine called a methane digester, in which bacteria process the feces. The methane gas produced as a result is, essentially, natural gas -- the same stuff used in stoves and heaters. It sounds far-fetched, but farms and European cities have been doing it for years, and similar processes that create methane energy from landfills are widely in use. One such landfill is in Fauquier County -- which partially powers EPA headquarters in downtown Washington.

CRADLE TO CRADLE

Would you feel better about seeing someone throw a plastic bottle out a car window if you knew it was made of biodegradable plant-based plastic and had a tree seed inside? While that idea hasn't been put into production yet, the product design manifesto that spawned it, "Cradle to Cradle: Remaking the Way We Make Things" (North Point Press, $25), has caused a sensation on the green scene since its 2002 publication.

The authors, architect William McDonough and chemist Michael Braungart, argue that instead of being designed to end up in the trash, products should be designed more like nature, where waste is broken down into usable materials. McDonough and Braungart have since formed a consulting firm (clients include Ford and Nike) that also grants products a C2C-certified rating. Awardees thus far include recyclable office chairs and flushable, biodegradable diaper inserts made from sustainably harvested wood pulp.

PREFAB SHIPPING CONTAINER HOUSES

U.S. ports are home to millions of unused corrugated-steel shipping containers. Standard in size, easily transportable and sturdy, the containers are now being envisioned by some architects as frames for modernist houses and apartment buildings.

For now, the concept exists more on the drawing board than in real life: Architects have drawn up plans for entire communities, like FXFowle's award-winning design for Gloucester Green in Massachusetts. (New York firm LOT-EK has also created a design for a library made from discarded airplane fuselages.) One architect, Adam Kalkin, has put theory into practice: He takes orders for his pre-fab Quik House online ( http://www.architectureandhygiene.com/ ). Prices for the industrial-chic structures range from $76,000 for the basic glass-and-steel kit -- bring your contractor -- to $160,000 for a fully equipped model with plumbing, HVAC and everything else but the foundation (that's up to you). "They are fascinating objects to me," Kalkin says. As for the potential resale value of a steel house? "Hard to say, but Frank Gehry could not give away his own iconic house when he wanted to sell it [years ago]. Now there is a long line for his signature buildings."

GREEN BURIALS

Yes, even returning to the earth can be done in a more earth-friendly way. Traditional funerals place chemically embalmed bodies in sealed containers, while cemeteries require not-so-green upkeep in the form of gasoline-powered lawn mowers and chemical grass fertilizers. And coffins, after all, are made of wood from trees (or wood chips glued together with formaldehyde).

Green burial sites feel more like nature preserves, and that's the idea: Practitioners emphasize the use of biodegradable, renewable-material coffins (or none at all), natural stones over headstones, and the planting of flowers and trees. An added bonus: It's significantly cheaper (a green burial might cost $2,000, vs. $6,000 for many conventional funerals). The closest green burial sites to the D.C. area listed on http://www.forestofmemories.org/ , which keeps a database, are Ramsey Creek in Westminster, S.C., and Greensprings Natural Cemetery in Upstate New York.

One company, Eternal Reefs ( http://www.eternalreefs.com/ ), offers a twist on the concept: They'll mix cremated ashes with concrete to create artificial coral reefs, which are then lowered into the sea to provide marine life with a new habitat. Prices start at $995 for a spot in a "shared community reef."