Trains, Planes, Automobiles, and More

What do electric buses, wood veneer, circadian lighting, and insects on airplanes have in common? All these topics, and many more, came up at the GoGreen Conference in Seattle on March 16. I attended the conference as a member of the press, and I did publish a piece in 425 Business magazine on March 1, based on an interview with a presenter. But I wasn’t there on any specific assignment. I came to learn and to meet people. Some of the people I met asked if I was going to publish a write-up of the conference. I will satisfy people’s curiosity and share some nuggets that I learned.

Heavy-duty vehicles like buses are driving the trend toward electrification of vehicles. Diesel buses are fuel guzzlers and travel many miles, and the plummeting cost of lithium ion batteries is helping accelerate the switch to electric versions.

It shouldn’t surprise people that Seattle is leading the way in adding electric buses to its fleet of public transit vehicles. We are committed to living up to our nickname as the Evergreen State in more ways than one, even as newcomers from other states and countries swell our population faster than construction and traffic mitigation can keep up. The state has pledged that 20% of government vehicles will be electric by the end of 2017.

What is perhaps more surprising is that demand for electric buses comes from both red and blue states and from both urban and rural areas, according to Matt Horton from electric bus manufacturer Proterra. This fact provides a glimmer of hope that the desire for a quieter, less polluting form of transportation can be universal independent of political leanings.

Dave Soike is CEO of the Port of Seattle, in charge of trains, planes, and automobiles. The airport is central to the port’s goal of “being the greenest and most energy-efficient port in the U.S, … reducing our carbon footprint even as we grow.” Did you know that rainwater that falls on the roof of the north concourse is routed to the restrooms rather than becoming toxic runoff? Are you aware that many Alaska Airlines planes run on biofuel, even though the development of a reliable supply chain for jet biofuel is many years away?

Although Boeing is no longer the dominant presence in Seattle that it was decades ago, the company still employs about 80,000 people in the region and continues to innovate. If you think that it’s hard to clean insects off your car exterior, the problem is much greater with airplanes. Boeing recently developed a new coating to address the problem of insects sticking to the planes. It makes cleaning the planes faster and easier, and has the added benefit of requiring less water.

What company other than Boeing has been synonymous with greater Seattle? Weyerhaeuser, known for creating products from our beloved trees. Presenter Laura Clise, Director of Sustainability, brought a prop up on stage with her. Penny Parallam is a wooden duck, made from one of Weyerhaeuser’s engineered wood products. The phrase “engineered wood” brings up visions of formaldehyde-laced particle board, something I mentioned in a blog post in 2015.

Wood veneers, those thin strips of higher-grade wood covering cheaper plywood (or sometimes the dreaded particle board) in furniture, must look good. That means that a portion of the tree is unusable. Weyerhaeuser takes these lower-value strips and presses them into panels, creating Parallam, a “natural engineered wood product.”

I had assumed that meant Penny was free from formaldehyde, but when I visited the Weyerhaeuser website I learned that is not the case. The Safety Data Sheet for Parallam says that it contains 7-8 percent phenol-formaldehyde solids by weight. The data sheet also includes warnings about the carcinogenic nature of wood dust and recommends using a respirator when cutting or sanding the product in an environment without proper ventilation.

It can be difficult to find out what is really in the products we buy and whether something advertised as nontoxic or “safe” lives up to that promise. That is the premise behind mindful MATERIALS, an industry-led initiative to develop a database of materials used in building construction. Jeff Frost from Brightworks Sustainability gave an engaging presentation in which he emphasized how difficult it is to get information from manufacturers. Builders wanting to create more healthy homes and workplaces would like to eliminate toxic chemical compounds from their buildings but don’t necessarily have the guidance they need to do so. Construction materials don’t come with ingredient lists. But as more materials manufacturers enter their products into the mindful MATERIALS database, the better data builders will have.

There is more to creating healthier workplaces than removing hazardous materials. Presenters in the “Improving Workspaces with Green Choices” session gave many examples. Employers can provide sit/stand desks (something I have done in my home office), include elements from nature such as plants and water features in the indoor environment, install windows that open for better air circulation, and add circadian lighting.

People need sunlight during the day for optimum health and productivity, so offices with many windows are great. In buildings where not everyone can have a window view, the right wavelengths of artificial light in appropriate locations can still help.

The discussion of lighting reminded me of my junior high school, built in the 1970s. Unlike my elementary school, where every classroom had large windows, this school was designed under the mistaken notion that students would focus on their schoolwork better if they weren’t distracted by looking out the window. The school looked somewhat like a jail. Each classroom had only one small, narrow window placed high out of view.

Back when I was growing up, we collected aluminum cans for recycling but we certainly didn’t have compostable forks. At the GoGreen conference, every cup, plate, and piece of flatware was compostable. The packages containing a fork, spoon, knife, and napkin were themselves made of a crinkly, compostable material. These were sturdy products, provided by booth vendor World Centric.

Not all compostable flatware is the same. I recall a lunch event where all the forks (compostable products from a different company) were falling apart as we tried to cut our chicken. Tines were breaking off and handles were breaking in two. It was both amusing and frustrating. The chicken wasn’t especially tough, the forks just weren’t up to the job. It’s great to have flatware that biodegrades, but not while we are using it.

This brings me to one of the themes of the book I’m writing. Safer, healthier products that take less energy to produce and create less waste to landfill are wonderful in theory. But if they don’t perform, no one is going to buy them.