Searching for Greener Materials

For a materials geek like me, the best part of the GoGreen conference in Seattle on April 4 was walking around the exhibit hall and talking to the people working the booths. Don’t get me wrong. I enjoyed hearing from local mayors about what their cities are doing to build greener infrastructure, address transportation needs, and reach out to low-income and minority populations in their cities while collaborating with their counterparts in other regions of Puget Sound. I appreciate that the panel of mayors was all female. I’m encouraged by efforts of brands, from family-owned businesses to large corporations, that are taking a stand on politically-charged positions such as supporting all workers regardless of background, family structure, or immigration status.

When it comes to the role of materials in environmental sustainability, though, the exhibit hall was the place to be. Conference organizers cleverly encourage attendees to visit the booths between sessions by holding a prize drawing at the end of the event. To enter the drawing, we needed to get our “passport” stamped or signed at 12 different booths. I didn’t win any prizes, but I did visit over a dozen booths and came away with valuable information. I’ll highlight a few exhibit booths:

If you still drink from disposable water bottles and want an additional incentive to recycle them, look no further than Air X-TEX. I was delighted to reconnect with owner Jerry Brownstein, whom I first met several years ago at a Seattle-area conference. He has made significant strides with his product, an air filter containing fabric made from recycled water bottles. The fabric is so soft, it’s hard to believe it’s made from recycled PET. The filters work well, as demonstrated by independent testing, and Jerry has succeeded in convincing Costco to give the product a trial run at its Issaquah headquarters. If Costco is suitably impressed, it will request more filters for other buildings. These air filters are designed for use in commercial buildings and aren’t yet available direct to consumer, but a residential version is on the horizon.

The construction industry has access to a greater variety of materials than ever before. I met Jeff Minch, a representative for NUDURA, at the Valley Supply booth. The booth featured examples of the product, which is used to build walls. Structures made from recycled polypropylene and steel are filled with two panels of expanded polystyrene (EPS). During building construction, the entire frame is filled with concrete.

I asked Jeff to explain how something filled with EPS can be considered environmentally friendly and showcased as a green building material. As with many situations, it is essential to look at the whole picture. The EPS creates a continuous layer of insulation around the building. Compared to structures built with traditional wood frame walls, internal temperature fluctuates much less, saving energy needed to heat and cool the building. The EPS is nontoxic and doesn’t emit any hazardous gases, and is mold-resistant, which also makes for a healthier indoor environment.

Cascadia was demonstrating their triple-pane fiberglass windows, a more environmentally-friendly alternative to vinyl or aluminum frames. The ingredient list on these windows is formidable, but it passes the tests to earn the Living Building Challenge Declare "LBC Red List Free" label. To meet the "Red List Free" standard, a product must be free of 800 or so red list chemicals—those chemical compounds deemed especially toxic. The less stringent "LBC Compliant" status means a product is mostly free of red list compounds. Any still included are those that the LBC agrees can't reasonably be removed. With an expected lifespan of over 80 years and made from mostly recyclable components, these windows seem to be a reasonable choice.

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Making a workplace less toxic is not easy, but the Hazardous Waste Management Program is trying to make it easier and less expensive for local small businesses. The King County program offers business owners vouchers up to $559 to offset the costs of improvements their staff recommends. Actions may include lab testing to determine if wastes are indeed hazardous, disposal of hazardous wastes, spill containment, personal protective equipment for employees, and other similar expenses. Consultants with the program help small business owners and their employees understand their options to reduce hazardous waste in the future, including substituting safer chemicals in their operations.

I was not surprised that people at the GoGreen Conference expressed enthusiasm for my upcoming book, Get the Lead Out. Thanks to those at the conference who inspired me to add bits to chapters as I continue to edit the manuscript. A separate thanks to those of you who agreed to join my beta reader list. I look forward to learning from your insights as I get the book ready for publication. You are my audience, and I appreciate you.