(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 21, 2007)
Green is everywhere. It's the buzzword of the moment -- a media darling that, when attached to a product, is a surefire ticket to increased sales. The use of the label "green" has become so ubiquitous that you can find "green" offerings in everything from meat to moisturizers, tea to toiletries, beer to light bulbs.
As much as I am an environmental advocate, I can't help but wonder how much hype is being mixed with fact to produce a green slush of misinformation.
Consider compact fluorescent light bulbs.
About a year ago, after repeatedly hearing how inefficient incandescent lights are -- they use only about 10 percent of their consumed energy to make light -- our family began to consider alternatives. The most highly touted option was compact fluorescents (CFLs), an improved type of light bulb that drastically reduces carbon dioxide emissions because it uses 75 percent less energy and lasts up to 15 times longer than its incandescent cousins. Although initially more expensive than regular light bulbs, CFLs' long life makes them not only a "green" choice but an economically viable option for consumers.
"Just do it," we reasoned and went on a spending spree at The Home Depot's lighting department.
How pleased we were with our "green-ness." What a good deed we had done for the planet, for Mother Earth.
But was it? Are CFLs really the panacea they're purported to be?
When our family unscrewed all our old light bulbs and replaced them with compact fluorescents, we had no idea we were inviting a toxic chemical into our home. Do you know each CFL bulb contains about 4 milligrams of mercury? What happens five, seven or 10 years from now when these save-the-Earth bulbs finally burn out? Or worse still, what happens not if, but when one breaks?
The Environmental Protection Agency cautions consumers to leave the room immediately if a CFL breaks and to stay away for at least 15 minutes so the mercury vapors will have a chance to dissipate. When you return to clean up the mess, you'd better not use your bare hands or a vacuum. The EPA advises against it. Wear gloves and use cardboard and sticky tape to clean up fragments of glass. When you've done all that, put the remains into a plastic bag. Put that plastic bag into another bag and take the whole toxic, dangerous mess to a CFL-designated recycling center. What? You don't know where a CFL-designated recycling center is? That's not surprising, because such disposal sites are few and far between.
Gosh, I wish I had known this before I went out and retrofitted my entire house to make it more "environmentally friendly."
Would I still have done it? I'm not sure.
Weighing the pros and cons of incandescent versus CFL bulbs in relation to the environment is confusing. The inefficiency of incandescent bulbs causes more carbon dioxide to be released into the atmosphere, and that's a bad thing for the planet. But CFLs contain mercury, and that's bad for the planet too. Broken or used CFL bulbs that don't get recycled will wind up in a landfill where they have the potential to contaminate water, air and eventually the food chain. And what about the threat presented if a CFL bulb breaks at home? Will exposure to 4 milligrams of mercury harm an adult? How about child or infant?
About 30 years ago, when the whole-food industry was in its infancy, the words natural and organic began to attract the same type of media attention green does today. Back then, my husband and I owned a small country store in Wellfleet, Mass., where we sold an eclectic array of whole foods and healthy-lifestyle products. We strove to stock the store with the best products available -- unadulterated, minimally processed grocery and nongrocery items. It was always a challenge. There were constantly companies eager to thrust the latest "miracle food" on the unwitting public, claiming to be one thing when they were actually another. We saw our job as shop owners to separate the proverbial wheat from chaff in a constant effort to uncover the truth.
The same thing needs to be done now in our rush to save the planet.
For a quick buck, charlatans will eagerly attach themselves to whatever cause strikes the public's fancy. In the 1970s, it was health foods. Today, it's the healthy-planet movement. The question is, how do you separate truly good products from impostors? The wheat from the chaff?
By realizing that there are shades of green.
When I go for rows in the early morning, I'm constantly struck by how many different shades of green frame the water's edge. From slash pine to willow to water oak to persimmon, no two types of tree are quite the same color. That's how it is with products too. Instead of accepting at face value whatever a manufacturer claims, it is our job as consumers to do our own research and ask questions. Anyone who stands to profit from selling you a product should be listened to with caution.
I have no doubt that our planet is in a danger, and I believe we all must do our part to lessen our impact on the environment. But before we rush out in an effort to retrofit our lifestyle, we should make a point to investigate the facts. Just because a company says its product is green, that doesn't make it true. There are shades of truth as varied as the shades of trees. Sometimes green is not nearly as eco-friendly as it seems.