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  January/February 2006
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Sierra Magazine
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Hey Mr. Green
Advice on bulbs, building materials, and brouhahas
by Bob Schildgen

Hey Mr. Green,
I know the Sierra Club encourages replacing incandescent bulbs with efficient fluorescents, but the former are readily disposable in the trash, while the latter contain mercury. So what am I supposed to do with my dead fluorescent bulbs? —Stew in Princeton, New Jersey

Darn, just how many environmentalists does it take to change an efficient lightbulb? While your local hazardous-waste authority is the best source for safe-recycling information, a number of Ace, True Value, and other hardware stores will take back your old bulbs—sometimes at no charge if you're buying replacements. Check earth911.org or call (800) CLEAN-UP to find a recycling location near you. It's worth the effort: Though fluorescents do contain mercury, burning coal to generate electricity puts almost 50 tons of the nasty stuff into the air each year. Since fluorescents are four times more efficient than regular bulbs—and last 10 to 20 times longer to boot—replacing all household incandescents (and recycling all dead fluorescents) could cut mercury and CO2 emissions while saving the equivalent of 5.5 billion gallons of oil annually.

Hey Mr. Green,
I need to replace my single-glazed wooden windows with double-glazed ones. Which frame material—aluminum, vinyl, or wood—is least harmful to the environment? —Paul in High Wycombe, Buckinghamshire, United Kingdom

Installing new windows will save a lot of energy, though you shouldn't expect your virtuous upgrade to dampen Tony Blair's enthusiasm for America's oil wars. But just say no to vinyl. Its production requires massive amounts of chlorine, and its manufacturing and disposal release dioxin, a toxic substance that can cause cancer, endometriosis, and other diseases. Recognizing that there is no known "safe" level of dioxin, some European governments have called for alternatives to vinyl, while businesses such as Nike, General Motors, and Ikea are moving to reduce or eliminate it from their product lines.

Though the production of aluminum and wood both take a toll on the environment, wood windows are generally more efficient once they're installed. Look for a low "U-factor," which indicates that less heat leaks through the glass and frame. American readers (and some in Canada) can get tips on selecting windows best suited to their region's climate at efficientwindows.org.

Hey Mr. Green,
I'm sure you've heard all the laments lately about the alleged failure of the conservation movement. What do you think, is environmentalism really dead? —Marilyn in San Francisco

If anything's dead, it's the brains of politicians who deny that global warming exists, ignore the connections between environmental destruction and "natural" disasters, make war to prop up polluting energy sources instead of shifting to safe, clean energy, let poisonous chemicals seep into our food and water, and invite developers and roadbuilders to desecrate our gorgeous landscapes. Every movement has its ups and downs—and with the Bush administration and its reactionary allies hammering away at environmental regulations, we've had plenty of downs lately—but our values are too deeply embedded in American culture to kill off. If the anti-environmental politicos get deservedly dumped in the next election, you'll see a chorus of pundits artfully furrowing their brows while pronouncing a green rebirth.

Read more advice from Mr. Green, including his Web-only mailbag, and submit your own environmental questions at sierraclub.org/mrgreen.
 

Mr. Green illustration by Melinda Beck; used with permission.


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