Green Doesn’t Mean Nontoxic

Happy Earth Day!

It’s one of those mass celebrations that continues to have some meaning. After all, it hasn’t been transformed into a shopping extravaganza.

With all the environmental and ecological horrors we face, I thought I’d mention some good news. And that news is not hard to find, believe it or not.

Environmental Health News has three items today:

Green groups push Earth Day agenda. Environmental groups are marking the 44th Earth Day on Tuesday with an assault on the Keystone XL pipeline, greenhouse gas emissions and other issues related to climate change.

Apple’s environmental push. Apple is offering free recycling of all its used products and vowing to power all of its stores, offices and data centers with renewable energy.

Manufacturing goes lean and green. Manufacturers around the world are uncovering the environmental as well as financial benefits of lean approaches.

The last piece focuses on a manufacturer based in Pennsylvania that represents a growing trend. The product and the process are held up as the greening of manufacturing. The product is a synthetic wood manufactured from polystyrene. The production process itself minimizes resource use (such as water) and does things such as recycle waste heat back into the production process and heating of buildings. So the product saves trees and puts waste to use conserving energy and water.

The manufacturing process is what’s called “lean manufacturing.” This is the manufacturing process developed in Japanese production after World War II by companies such as Toyota. The process was originated by American engineer Edward Deming and, when I learned about it, was called just-in-time manufacturing, total quality improvement manufacturing, and total quality control manufacturing.

The basic idea is that a manufacturing process should be constantly monitored to find opportunities for improvements to product quality and opportunities for cost reduction. In other words, it’s a method for better products and less waste.

About 70 percent of US manufacturers use lean manufacturing practices. The reason this is good environmental news is that the vast majority of manufacturers (and other businesses that have adopted lean practices) are organized at their core to conserve resources (energy, water, you name it) while at the same time improving products—synthetic wood being a good example.

This good environmental news also highlights what isn’t there. Something that has always puzzled me is the use to which the word “green” is put. “Green” seems to be used in conjunction with the efficient use of resources, particularly in regard to minimizing waste. There’s a vague implication that “green” is healthier, but it really does seem to me that something can be green without being non-toxic.

For example, the synthetic wood featured in the article on lean manufacturing is made from extruded polystyrene. While polystyrene is not in the same class as bisphenol A, polystyrene (and especially additives and byproducts released from polystyrene) raise concerns about endocrine disruption.

As another example from the same article, lean manufacturing includes energy conservation through the use of fluorescent lighting and the use of compact fluorescent bulbs. Electromagnetic radiation from these devices have health risks.

The use of “green” in association with waste reduction and resource conservation are very closely tied to the concept of efficiency used in conventional economics, which is an ideological enterprise that rationalizes the capitalist mode of production. In this ideological landscape, a business enterprise is a simple organism driven to minimize costs and maximize revenue. The smart business man or woman will therefore be driven of necessity to make decisions that maximize resource use, minimize waste, and sell what customers desire.

What goes on in production and before it in design is a private affair. What you want isn’t particularly relevant. What is relevant is what can be sold to you. And one of the things that can be sold to you is products and brands that are green.

Instead of efficient, I prefer the concept of effective: not squeezing the most from a dollar, but getting the most useful thing. What’s useful now is what’s useful to the maker, not the user. In other words, what drive product design is what can be sold, not what’s useable.

Instead of waste, I prefer the concept of food: not squeezing the most from a resource, but making sure that what’s left over from the production process is food for another production process or food from some ecosystem.

It’s a genuinely a good thing that producers try to be efficient and minimize waste. It would be better if we actively participated in helping producers be effective in making what is useful and doing it in a way that leaves behind food instead of what’s useless or even worse what’s toxic.