After assembling a work crew to build an eco-friendly home from the ground up, Amy Holmwood observed that not all of the contractors were green to the core. A company hired to install insulation made of recycled newspaper used a diesel generator to power the equipment instead of a cleaner, greener power source like solar. “They’d gone into business to provide this green service but they hadn’t thought things through,” says Holmwood, of Bethesda, Md. By contrast, her lawn care service uses electrical equipment charged by a solar panel on the company truck. But what powers the truck? Is it a hybrid? If not, is it fair to call the company’s green cred into question? Or is it good enough to be greener than most?
When it comes to employing eco-friendly service providers, trust but verify. Find out exactly how green a company really is and how to determine which service is ‘green enough’
“Green is the new gray – we can’t talk in absolutes about what is a perfectly green solution and what is not,” says Dave Feldman, executive director of Bethesda Green, which promotes green business models and sustainable living. However, short of doing complex carbon footprint calculations, consumers can identify greener-than-most service providers by asking the right questions.
Toxic or chemical cleaners are the principal concern, so “ask for a comprehensive list of the products they use and a list of ingredients for each,” says Laura Klein, editor-in-chief of EcoSalon.com and OrganicAuthority.com. Especially when hiring a small, independently owned service, clients can usually specify which cleaning products to use, including natural agents like vinegar and baking soda, but that doesn’t ensure the company uses them across the board. Maid to Clean in Bethesda, Md., only uses “neutral” products like vinegar and water, baking soda, and the brand-name cleaners Bon Ami and Simple Green. The company does not use alcohol-based cleaners, ammonia, bleach or scented products.
HEPA vacuums catch dust particles and allergens instead of releasing them back into the air. Some brand-name products are green in name only. In its Guide to Healthy Cleaning, the Environmental Working Group looks beyond marketing claims and rates more than 2,000 products in a searchable database at www.ewg.org. (Of the 29 Simple Green products anaanalyzed, 19 received D’s and F’s, while six earned A’s and B’s.) The online guide includes a label decoder to translate technical terms and ad hype.
With car washes, use of chemicals is a secondary concern, behind water consumption. A company truly committed to “green washing” – in the positive sense – will reclaim and reuse water; collect roof rainwater and invest in an ample water reclaim system for recycling carwash wastewater, says John O’Connell, manager, Go Green Car Wash, Olympia, Wash.
According to O’Connell, the majority of carwashes are equipped with a 3,000-gallon reclaim system or smaller, which can’t keep up with water demands on busy days. For high-traffic carwashes, a reclaim system of at least 12,000 gallons is needed to give solids time to settle before the water recirculates, he says.
Generally speaking, older carwashes “have inferior equipment,” O’Connell says, so to satisfy cleanliness expectations “they have to use stronger chemicals.”
Moreover, “If you visit a wash that has older equipment and isn’t computer-controlled, each vehicle gets chemicals for a 30-foot vehicle whereas at a modern wash each vehicle is scanned at entry” and chemical and water use adjusts accordingly, he adds.
Touchless carwashes “are not eco-friendly due to the fact that you have no brush or agitation, so these washes use chemicals that are four times stronger than a tunnel type of wash” and cannot reclaim used water, O’Connell says.
Beware of carwashes that try to sell squirt-on extras like rain shields and wax conditioners. “If you really want to be green, just purchase Rain X at an auto store and apply it to your windows – no need to apply it to the whole vehicle,” O’Connell says. And “all newer vehicles have a factory clear coat and do not benefit from water-based wax or conditioner add-ons.”
Eco-friendly lawn services can be tough to identify because so many conventional companies incorporate the word “green” in their name and marketing as a reference to grass, not environmental practices. And when choosing a service, a host of environmental concerns are at stake, from chemical applications (fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides) to small-engine emissions. In just one hour of use, a gas lawnmower emits the same volume of pollutants as 40 cars, says A.I.R. Lawn Care owner Zack Kline, citing EPA data. His Bethesda-based company uses STIHL and Mean Green electric lawn care equipment and a solar-powered charging unit to reduce noise and air pollution.
Along with emissions, conventional lawn care creates waste including 300 pounds of clippings annually for a 1,000-square-foot lawn. Concerned homeowners should look for a landscaping service that uses native plantings and integrated pest management; recycles clippings into compost or mulch; and takes measures to reduce water use and prevent runoff. Many services apply chemicals only as a last resort, and some use organic fertilizers and pest- and weed-control methods exclusively.
Analyzing and optimizing soil composition in yards, beds and garden plots from the get-go helps reduce maintenance requirements altogether, Kline says.